VANCOUVER

Queer Floriography: The secret symbolism of flowers and Pride

Queer Floriography:
The secret symbolism of flowers and Pride

By
Sarah Bancroft

As we launch the first Fleurs de Villes PRIDE (July 27-Aug 1 2022), we explore the history of flowers in the 2SLGBTQ+ communities in Vancouver and beyond. 

From Ancient Greece to the roaring twenties in New York to modern day Vancouver, flowers have been important to the LGBTQ2+ communities, with special meanings and symbolism. 

The language of flowers, or floriography, was the Victorian trend of applying meanings to certain flowers to reflect specific emotions or sentiments, allowing subtle messages to be communicated through carefully-curated bouquets. 

There are many examples in arts and letters where flowers are used for queer symbolism. Ancient Greek poet Sappho, who hailed from the island of Lesbos (the root word of lesbian,) wrote of women and girls frolicking together with garlands of violets in their hair; ever since violets have been associated with female lovers. Playwright Tennessee Williams worked violets into his play Suddenly Last Summer through the character Mrs. Violet Venable. Famously, Oscar Wilde asked his fellow gay friends to wear a green carnation in their lapels in proud solidarity at the premiere of his play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, in 1892. The trend was also taken up by Parisian men.

“Daisy,” “buttercup,” and especially “pansy,” as well as “horticultural lad” were early twentieth century terms for flamboyant gay men, and were used in the era known as the “pansy craze” in New York, when gay bars and drag queens were starting to emerge in the 1920s. “Lavender boy” was also a term used for gay men in the 1920s, and lesbian feminist Rita Mae Brown and other activists disrupted a women’s event wearing T-shirts that read “Lavender Menace,” in 1970.

Because roses are a symbol of mourning, and transgender people are murdered at disproportionate rates, the phrase “give us our roses while we are still here” has been adopted by the trans community to celebrate the beauty of life through flowers. Lavender roses in particular are often sent on Valentine’s Day and used for gay weddings. 

As we launch the first Fleurs de Villes PRIDE (July 27-Aug 1 2022), we explore the history of flowers in the 2SLGBTQ+ communities in Vancouver and beyond. 

From Ancient Greece to the roaring twenties in New York to modern day Vancouver, flowers have been important to the LGBTQ2+ communities, with special meanings and symbolism. 

The language of flowers, or floriography, was the Victorian trend of applying meanings to certain flowers to reflect specific emotions or sentiments, allowing subtle messages to be communicated through carefully-curated bouquets. 

There are many examples in arts and letters where flowers are used for queer symbolism. Ancient Greek poet Sappho, who hailed from the island of Lesbos (the root word of lesbian,) wrote of women and girls frolicking together with garlands of violets in their hair; ever since violets have been associated with female lovers. Playwright Tennessee Williams worked violets into his play Suddenly Last Summer through the character Mrs. Violet Venable. Famously, Oscar Wilde asked his fellow gay friends to wear a green carnation in their lapels in proud solidarity at the premiere of his play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, in 1892. The trend was also taken up by Parisian men.

“Daisy,” “buttercup,” and especially “pansy,” as well as “horticultural lad” were early twentieth century terms for flamboyant gay men, and were used in the era known as the “pansy craze” in New York, when gay bars and drag queens were starting to emerge in the 1920s. “Lavender boy” was also a term used for gay men in the 1920s, and lesbian feminist Rita Mae Brown and other activists disrupted a women’s event wearing T-shirts that read “Lavender Menace,” in 1970.

Because roses are a symbol of mourning, and transgender people are murdered at disproportionate rates, the phrase “give us our roses while we are still here” has been adopted by the trans community to celebrate the beauty of life through flowers. Lavender roses in particular are often sent on Valentine’s Day and used for gay weddings. 

In the late 1970s, a rainbow flag created by artist Gilbert Baker made its debut at the San Francisco event to symbolize Gay Pride and has since become an iconic symbol. Red represents life, orange is for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, blue for harmony and purple for spirit. (See it recreated by our in-house Fleuriste June Jung at The Cross in Yaletown in pastel shades.) Protestors carried flowers in New York to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in what is considered the very first Pride parade in 1970. Vancouver’s first official pride parade was in 1981, in Nelson Park, a tradition that still takes place today (July 31, 2022).

Vancouver’s pride community really took hold in the 1970s and 80s, when there were 12 gay bars in the West End alone. Yaletown was also home to two of the most famous gay bars, The Gandy Dancer on Hamilton Street and The Quadra, located at 1055 Homer Street on top of a postal sorting station. And the world-famous Little Sister’s Book Store and Art Emporium still exists today, now on Davie Street, after surviving several attempted bombings and challenging Canada Customs in the Supreme Court for its right to import so-called “obscene materials” from the U.S. So many milestones achieved, and so many yet to come.

Celebrate Pride with us from July 27 to August 1st with a free floral trail of 15 joyful fresh floral exhibits throughout Vancouver’s Yaletown and West End, supported by YBIA and WEBIA and in solidarity with the Vancouver Pride Society. For maps and information, please click here.

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