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The woman in front of me signed her name on the credit card checkout machine with three quick slashes, like the Zorro of my youth. Perhaps her name is Zorro, but I'd never find her in a phonebook based on her signature.

  I, on the other hand, carefully write each letter of my name in the best penmanship possible, as if Sr. Digna were looking over my shoulder. I actually get frustrated when the machine doesn't display all of my cursive writing. You'd have no trouble knowing who I am by the way I write my name.
     Or would you?

    Many years ago, Lily Tomlin gave Ray and I a signed poster for the movie “The Late Show.”Her autograph is really big and loopy, written in Magic Marker. The poster was a thank you gift, and we hung it in our home with great pride. There’s no mistaking whose signature it is. But what does it tell us about Lily?

    Over the last four decades, Ray and I have entertained a lot of early leaders of the gay civil rights movement. We asked these guests if they would also sign the movie poster so that we might create a record of historic significance. We recently donated the poster to the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale. Almost all of the signatures that can still be seen are in easily read script. But what do the signatures really say?

    Unlike our fingerprints, which is an un-chosen, distinguishing feature about each of us, our signature is a chosen representation of ourselves. "It is a written picture to show how you see yourself in relation to others," wrote one authority on the subject. The way we write our names, with fierce, jagged lines or loopy letters, tells the world not only who we think we are, but also how we experience life.

     There is a science of handwriting analysis in which the trained observer can tell from our signature many things about us that we thought were hidden, such as if we are shy, outgoing, protective, emotionally stable, grandiose, or level-headed, among many other things. Handwriting analysis is a not a New Age phenomena. It’s been around for many years and in many countries, actually.

       Thinking I was ordering a book on the philosophical significance of our signatures, I received instead a guide to analyzing how to read a person's personality by the manner in which he or she signed their names. How is the "i" dotted, and the "t" crossed? Is there a line above or below their name? Can you make out their name?

      There is a difference between a signature and an autograph, I learned. Our signature is our representation of ourselves on legal documents, such as the "Z" on the grocery store credit card machine. Our autograph is what we give in response to requests of keepsakes, such as the names on our donated historic artifact. Sometimes, the two appear the same, but often they do not. Lily Tomlin, for instance, may not sign checks in loopy letters. Outside factors can impact how we write our name, such as when we feel rushed for time. As we get older, our signatures can become less legible. But even our scribbles can be analyzed, and our natures revealed.

     The names on the poster we donated to the Stonewall Museum include Jack McCarty and Victor Amburgy, the gay couple held captive with other traveling Americans by Muslim extremists in 1985. Had the captors of Pan Am Flight 847 known that Jack and Victor were gay, the couple likely would have been executed. I wonder if that horrifying experience is reflected in their signatures? Larry Bush, Vic Basile, Ginny Apuzzo, Gerry Studds, Tomie dePaola, Eric Marcus, David McWhirter and Drew Mattison, Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Bob Nugent, Elaine Noble, Kevin Jennings, Betty Berzon, and Bill Johnson, among others, signed our poster, too.

     Do those names ring any bells? Probably not, but I wish they did. Just as many of the names on our poster are gone or fading, our community is losing its early leaders, and our history, on a daily basis. I wish their names and stories were indelible.

  Larry Bush was the community's earliest and best political reporter. Vic Basile was the first head of the Human Rights Campaign. Ginny Apuzzo, a former nun, was head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Gerry Studds, who is deceased, was the first openly-gay member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Tomie dePaola is the beloved author and illustrator of children's books, including “Oliver Button is a Sissy.” Eric Marcus wrote “Is It a Choice?”and co-authored the autobiography of Greg Louganis, “Breaking the Surface.”

     Dr. David McWhirter and his spouse, Drew Mattison, both deceased, wrote the popular, ground-breaking book “The Male Coupe.” Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Bob Nugent, the latter recently deceased, founded New Ways Ministry in 1977, and immediately received the full wrath of the Catholic Church for their advocacy for gay people. Elaine Noble was elected as an openly-gay person to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1974, three years before Harvey Milk. Kevin Jennings founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Dr. Betty Berzon was a psychotherapist who came out in 1968, and edited or authored several early books, including “Positively Gay, and Permanent Partners.”

     Bill Johnson is the first gay member of the clergy to be ordained by a mainline Christian denomination in the U.S. They all made their marks in history and on our poster.

    I'd be very interested in learning what a handwriting analyst would say about the signatures of these people on “The Late Show”poster. Is there any trait that connects all of them? How did these people want the world to see them? How did the struggles of the early gay movement impact their signatures? Are the signatures of LGBT people who faced horrible discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s different from those of LGBT people who are coming out today?

     As a result of reading the handwriting analysis book, I'm more conscious of the significance of a signature, mine and that of others. I need to think more about what I'm trying to say about myself when I sign my name, other than that I was taught by nuns.


Brian McNaught was named “the godfather of gay diversity training” by The New York Times. He works with corporate executives globally, is the author of six books, and is featured in seven educational DVDs. He and his spouse Ray Struble divide their year between Fort Lauderdale and Provincetown. Visit for more information.