Are you a pansy? Or a violet?

Are you a pansy? Or a violet?

Welcome to Rainbows Fest! And thank you for taking one of our bouquets!

Why did we give out flowers? Because it's part of our history.

For more than a millennia, queer people would use flowers to flag to others that they were part of the LGBTQ+ family. Different cultures used different flowers, but some have become so universal that they are recognized as part of the community's "flower code."

Below is an explanation of the flowers included in your bouquet, and what they represent.


A color for all of us.

Before the 19th century, purple dye was rare, if not an impossible color to find in fashion. But when an 18-year-old student at the Royal College of Chemistry in London was trying to make a new version of quinine, he accidentally made a purple dye.

Soon after, the use of the synthetic dye became a way for people to wear color without spending beyond their means.

Within a few years, light purple lavender became linked to homosexuality, as the color was described as a mixture between blue and pink—the colors often aligned with male and female genders.

Also, a group of people called Aesthetes preferred the color opposed to the rugged, drab colors of the industrial age. Newspapers eschewed Aesthetes as "effeminate," and later the color became coded for people accused of being homosexual. Abraham Lincoln's biographer Carl Sandburg, for example, said a friendship between the president and another male had a “streak of lavender." It soon became a slur to call a gay man a "dash"—meaning a dash of lavender.

Lavender Menace at Second Congress to Unite Women, NYC, May 1970 (New York Public Library Archives)

In the 1960's, the color was co-opted during the Stonewall riots in New York City, and lesbians used the color in their protests. When the President of the National Organization for Women Betty Friedan said lesbians in the order were a "lavender menace," lesbians stormed the stage at the 1970 national women's convention and forced the audience to discuss the role of lesbianism in the feminist movement while wearing shirts with the same label.


The femme queen's choice.

Part of the reason lavender became so synonymous with LGBTQ+ people was, in part, due to the color purple having more than 1,000 years to establish itself as the color for lesbians.

In the 7th century, the poet Sappho often used purple violets in her stories and rhymes. In the following poem, she writes about women wearing crowns of flowers, specifically violets and roses, while making love in a field:

Many crowns of violets,
roses and crocuses
…together you set before more
and many scented wreaths
made from blossoms
around your soft throat…
…with pure, sweet oil
…you anointed me,
and on a soft, gentle bed…
you quenched your desire…
…no holy site…
we left uncovered,
no grove…

The imagery of violets lasted for centuries to the point where purple—just like lavender—became synonymous with queer people and their experiences. Oscar Wilde, for example, wrote about his "purple nights" with other men.

British writer Renee Vivien famously wrote poetry related to her lover and drew inspiration from Sappho, so much that she became known as the "Muse of Violets," and her grave site is often adorned with violet flowers.


A celebration of drag.

In the 1920's, drag queens became regular performers in underground bars and clubs across cities such as Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. At the time, they were called "pansy performers."

The performances date back to 1869, when the first known drag balls were held in Harlem, New York.

Pansy performers helped shape the culture of bohemian life in the cities and, specifically, inside established gay bars such as New York's The Slide, which Joseph Pulitzer (yes, that Pulitzer) published in his paper how it was "morally the lowest in New York, Paris, London or Berlin."

The queen of the pansy crazy was Jean Malin, who brought flamboyance to his performances as a drag queen, and later ditched the dresses and instead performed in high-camp and obviously gay attire.

Painting of "pansy" performer Karyl Norman, titled The Creole Fashion Plate (1923)

The rise and popularity of underground pansy performers soon turned into pansy clubs—dedicated drag venues that often got raided by police or infiltrated by the mob.

With the attention pansy performers were getting, Edward P Mulrooney, the former police commissioner for the New York police Department, ordered police officers outside every pansy club. They were told to turn away female impersonators at the door.

The end of prohibition ended the pansy craze of the 1930's, though, as speakeasy's were forced to close. And the start of World War II began the national wave of criminalizing homosexuality, and the Nazi's killing and imprisonment of trans people and gay men soon drove pansy performers back underground.


From gay Asian men, to trans rights.

The use of the rose as a gay symbol between men is attributed to the Greek story of King Laius's affairs with boys under rose trees.

But in 1963, the rose became a more established code for queer people in Japan, when Japanese writer Yukio Mishima and photographer Eikoh Hosoe collaborated to make what is considered one of the more important photography books of the 20th century called Barakei: Killed by Roses (or in other translations, an Ordeal of Roses).

The portraits by Hosoe show Mishima bound in rope, naked among foliage, or dressed in ornate headdresses. The book inspired the first gay men's publication in Japan called Barazoku (the Rose Tribe), which lead to gay men in Japan referring to themselves as "bara."

A photograph taken by Eikoh Hosoe of Yukio Mishima smelling a rose in the book Barakei.

In 1969, the film "Funeral Parade of Roses" was released during the Japanese New Wave cinematic movement. The film took place among Tokyo's underground gay and transgender nightlife venues, and is credited with inspiring Stanley Kubrick's film "A Clockwork Orange."

Today, roses are often used among transgender communities in protest, with the call of, "Give us our roses while we're still here."

Green carnation

An Oscar Wilde tradition.

Oscar Wilde, the author who was put on trial for indecency after an affair with another man was made public, popularized wearing a green carnation as a symbol of gay identity. In 1892, during the performances of his play "Lady Windermere's Fan," he asked friends to wear them on their lapels to show solidarity.

Wearing the green carnation on a specific side of the body was how gay men flagged they were among family. Worn on the left side, as Wilde did, meant you were a man looking for another man for companionship or sex.

The 1894 satirical novel The Green Carnation written by Robert Hichens was loosely based on Oscar Wilde and his circle of friends. The book poked fun of Wilde and the lifestyle of gay men in 19th century Europe. (The novel was taken out of circulation during Oscar Wilde's trial a year later.)

Cover of "The Green Carnation," written by Robert Hichens and based on Oscar Wilde.

When it was suggested that Wilde wrote the book about himself, he said that he had no part in it, only the flower: "I invented that magnificent flower. But with the middle-class and mediocre book that usurps its strangely beautiful name I have, I need hardly say, nothing whatsoever to do. The flower is a work of art. The book is not."

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