Queercoding through the ages
Text: Lieke van den Belt
Image: Rachel Kok
roses are red
violets are blue
these poems are gay
and so are you
Do roses and violets have any special meaning to you? Would you think anything of it if someone wore a green carnation? Maybe you would not. Maybe to you a closet is just a space to hang your clothes. But for some it means a little more.
Queercoding is giving subtle hints that someone is queer, most often in artistic media such as films or literature, but people also use ‘queer codes’ to signify their queerness to others in their daily lives. One of the first examples of queercoding was in ancient Greece, six thousand years before the birth of Christ. There once was a poet, her name was Sappho and she lived on the island Lesbos. Thanks to her, we have the terms sapphic and lesbian for women and non-men loving one another. Sappho wrote many beautiful poems about flowers, but only one of these flowers became a very famous queercoded symbol: the violet. It is assumed that a possible lover of Sappho wore violets around her neck. In one of these poems she writes:
Many crowns of violets, roses and crocuses…together you set before more and many scented wreaths made from blossoms around your soft throat…with pure, sweet oil…you anointed me, and on a soft, gentle bed…you quenched your desire…no holy site…we left uncovered, no grove…
In ancient Greece, violets and other purple flowers were associated with purity and were often worn by unmarried girls and women. The phrase ‘with violets in her lap’ often returns in Sappho’s poetry, to signify the unwedded status of the woman she is writing the poem about.
There has been some speculation in academia about whether Sappho even was a lesbian, because she married a man, whose name roughly translates into ‘Big Dick from Man Island’. This, of course, could be his real name, it could also just be a very ancient version of a dick joke. Because she lived so long ago and has been dead for many ages, there is no way to ask her if she was lesbian, bisexual or just straight and admired female beauty in a completely heterosexual way.
The colour purple
The image of the violet in Sappho’s poetry is an old image, one that survived in the fragments of her writing we still have, and became linked with female desire. Other female poets started using the image in their own poetry and the purple flower also became common as a gift between sapphic lovers. One example is Emily Dickinson, a poet from the 1800s. She wrote long, yearning letters with dried violets in the envelopes to her sister-in-law and ‘historically close’ best friend Sue. She also wrote multiple poems about Sue, in which she writes:
Still in her Eye
The Violets lie
Mouldered this many May
At one point in time, in the late 1920s there was even a drop in sales of the violet in the United States, because of the (negative) connotation of the flower with lesbianism. During a 1926 play called ‘The Captive’, one female character sends another woman a bouquet of violets. This small, innocent gesture caused the public to demand censorship and the boycotting of the play.
Purple has always been a magical colour, associated with luxury, wealth and magic. Kassia St. Clair, cultural historian of colours, writes how in the nineteenth century, people could start wearing purple clothing with the accidental invention of synthetic dye, but it was still quite an expensive colour, outside of the ordinary. At the end of the nineteenth century, the lovely shades of purple became connected to homosexuality once again. A new art movement came into existence in Europe, called Aestheticism. One of the leaders of these Aesthetes was the flamboyant author Oscar Wilde; it was their mission to pursue passion, beauty and ’art for art’s sake’. They stood against everything the Victorian age demanded of them, namely, heterosexuality and civilian life. The Aesthetes were seen by the general public as ‘effeminate’ men, and Oscar Wilde was criticised for his ‘purple hours’ with ‘his boys’. He also instructed his followers to wear green carnations on the opening night of one of his theatre plays, making yet another flower a queer symbol.
Scared of lavender
Although queercoding is a well-loved phenomenon by some, other people would like to see more out and proud representation, where queerness is clearly visible in the open.
There is no need for being stuck inside a closet in society nowadays, everyone is okay with gayness, right? Wrong. To assume there is no need for closeting or coming out anymore takes away the fact that even nowadays, homosexuality is illegal in a lot of societies or seen as ‘morally wrong’. Without getting into the kind of laws that are being enforced on transgender and non-binary people in places such as Great Britain. It is not that long ago that our attitudes towards homosexuality started shifting. The year that the author of this article was born (2001), was the year that homosexual marriage was made legal in the Netherlands, the first country in the whole world to do so. Until 1973 homosexuality was a mental illness in the American version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Another example of our shift in attitude from slightly longer ago is a phenomenon called the Lavender Scare in the United States, the nosy sibling of the Red Scare. The Red Scare was during the Cold War, mostly in the 1940s and 1950s. Under Senator McCarthy thousands of workers in the federal government were fired on suspicion of being communist spies. The Lavender Scare was another uproar in the period of 1950s until the late 1960s, about the fact that there were queer people (gasp!) working in the government. Queer people were seen as ‘sexual perverts’ and there was a fear of their collaboration with communists. It was thought that their homosexuality would make them easier to blackmail. In 1953, President Eisenhower signed Order 10450, whereafter thousands of queer individuals were fired from their jobs in the federal government, which in some cases caused them to lose their housing.
Queercoding is almost like a metaphorical representation of what a lot of queer people have to go through in their lives until they come out. You try to hide yourself away in a closet, but cannot prevent the colours from spilling out. Although it can be scary to come out, it is also beautiful. Your colours will brighten the queer world waiting for you out there. The phrase ‘coming out’ used to mean exactly that, coming out into a ‘gay society’, in the same kind of sense that young girls used to ‘come out’ in a debutante ball as women eligible for marriage.
Young queer teens search for slivers of representation, of recognition and affirmation in media and amongst peers that they are not the only one. Someone wearing a rainbow bracelet or with dyed violet hair could be safe, an outlaw cowboy such as oneself. Asking if someone knows the music artists girl in red or Hayley Kiyoko may seem like a casual question to some, but for others it is a big deal, similar to asking if one was a ‘friend of Dorothy’ in the 1930s. An author or character does not even need to be queer themselves, you can read something as queer even if the author did not intend it to be - that is the power of art, and frankly, homosexuality.