Some plants are queerer than others, so we look at some flowery greenery defining LGBT+ culture over the centuries
In our opinion, every month is LGBT+ Month. But February, home to LGBT+ History Month, is easily the queerest of them all! Across a kaleidoscopic 28 (or 29) days, the world comes together to promote equality, diversity and inclusion by celebrating LGBT+ people, their history, lives and experiences. To stay fresh, every year has a unique theme, and in 2021, it was ‘Body, Mind, Spirit.’
Looking after this here jungle sure keeps our bodies, minds and spirits in shape, so for us, plants and all things queer were inextricably linked through fabulous February. To mark the end of this year’s LGBT+ History Month (how is it March 2021 already?), we wanted to share a few of the flowering plants with roots somewhere over the rainbow. After all, flowers have long been symbolic within the queer community. In his masterpiece Sodom and Gomorrah, French novelist Proust even likened relations between men to the fertilization of flowers.
Anyhoo, without further ado, let’s get stuck into some of that flower power. Starting with the oldest, we have…
The romance between gays and flowers could stretch as far back as Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570). The ancient Greek poet – rumoured to have loved the ladies – lived on the isle of Lesbos, which is where we get the term lesbian. Interestingly, everyone from Lesbos is a Lesbian (with a big-L), and the appropriation of the word lesbian (with a little-l) is reportedly a super thorny issue on the island.
In her lyric poetry, most of which is now lost or falling to pieces, Sappho often referenced flowers. Among these were violets and other purple blooms, which her gay female subjects may have worn in garlands as a coded message. The violet remains a queer symbol to this day, appearing on the rainbow flag and frequently popping up in fiction – think Mrs Violet Venable, portrayed by Katharine Hepburn in Tennessee Williams’ 1959 Southern Gothic mystery Suddenly Last Summer.
The green carnation – which is dyed and doesn’t occur naturally – was one of the first LGBT+ symbols to emerge in Victorian England, and it was Oscar Wilde who brought wearing these flowers into queer vogue. In 1892, the playwright invited his friends along to the opening of Lady Windermere’s Fan, asking the oblivious bunch to pin a green carnation to their lapels.
Wearing the flower soon became a down-low way for gay men to identify each other, but thanks to Robert Hitchens’ scandalous 1894 novel The Green Carnation, this is one story without a happy ending. The author depicted characters based on Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, and although the book was presented as fiction, it wasn’t long before the wrong people cottoned on. This played a major part in Wilde’s 1895 arrest and the gross indecency trial that followed, and the whole ugly mess forced the green carnation underground for a long time.
If you’re a gay guy, I’ll bet a bouquet of these beauties some idiot or other has called you a pansy in the past. This cruel floral jibe is one of many used in the early 20th Century, and it’s where the ‘Pansy Craze’ got its name. If you’ve never heard of it, the Pansy Craze was the prohibition-era phenomenon that really pushed LGBT+ nightlife out of the closet and into the mainstream.
During the roaring 20s (the “golden queera,” if you will) and the early 30s, the LGBT+ community managed to establish a strong presence. Drag queens and other queer performers appeared on stages across the globe, especially in New York’s Greenwich Village, Harlem and Times Square. These ‘Pansy Performers’ entertained all sorts – including straight people in search of an illicit drink – but the party wilted when the end of prohibition dropped the curtain on speakeasy culture.
Lavender has been associated with queer people since around the same time as the pansy. It could refer to the colour or the flower – the former of which combines the stereotypically masculine blue and feminine pink. The term first indicated an effeminate style or homosexual tendencies, with gay men mocked for having a “dash” or “streak” of lavender in them. Swedish-American writer Carl Sandburg is partly to blame for this after using the latter to describe a suspiciously close friendship between Abe Lincoln and another man.
Then came the ‘Lavender Scare,’ a Mccarthy-era effort to purge gay people from the US Government, and the ‘Lavender Menace,’ a term given to the involvement of lesbians in the National Organization for Women. But like the word queer, the community has since reclaimed lavender, and it is now widely seen as a positive reference to LGBT+ culture.
At Seb’s Urban Jungle, we dig these floral symbols. LGBT+ people haven’t always had full control over their use, but that’s changing. The queers are just as resilient as flowers. You trample their symbology…they’ll breathe life back into it. You throw shade at them…oh petal, you’ll soon see your cruelty blossom into something much brighter! Even though LGBT+ History Month just saw its finale yesterday, I say: go gay up your home with some of these plants and raise a watering can to the queer community – and maybe a cheeky Cosmo too.
Words by Steven Allison