Lavender

Lavender has a long history of association with queer culture, beginning in the 7th century BCE with the poet Sappho from the island of Lesbos (from whence we derive the name lesbian for a female homosexual), whose papyrus fragments told of her erotic desire for younger women with "violet tiaras.”  Towards the end of the 19th century CE, however, the public began linking lavender with homosexuality.

Aestheticism, a European arts movement emerged, eschewing Victorian wholesomeness and the perceived ugliness of the Industrial Age, in favor of beauty, passion, and "art for art's sake.” Newspapers denounced aesthetes as effeminate, not least because one of the prominent leaders of the movement, Oscar Wilde, frequently reminisced about his "purple hours" spent with rent boys, and provoked much pearl-clutching with the homoerotic themes to be found in what has become his most famous work:  The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The aesthetes, who declared their devotion to art and beauty in all its forms, were the subject of much scorn and derision.  That we know of them, that they became more than just a passing Victorian fad, is a result of the trial and trials of Oscar Wilde, convicted in 1895 and imprisoned at hard labor for what was then called the crime of “gross indecency” and today is called being gay.  Indeed, when evidence was brought forth of his “gross indecency” — or homosexuality — the court transcripts make the first use of that chilling and resonant euphemism for homosexuality, the “love that dare not speak its name,” in the reading of Wilde’s letters to his lover, Alfred Lord Douglas (or Bosie).  Wilde, the most noted of the aesthetes, inadvertently assured them a prominent place in the history of the period.

But a century before Wilde, there was considerable public interest in the “macaronis,” fashion-conscious men who were given that name because they rejected de rigueur English roast beef for dainty foods encountered on their trips to continental Europe, such as pasta.

These effete eaters, who also sported excessive French fashions in clothing, were the predecessors of Wilde and the aesthetes.  A macaroni spoke, but said nothing; smiled, but not sincerely.  When gathered with other macaronis, he was fastidious and ate meticulously, showing no sign of enjoyment.  He seemed neither male nor female but exceeded conventional boundaries in terms of fashion, clothing, and culture.  In the mid-18th century, “macaroni” was a term pejoratively used to describe someone whom today might be accused of being a homosexual based solely on stereotypes.  Skinny men wearing tight pants, short coats, flashy shoes, striped socks, fancy canes, and last but not least, their trademark exaggerated wigs.  The trend inspired people to dress “loud” and to adopt various female-oriented clothing tendencies.  It increased in popularity so much that eventually a style formed among wealthy young men — sometimes referred to as “dandies" — that shared a keenness for women’s fashion of the period.

Enthusiasm for Wilde on the part of lesbian and gay activists in the late 20th century was connected to the rise of a new form of cultural and literary analysis known as “queer theory,” heavily influenced by the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault.  Queer theory no longer focused on identifying gay men or lesbians from the past but rather on identifying when and why equivalent terms were used.  It was this thinking that led the contemporary queer theorist Alan Sinfield to identity the Wilde trial of 1895 as the moment when “dandyism" became linked with same-sex desire. The stereotypical proto-homosexual man (based on Wilde) emerged as one that was attracted to younger men (Bosie), was theatrical rather than understated, more effeminate than manly, and artistic rather than sporting.

Wilde, as an aesthete — the dandies of his day — being convicted of homosexuality provided the connection between the dandy and same-sex desire.  Now, using the discipline of queer theory, identifying an era’s dandies could theoretically be used to “out" its homosexuals.

The 1930's marked the start of a dark period when lavender was baked-in to the consciousness of society as emblematic of something sinister, perverse, anti-social, and un-American.  Gay men in America were taunted for possessing a "dash" or "streak" of lavender, thanks in large part to Abraham Lincoln's biographer Carl Sandburg, who described one of the president's early male friendships as containing a "streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets."

During the McCarthy era in 1950’s America, there was state-sanctioned discrimination when President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which became part of a national witch-hunt to purge gay men and lesbians from the Federal government.  It was given the name "The Lavender Scare" by historian David K. Johnson, linking it to “The Red Scare” which posited that communists (known colloquially at the time as “Reds”) had infiltrated the US government in an attempt by the USSR to conquer and occupy the United States.  The suffocating climate of fear and suspicion linked homosexuality and communism, and led to an estimated 5,000 Federal employees losing their jobs for no other reason than their sexuality supposedly made them a threat to democracy and the American way of life.

Today we know that queers come in all shapes and sizes, from all backgrounds and creeds, that they profess a gamut of political preferences and ideologies, have myriad educational and vocational experiences, just as many aspirations and goals, are not defined by any one cuisine or style of dress, are just as likely to be found at a sporting event or the theater, are citizens of every nation on Earth, and reflect all the colors of the rainbow.

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