Opinion: The Real Story Behind That Famous Equal Sign

Opinion: The Real Story Behind That Famous Equal Sign

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How an Activist in Seattle Made the Equal Sign a Symbol of Equality Two Years Before the HRC Unveiled Their Now Famous Logo

Photo: Karen Rispoli
Photo: Karen Rispoli

By Alicia Berger

A yellow equal sign inside of a blue square – The HRC logo is “one of the most recognizable symbols of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.” This quote is taken from the About Our Logo page on the HRC’s own web site and a truer statement couldn’t be made. It’s the rest of the page contents that I question and I hesitate to do so, because I respect the Human Rights Campaign and the work they’ve done to make this world a place where everyone can be embraced as a full member of society. It’s entirely possible that the HRC’s current leadership is completely unaware that in 1993, in the city of Seattle, Karen Rispoli created the “Equal Hat”, a black baseball cap with a white equal sign embroidered on the front. Her message, that we each are responsible for treating others with respect; a message of inclusiveness for all of society. While this fact and the following timeline of events may be news to some in the HRC, it’s old news to the HRC’s previous Executive Director, Elizabeth Birch, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The story really starts in Chicago, 1970 when 12 year-old Rispoli indicted her biological father on charges of abuse. That bravery cost her. She was placed in and ran away from a series of questionable foster homes. After that she lived on the streets and eventually was held in juvenile detention before being adopted at the age of 17. Those early years only deepened her resolve to make the world a more just place and in 1993 that desire took flight when she founded the Butterfly Company and produced the first Equal Hats. The hats weren’t exactly an overnight sensation. Rispoli knocked on the doors of many Seattle merchants before one, Leslie Lippi, finally said yes. Lippi owned the Pink Zone, a store with the slogan: Visibly Queer Gear.

SGN Notebook Article
SGN Notebook Article

On April 25, 1993 the Equal Hats made their national debut in D.C. at the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. Boxes full were piled into friend’s cars, filling trunks and back seats. According to Rispoli, the hats were mostly given away at the March. “We were just trying to get the message out there.” Following the march, the hats were introduced regionally at Gay Pride events including Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland. What followed was a lot of local press. Karen Rispoli and the Equal Hat were featured in many articles and in 1994 she was nominated for a Jefferson Award. The award recognizes community leaders for their public service, their volunteerism and action to make the world a better place.

Fast forward to 1995 when the HRC, headquartered in Washington D.C., unveiled their new, now so familiar, logo – you know the one. For the design, they enlisted the services of a San Francisco based design firm. Maybe it was just a coincidence that the Equal Hats had been in both D.C. and San Francisco in 1993, but whether the design was influenced consciously or unconsciously, the question begged to be asked.

HRC 1996In 1996, Rispoli discovered that the HRC was now selling what they called “eQuality Wear”.  This line of merchandise was adorned with the HRC’s new equal sign logo and consisted of shirts and, yes, a baseball cap. Rispoli penned a letter to the board of directors and included copies of the many newspaper articles from 1993-94. In the letter she writes, “As you review the attached articles I trust the spirit of my message will be embraced and HRC will acknowledge my work publicly.” The letter goes on to mention commercial profit and her willingness to work with the HRC to avoid litigation. Rispoli adds that she hopes “…the HRC will be ethical in resolving the matter.” In subsequent telephone conversations between Rispoli and Elizabeth Birch, the two debated many things, not the least of which was just how much of a change, i.e., shorter lines, different colors, constituted an original design. In the end, Rispoli agreed to allow the HRC to use the logo with the stipulation that they would publicly acknowledge her role in the design’s genesis.

In 1998, following the murder of Mathew Shephard, Time Magazine, devoted their October 26 issue to “The War Over Gays”. In an article titled “The New Gay Struggle” Elizabeth Birch is credited with changing the HRC’s symbol to a yellow equal sign on a blue background. Rispoli took this as proof that the agreement, which to date had not been honored, would never be honored. She hired attorney Spencer Bergstedt and he wrote to Elizabeth Birch. Much was said, but these two sentences sum it up:

We consider that Ms. Rispoli had given license to the HRC to use the logo in return for acknowledgement of her work as the creator of said logo. Given that HRC appears to have breached that agreement, Ms. Rispoli is no longer interested in providing free usage of the logo to HRC.

As I understand it, much conversation ensued, but a resolution was never reached. There were multiple discussions and in Rispoli’s recollection, Birch again agreed to give Rispoli public recognition. This time there was talk of financial compensation to the tune of 2 percent of all sales resulting from the HRC’s eQuality Hat, nothing more. Rispoli felt this offer was quite generous, but nothing was ever put in writing. In Rispoli’s words, “Elizabeth Birch put the onus on me that the HRC would crumble if they paid any compensation.”

Letter sent to HRC on March 12, 1999
Letter sent to HRC on March 12, 1999

I know the story of these hats intimately, because in 2013 I exercised my Washington state legal right to marry Karen Rispoli. Our hats are off to the HRC for their efforts to make that equal right possible, but that yellow and blue logo will always be bittersweet in our house. There’s a faded black Equal Hat hanging on our wall and a box in a closet containing the few remaining hats. When Karen offered them to me to auction off for a fundraiser, I pulled the box down and counted 17. Then I started reading the articles. I went to the HRC’s website and found the “About Our Logo” page. Elizabeth Birch’s name was everywhere, but no mention of Rispoli or her original Equal Hat. It’s so frustrating when the big guy wins. Twenty-two years ago an activist from Seattle had a vision that putting an equal sign on a hat might start a revolution. I think she succeeded.

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