We explore the hidden meaning behind this floral artwork.
We’re just a couple of days away from the start of our LGBT 50 celebrations and the city is beaming with colour. From the rainbow flags flying high above buildings and the police cars proudly sporting their new rainbow wrap, to the floral designs brightening up billboards, lampposts, and Sewell Group’s service stations and vans, there’s colour everywhere in Hull. But what does it mean?
— Sewell Group (@Sewell_Group) July 7, 2017
The rainbow flag is a globally recognised symbol for gay pride and our diverse LGBT+ communities. This iconic design first appeared during the 1970s, when American politician Harvey Milk – the first openly gay person to hold high public office in a US city – challenged artist Gilbert Baker to create a positive symbol of pride for the gay community.
Designed as an alternative to the pink triangle, which was used by Nazis to identify and persecute homosexuals, Baker stitched together strips of colour for his new flag, each with a different meaning. Hot pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise blue for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit. The flags were flown for the first time at the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco in 1978 and have been flying high ever since.
This wasn’t the end of the pink triangle, however. Founded in the 1980s, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) group adopted the pink triangle, inverting the symbol and adding the slogan ‘SILENCE = DEATH’ in a statement of empowerment in the face of homophobia and HIV stigma.
So with so much LGBT+ symbolism out there, you might have been wondering why this year, alongside the rainbow flag and pink triangle, we’ve been branding the city in beautiful flowers. The collection of flowers in our LGBT 50 artwork isn’t just a happy accident – the flowers have been picked for a reason, each with their own symbolism and hidden meaning…
At the first performance of Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windemere’s Fan, Wilde asked one of the actors and a group of his friends in the audience to wear green carnations in their buttonholes. The flower has since become a symbol of Oscar Wilde, his life and his relationships.
An ‘unnatural’ colour for a flower, it has been suggested that this may have been Wilde’s subtle way of mocking the suggestion that love between two men might be ‘unnatural’ too. It has since been thought of as a code – a badge of homosexuality that only those in the know would know. This trend continued into the early twentieth century as an early version of the ‘hanky code’. Although Oscar Wilde never confirmed that this was the true meaning of the green carnation, these claims play well with one of his favourite ideas: ‘nature should imitate art, and not the reverse’.
Artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings have widely been thought to have a double meaning. O’Keeffe’s delicately painted lilies have been referred to as an erotic lesbian symbol – an intimate depiction of the female genitalia.
Although she didn’t encourage these interpretations herself, a new wave of feminists in the 1970s celebrated O’Keeffe for her powerful portrayal of womanhood.
Dating all the way back to the 600s BC, violets have been used as a symbol of lesbian love. The Greek poet Sappho, best known for her lyric poems about love and women, described herself and a lover wearing garlands of violets.
In honour of Sappho, lesbian women in the mid-20th century would give violets to women they were wooing, indicating their ‘Sapphic desire’.
Over 100 years ago, the word ‘pansy’ was first applied to gay men in America, particularly men who dressed in a flamboyant or feminine fashion. Perhaps making a comparison with the bold and bright colours of the flower, this was referred to as ‘pansying up’.Although it’s not known whether the term was created by the gay community or given to them, it came to be used in a derogatory manner, much like other words such as ‘queer’. However, the powerful creativity of the LGBT+ community questioned the negative connotations applied to such words and symbols. Some argue that difference and diversity is empowering and therefore celebrate their queerness, while others wonder why such a beautiful flower should be used as a slur and take back ownership of its meaning.
Ever since the singer Morrissey burst onto the scene with The Smiths, his sexuality has always been a matter of interest to the British press. Writing sexually-ambiguous songs with themes of love and lust, The Smiths spent a fortune on gladioli for him to hand out at gigs, wave on stage and wear in his back pocket. When asked about the meaning of the flowers, he explained that “flowers are simply innocent and beautiful and have never caused strife for anyone”.
‘Lavender boy’ has been a derogatory term for gay men since the 1920s, with any man showing femme (or not-quite-hetero) characteristics described as having a ‘streak of lavender’.
The use of this flower as a symbol is thought to come from the purple colour of the plant, since this vibrant lavender is the colour you would get if you mixed pink and baby blue, both culturally positioned as ‘gendered’ colours.
Today lavender roses are sometimes shared with LGBT+ partners on Valentine’s Day or when celebrating a same sex marriage.
The flowers in our LGBT 50 artwork are not just a beautiful, vibrant prop. They each have an important meaning behind them, and are a symbol of something much bigger. Join us at LGBT 50 and celebrate what these flowers represent – freedom, hope and love.