Flowers have their own vast language, communicating love, disdain and everything in between. Throughout history, LGBTQ communities have also used the subtle language of flowers to convey solidarity or personal identity, all through something as simple as a flower pinned to a lapel. Many of these flowers have deep connections to queer icons or are echoed in other queer symbols.
While flowers have always carried some symbolism through different eras and cultures, the language of flowers it became a popular pastime in the Victorian era when social communication was highly coded – especially when it came to love. (Even more complex emotions, such as, say, shyness, were associated with their own flowers, which was certainly not confusing at all.)
So it makes sense that queer communities find both beauty and belonging in continuing this interesting tradition.
Shades of purple have been associated with LGBTQ communities since the time of Sappho (more on her later), but lavender fully entered the gay lexicon in the late 19th century. Why this particular shade? Some assume it’s because it’s a mix of pink and blue. Other historians point out that the color is related to effeminacy. Lavender was a fashionable color in Europe at the time and eventually became synonymous with an appreciation for art and beauty that at the time was seen as unmanly in certain circles.
The lavender saw another boost in queer visibility when it was worn by participants in a “gay power” march in New York City in 1969, a month after the pivotal Stonewall riots. That same year, Betty Friedan, the leader of the National Organization for Women, criticized lesbianism, which she believed to be a threat to feminism. She called this imagined threat the “lavender threat”—a colorful term (in more ways than one) that lesbian activists immediately adopted as their own.
The term “lavender” often acted as a discreet way of describing something gay. Lavender marriages, for example, were noted among the stars through the middle of the 20th century. In these unions, one or both members of a couple were homosexual, and the marriage was an intentional ruse to avoid public questions about sexuality.
Today, the lavender flower still appears in newer symbols of the weird. The “cottagecore” aesthetic, one of simple and quiet living in nature, has many intersections with queer and hyperfeminine aesthetics, like frogs, mushrooms and, yes, botanicals. Even a lavender latte—best made with oat milk—has become a sly modern symbol of “gay culture.”
Violets are intertwined with the tradition of Sappho, the famous ancient Greek poet. From her, we get the words “Saphic” and “Lesbian”, referring to her home on the island of Lesbos. In one of her poems, which are loaded with erotic references to women, she writes:
“Thou hast laid many wreaths of violets and roses . . . together beside me, and round thy delicate neck thou hast placed many garlands woven of flowers.”
Her lush symbolism of violets and other purple flowers has persisted over the yearswith depictions of Sappho often showing the poet adorned with violet flowers.
Like lavender, violets it reappeared as a symbol of the strange in the early 20th century, thanks to women’s groups in Paris who oversaw a resurgence of interest in Sappho’s work. Among these “Paris Lesvos” was a British poet named Renée Vivien who drew heavily on the symbolism of violets in her work and her personal aesthetic, both as a tribute to Sappho and one of her lovers.
In 1926, a play by Edouard Bourdet made the connection even more public. his story”captive” features a woman, engaged to a man, who is secretly in a relationship with another woman. In the play, her lover gives her several gifts of violets. The link made the flower unfashionable in some circlesbut gay men and women and their allies attended the play and spiked violets to their outfits in a show of support.
“Pansy” is widely known as a pejorative term for a gay man, implying weakness and effeminacy. (In reality, pansy flowers are quite hardy!) By the early 20th century, however, it was only one of several similar botanical epithets, including the vague but prestigious-sounding “daisy,” “buttercup,” and “horticultural boy.”
In the 1930s, “Pansy Craze” described a burgeoning queer bohemian lifestyle characterized by parties with drag artists or “pansy performers” as well as an air of unapologetic flamboyance. This movement is considered to be the beginning gay nightlife culture. The term is also a good illustration of how marginalized communities sometimes reclaim words used against them. The Pansy Projecta movement started by LGBTQ activist Paul Harfleet, is planting pansies in place of homophobic and transphobic abuse.
The rose is the ultimate floral symbol of love, and that includes queer love. The rose was the flower of Eros, the Greco-Roman god of passion and erotic love.
In Japanese history, the rose has been associated with gay men. The Japanese word for rose is pronounced “bara” and saw a revival in queer media in the 1960s and 1970s. Japan’s first commercially produced gay magazine, first printed in 1971, was called “Barazoku“, or “tribe of roses”. Roses, especially multi-colored or “dyed” with rainbow hues, are a popular flower used at Pride events.
A green carnation seems like an odd flower to choose as a symbol, but the man who popularized it was considered quite odd himself. Irish writer Oscar Wilde, who was well known for his romantic interests in men, used green carnations to create excitement around the 1892 opening of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan. Wilde asked the actors and some of his admirers to wear the flowers, but did not give a reason. History suggests that he picked up this trend from Paris, where green carnations are rumored to be a sign of affiliation between gay men.