Lambda Lore

Pansy Power

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As I was searching through old newspapers, which one does when one has no social life, I was struck by this headline: “SLC PANSY.” Since I was perusing the police beat section of The Salt Lake Tribune and not the garden section, I was quite intrigue.

In an article about an arrest in Salt Lake City dated May 4, 1887 this was written: “James Marshall used so much nose paint yesterday attempting to beautify his complexion that he was quite carried away with his own beauty and seeing his reflection in a street window pane made violent love to it. When arrested for disturbing the feelings of the party who owned the window, James expressed his indignation in the Basque language which nearly wrecked all the neighboring awnings. Fined $10.00.”

So funny I forgot to laugh. The Police Beat reporter was having a little fun at the expense of Mr. Marshall, and I am sure the 1887 reader also had a good laugh. Yes, the code words were all there to let discerning readers know that the police were keeping the city streets safe from sexual deviants. However, I am not sure what “expressed his indignation in the Basque language” could have possibly meant, except that it may have been akin to saying “swore like a sailor.” You know how those sheep herding Basques are.

“Homosexual” was not a term that would have been known to Salt Lake City readers in 1887. The first known appearance of the word homosexual was in an 1869 German pamphlet arguing against a Prussian anti-sodomy law. In 1886, Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the terms “homosexual and heterosexual” in his book Psychopathia Sexualis, a book which greatly influenced the medical community of its time. Soon the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” became the most widely accepted terms for sexual orientation in clinical studies, but they did not enter into everyday jargon until the 1920s.

But ah! Pansy. Now that’s a word everyone knew for centuries. The word “pansy” had been used to indicate an “effeminate” male ever since Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare had his fairy Puck use the juice of a pansy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to make a love potion. Shakespeare also used the flower along with the honeyflower as symbols of forbidden love in the play Hamlet.

Interestingly, much like they did with the word queer, “avowedly homosexual” men took back the word pansy and adopted it as part of an artistic movement in the 1920s and 1930s. In theaters, cabarets and speakeasies of major metropolitan centers there was a surge of acts that featured “Pansy Performers.” Some of these Pansy Performers crossed over into the silver screen, most noticeably in sophisticated romantic comedies featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Fred Astaire’s lack of strong masculine traits could be deflected when paired up with old maid pansies like Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Billy De Wolfe and Eric Blore, all whom had extensive careers playing effeminate roles of floorwalkers, bureaucrats, valets, designers and fussbudgets.

Well, the Great Depression brought an end to all of that. Light hearted musical comedy came to a halt and World War II put the nail in the coffin of the Pansy Movement when America needed all the red blooded men it could muster. However, the Army still used drag performers to keep up morale — as long as they were red blooded American drag performers.

Today I don’t think it would even occur to those who want to disparage gay men to call them pansies. We may be fags and queers, but we are not sissies and pansies anymore. More the pity.

Still, I wonder whether there’s a little bit of pansy in all of us gay men no matter how much it may embarrass the assimilationist movement. I know that deep inside of me there is still that little boy who secretly stole some crêpe drapery lining from a neighbor’s garage so that I could nourish my gay spirit by wearing something pretty when no one was looking.

So, I know not what others may do, but as for me, I am going to the garden section of my favorite market and buying a whole tray of pansies to plant in my front yard this spring.

Sissy boys unite! Defy those who say your inborn traits to acknowledge and nurture grace and beauty are unnatural! Plant the hardy pansies in your flower boxes, pots, and gardens! They come in a diversity of colors!

Now, if planting pansies is too much for you who brook no “fats or fems” in your life, you might consider this: The pansy flower was also the symbol of the American Secular Union, a social movement in the United States during the 1800s that was dedicated to the separation of church and state. Now that’s a flower we can all get behind in this state.

Down with the sego lily! Up with the pansy!

Tootles until next time.


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