Saturday, March 17, 2012

A poet could not but be gay

On Twitter, the other day, I referred to the flowers outside my window as 'pansies'. Well, that is exactly what they are. All one hundred and twenty seven of them. A friend, however, found my usage quaint and antiquated (why do these words sound like they're related). But from what I know the flower hasn't been given another name yet to clear the confusion between the contemporary usage of the word and its earlier botanic incarnation. Gay, however, seems to have been done away with altogether as a synonym for happy. So much so that you can now no longer spontaneously recite Daffodils on a fine spring day like today without eliciting some giggles from bystanders. Assuming the recitation of poetry isn't itself a giggleworthy enough phenomenon for bystanders.

So, coming back to pansy, the serendipity of encountering the word whose archaic usage had made me a laughing stock of sorts (yes, i am looking at you @akkhan81) in a snazzy, contemporary book of non-fiction was a most lucky coincidence (which is what serendipity happens to be, by the way). The book, 'Guerrilla Gardening' by Richard Reynolds, details attempts by people all over the world to beautify or cultivate neglected public space. On page 55, Reynolds writes:

Paul 1119 has used guerrilla gardening to mark hundreds of memorials in a continuing and powerful art project spread across England and the USA. He began in Manchester, planting pansies to mark where homophobic attacks had taken place ('pansy' being a slang term for a gay man in anglophone countries). 
Using police records of where  both verbal and physical attacks had occured, Paul planted the pansies along pavements, in crevices beneath trees, at the foot of walls and to plug gaps in flowerbeds. He took a photo of each one and named the image after the particular abuse that had occurred there. 'Faggots!...Poofs!...Queers!' is a beautiful burgundy pansy on Oxford Road outside Sainsbury's supermarket; 'It's about time we went gay-bashing again, isn't it?' is a pale peachy one that is timidly growing through some melting snow on Grosvenor Street. The Pansy Project went legal when Paul sought and won the support of cultural institutions in North America and Britain, and it now has its own website (
In March 2007 Paul was given funding by the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival to plant along Queen's Walk on the South Bank to mark the murder in 2004 of David Morley, which was widely perceived to have been motivated by homophobia. As well as filling empty tree pits and flowerbeds, pansies were stuffed into ribbons of soggy black stockings and bin liners to be wrapped temporarily around the bases of bins and bollards.
Paul asked me to help clear away this temporary part of the exhibition and transplant the pansies somewhere permanent. And so I spent an evening with Claire 1971, Lyla 1046 and Gavin 2881 crawling around the South Bank prising out pansies and perplexing the rowdy al fresco drinkers who favoured us with some light horticultural abuse.

I loved how these people combined the two uses of 'pansy' to make a statement.

However, even more strangely, I came upon the word pansy again in a book I picked up the very next day. 'Fun Home' by Alison Bechdel also puns upon its two meanings to illustrate her younger self's understanding (and judgement) of her father. Here it is:

So, glad to know the original meaning of pansy is still very much in use, even as it is supplemented by its modern slang usage, a pejorative whose own meaning is being redefined by those it has been hurled at as an insult.


  1. A brilliant post on a queer topic..

  2. ^Loving the wordplay on 'queer', by the way. :P

  3. Great post... something to think about. I thought pansies were a specific type of flower though.. also... aside from being used as a derogatory term for gay men, i also believe some use it to describe cowardice. But that also prolly originated from its use as a put down for gay men... all that aside, I too am glad its still used for flowers!