Although the rainbow flag remains a universal symbol of pride and pride month, liberation does not always come in vibrant technicolour: lavender, with its whimsical mix of pink and blue tones, has its own historical significance in representing queer resistance.
Purple is a recurring theme in the history of lesbian iconography. Like violets, lavender was a common gift between women as a covert expression of sapphic interest (see also Sappho's Violets). Some argue that lavender is irrevocably bound up with queerness, but, in many examples, it is unclear whether this refers to the herb itself or to the colour alone.
With the accidental invention of purple synthetic dye in 1856, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the colour purple became popular in fashion. By the end of the century, it had begun to be associated with homosexuality. As it was an expensive, rare dye, it became linked to the Aesthetes – of whom Oscar Wilde was a prominent figure – as they were known for their decadent, upper-class flamboyance. Wilde recalls his ‘purple hours’ spent with rent boys as a source of joy and colour in an otherwise grey world.
“The Lavender Song” (Das Lila Lied) emerged from 1920s Berlin as a pride anthem, containing the lyrics ‘Lavender nights are our greatest treasure, where we can be just who we want to be’ and ‘We're going to win our rights, to lavender days and nights’. Here, purple is used as a symbol of queer strength and resilience in the fight for equal rights.
With the 1930s came a darker period in which ‘lavender’ became a cruel shorthand for non-conformity. Abraham Lincoln’s biographer described one of the president’s early male friendships as containing ‘a streak of lavender’ with ‘spots soft as May violets’, which many saw as effeminate and embarrassing. ‘Lavender boy’ became an insult directed at gay men across America.
By this time, flowers had accumulated a variety of semi-public connotations of homosexuality. Think, for example, of the multiple derogatory slang terms which still exist to this day, such as ‘daisy’, ‘buttercup’, or ‘pansy’.
In the same vein, ‘the Lavender Scare’ was the name given to the period of state-sanctioned discrimination during the McCarthey era, in which president Eisenhower tried to purge homosexual men and women from the federal government. ‘Lavender lads’ as they were called, were deemed as real a threat to national security as communism.
A month after the Stonewall riots in 1969, the colour came to symbolise empowerment and resistance, as lavender sashes and armbands were worn by hundreds of protestors in a commemorative march from Washington Square Park to Stonewall Inn in New York.
The same year, lavender became associated with lesbians trying to join the National Organisation for Women. The president, Betty Frieden, warned against the ‘Lavender Menace’: she believed that lesbians would tarnish the feminist movement, so they should be excluded. A group of activists stormed the stage at the 1970 Congress to Unite Women, wearing purple t-shirts printed with the slogan ‘Lavender Menace’. Ultimately, this led to lesbian rights being recognised as a ‘legitimate concern of feminism’.
There are many more examples of ‘lavender’ being used as shorthand for ‘LGBT’. Between 1980 and 1981 a group of seven gay male writers met up regularly in New York City under the name ‘The Lavender Quill’. ‘Lavender marriage’ was a term used to describe ‘heterosexual’ marriages of convenience between gay men and lesbians, used to conceal the sexuality of one or both partners. Events like Lavender Graduations and the annual Lavender Law Conference of the LBGT Bar Association continue this linguistic tradition.
As these varied examples demonstrate, lavender cannot always be defined neatly in terms of pain or protest. It has also been a symbol of joy, resistance, and reclamation. Horticultural symbolism is a way that LGBT people have subverted the narrative throughout history, turning derogatory comparisons to frilly, effeminate flowers into powerful symbols of resilience – blooming in spite of adversity.