Why do lesbians wear carabiners? The humble accessory’s symbolism and history explained

a carabiner with keys hanging from a belt buckle and a woman in a car holding up her carabiner with the text 'no one will know you're a lesbian' above.

The hottest accessory for lesbians is the trusty carabiner, a functional yet fashionable outfit edition. But why do lesbians wear carabiners? Let’s dive right in.

Carabiners are used by climbers as they move, the metal loop with a spring-loaded clip is often used to make quick connections to ropes during ascents and descents. 

However, it’s not just for rock climbers: the carabiner has a history of being entangled with LGBTQ+ culture.

Ever seen a carabiner hanging from a lesbian’s belt loop and wondered how that metal clasp is connected to queer identity? Don’t worry, we’ve got the answers!

What is a lesbian carabiner?

In queer circles, small signifiers have become subtle references to one’s identity. These signals mean something to a member of the LGBTQ+ community but otherwise, they are nondescript accessories.

From thumb rings to undercuts, lesbian fashion has evolved through the years, but the trusty carabiner has continued to be a staple across decades. 

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Now, a recognisable symbol of the WLW (women who love women) community, the carabiner has become a somewhat playful accessory.

What does a lesbian carabiner symbolise?

The carabiner is linked to lesbian identity for its ties to masculine, utilitarian workwear. Some lesbians, like butch lesbians, often want to move away from typically feminine accessories and lean towards masculine aesthetics. So, for instance, a purse could be swapped for a carabiner, which can be used like a giant keyring to attach various items to.

The practical accessory is regarded as an outdated stereotype to some but for others, it’s an externalised marker that aids self-expression. 

On TikTok, one user’s caption reads “it’s femme lesbian carabiner season” as they show off their carabiner. In doing so, they showcase that femme lesbians too can adopt the carabiner.

Their video plays out to the viral meme sound: “Nobody’s going to know… They’re going to know.”

Another user shows off their carabiner with a nail clipper attached to refute the statement: “I didn’t know you were gay!”

As part of lesbian iconography, they can help an individual indicate whether they’re a top (right) or bottom (left) depending on what belt loop side they hung their carabiner.

In this sense, the carabiner is the lesbian version of the hanky code, a system where gay men would communicate their sexual preferences by wearing a coloured bandana in the left or right back pocket. 

Similarly, lesbians can indicate whether they were a top or bottom depending on which side they hang their carabiners — a deft way, easily overlooked by straight people, to find a compatible lover. 

The carabiner was made prominent as a part of lesbian culture in American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home.

The tragicomic is autobiographical and follows her through her youth in rural Pennsylvania as she navigates a complicated relationship with her father.


The carabiner has been a signal for WLW for decades – and it’s more similar to the hanky code than you might think 👀 #tiktokunpacks #lesbianhistory #lgbtqhistory #wlw #HavaianasLivreDeCliches


As one TikTok notes: “The ‘Ring of Keys’ cartoon is about the moment Bechdel spotted another queer woman in the 1960s because of her carabiner.”

“Bechdel only noticed the trend, she didn’t invent it.”

What is the history of the lesbian carabiner?

The history of the carabiner being embraced into queer semiotics isn’t exact, but some have traced the lesbian culture connection to the Second World War. 

Unpacking the history of the carabiner, the word comes from the German Karabiner, meaning “carbine rifle hook.” At the time, the carabiner was used to attach a rifle to a belt.

The modern carabiner is a hiking or climbing tool, designed to be lighter and an aesthetic accessory. 

As WWII broke out, many women found themselves in the workplace and taking over jobs as the men were rounded up to fight on the frontline. 

During this period, without a male breadwinner, people in the WLW community had to go out and ensure they were making a living.

Butches, masc women and gender non-conforming lesbians were pushed into blue-collar jobs (like janitors and delivery workers), taking over from men, as the roles reserved for women (like waitress, stewardess and seamstress) didn’t accommodate their masculine-leaning expression and gender non-conformity. 

In this period when the movements of female liberation were building momentum, the working class lesbians used carabiners as a multifunctional workplace tool but they soon became a form of lesbian signalling.

Detaching from its working-class roots, the carabiner has become an enduring part of the queer aesthetic. 

So whether you think the carabiner is an outdated accessory or a meaningful queer identifier, you should be careful to not just assume that an individual wearing a carabiner is gay. They may just be a rock climber!

Want more lesbian terminology articles? We’ve got you covered:

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What does ‘Gold Star Lesbian’ mean, and is it offensive?

What is a ‘Hey Mamas Lesbian’ on TikTok?

What is a Black Cat lesbian?

Lesbian Masterdoc: can this PDF really tell if you’re gay?

Dom fems are huge on lesbian TikTok, and rightly so – but what does the term mean?

The fascinating history of the lesbian slang terms ‘stud’ and ‘stem’

What, exactly, is a gender non-conforming (GNC) lesbian?

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