Thursday 16 February 2012

Flower Power - pansy

2012 seems to be a year full of anniversaries – the centenaries of Alan Turing and Bayard Rustin, 400th anniversary of the first English Olympics, and 30th anniversary of the first Gay Games, among others. Someone I mentioned on Remembrance Day celebrates 2 more.

Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu died 250 years ago this year and married 300 years ago. She was one of those rare things in pre-contemporary times – a woman who was respected in her right, rather than an 18th-century “politicians wife”. Her letters about her time in Turkey were published and became very popular. From them developed the “language of the flowers” which was most popular during the 19th century. The romantic Victorians compiled a whole pot pourri of meanings for every known flower.

Some flower names also became slang terms, and it is with the most famous slang term for a gay man that I begin my series on Flower Power.

At school I remember teachers and other children using the word pansy to mean any boy who was a bit soft, weedy and too girly. Fortunately I fell more into the “geek” category.

Pansy seems to have been first applied to gay men in America over a hundred years ago. Some gay men have always dressed in a distinctive and slightly camp feminised fashion – think about Quentin Crisp, or the stereotypical gay characters created by entertainers like Dick Emery. Perhaps the word “dandy” could apply to some of these men in a different period. But at the beginning of the 20th century dressing in this manner was called “pansying up", no doubt comparing the bold colours of the clothes with those of the flower. I haven’t been able to find out if pansying up was a term created by the gay community or one given to it. It seems that effeminate younger men in particular who pansied up were called “pansified”, and from this came the name “pansy”. Since then, camp gay men have often been given the derogatory name of pansy.

In the 1930s during prohibition in America may illicit gay-owned bars and clubs sprang up in New York. They became popular with all sections of society who couldn’t get alcohol anywhere else. The entertainment provided for the clientele included many gay performers and drag artists. These underground bars became the centre of what was called the Pansy Craze.

One artist who has taken the concept of pansy as an abusive term to create a positive-thinking art project is Paul Harfleet. As a gay man he had experience of verbal abuse in the streets. Whenever he walked though those streets again he was confronted by his memories. Paul used the common practice of laying flowers at the scene of fatal accidents or crimes to create his own project. Instead of bouquets of flowers he chose to leave one single live pansy planted as close as possible to the site where he received abuse. He called his project the Pansy Project.

Paul chose the pansy because of its association with a term of abuse and turned the abuse on its head, because the name pansy comes from the French verb “penser” meaning “to think”. It was a means for Paul to think about how the abuse affected him negatively and how he could change it. As Paul says on his website: “Placing a live plant felt like a positive action, it was a comment on the abuse; a potential ‘remedy’.”

Since Paul planted his first pansy he has had to plant many more, even here in Nottingham where he was verbally abused in 2006 when he left a local night club. Paul photographed every pansy he planted and put the photos on his website.

If you want to know more about Paul Harfleet and the Pansy Project go to

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