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Purple in Prose: The Historical Tones of the Queer Palette

Within the lavender to violet spectrum, each shade comes with its own nuanced political history.

The sapphic oeuvre of Dr Martens, flannels, septum piercings, carabiners, undercuts, and overalls has welcomed within its ranks a new easter egg for the sapphic eye. Apple’s line of purple iPhones have quickly cemented their position in the pockets and cultural identity of the queer community.

One would be hard-pressed to enter a queer space without noticing various shades of lilac, lavender or violet embedded in people’s clothing and the environment itself. Despite the long-standing cultural connection between the colour purple and the queer community, its origins and history often go unrecognised. Within the lavender to violet spectrum, each shade comes with its own nuanced political history. 

Violet imagery, alongside that of purple crocuses and hyacinths, was first introduced as lesbian adornment in the fragmented remains of  Sappho’s 7th Century poetry. She evoked arcadian pastures filled with women who draped lovers with purple flowers and garlands in overtly romantic gestures. 

According to Edward A. Storer’s translation of “To Atthis”, Sappho writes: 

Atthis has not come back to me: truly I long to die.

Many tears she wept at our parting, saying:

“Sappho, how sad is our fate. I leave you unwillingly.”

To her I answered: “Go on your way happily and

Do not forget me, for you know how I love you.

But if you should forget, then I will remind you

How fair and good were the things we shared together,

How by my side you wove many garlands of violets and

Sweet-smelling roses, and made of all kinds of flowers

Delicate necklaces, how many a flask of the finest myrrh

Such as a king might use you poured on your body,

How then reclining you sipped the sweet drinks of your choice.”

The symbol is an interesting subversion of what Greta Gaard describes as “heterocentrism’s charges of queer sexualities as being ‘against nature”. David Bell argues it “reminds us of our embodied naturalness”. Having sprigs of lavender and violets as ‘positive’ images naturalises and celebrates the reproductive body’s link to queerness. In the 20th century, the gifting of purple flowers, an allusion to Sappho, became a secret gesture between queer women. 

The gesture was even included in the 1926 play, The Captive, a reference the play’s New York audience became privy to and responded with uproar, resulting in the district attorney’s office shutting down the production in 1927 in an act of censorship. The connection between violets and lesbianism led to a period of plummeting flower sales in the US.

Art by Fergus Keane

By the 1960s, the colour lavender had become synonymous with sapphic identity and was weaponised by second wave feminist and author of The Feminine Mistique, Betty Friedan and other straight feminists. Friedan coined the term “lavender menace”, arguing that lesbianism was a sexuality contingent on misandry. She further argued it had an inherent aesthetic of masculinity that was antithetical to the aims and values of the equal rights movement.

Many feminists critiqued Friedan’s alienation of queer women from the movement, including Susan Brownmiller, a straight feminist, who remarked, “A lavender herring, perhaps, but no clear and present danger.” Many felt this was a veiled homophobic and patronising remark which furthered Friedman’s agenda of delegitimising the role of queer women in the feminist movement.

In May 1970, Rita Mae Brown reclaimed the term  by creating a radical feminist group called the Lavender Menace. Two dozen t-shirts were hand dyed and screen printed with the emblematic name. 

After posing as representatives from the National Organization of Women (NOW), sent to do a technical check at the organisation’s annual conference, the Lavender Menace shut the lights and climbed the stage to unbutton their shirts to reveal their lavender statements. Posters lined the stage with messages like “Superdyke loves you!”, “lesbianism is a women’s liberation plot” and “we are all lesbians”. Many women from the audience jumped on stage and joined the Menaces in protest. 

As a result of the action, within the year, NOW changed their policy and publicly endorsed lesbianism as “a legitimate form of feminism”. The lavender-tinted glasses through which this action is viewed erases the reality that the Lavender Menace were a group of white lesbians, largely silent on issues pertaining to First Nations women and women of colour in the queer feminist movement.

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple depicts an explicit lesbian relationship in the context of a rural black community. This relationship is often ignored by scholars, and omitted in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation of the film. Not unlike Sappho’s use of purple in nature as a queer symbol, Walker writes in a preface to the novel that purple “is always a surprise but is found everywhere in nature.”

In The Colour Purple, Walker deconstructs the idea of God in the vision of a white man and adopts purple to symbolise the treatment of women of colour and in particular, queer women of colour like Shug and Celie. In the 1985 adaptation, Shug says to Celie “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in the field and you don’t notice it”, and piss God off the Lavender Menace did. 

Walker famously said, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender”, suggesting how lavender as a lighter shade represents liberation only for white women, whereas violet’s depth reflects her belief of ‘womanism’ as a theoretical site inclusive of all women. 

Alice Walker’s more recent foray into anti-semitism in her 2017 poem It is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud points to an unfortunate trend that has existed within the movement for queer liberation: xenophobia.

It is important to acknowledge  in our colonial context, that colonisation did not import queerness to so-called ‘Australia’, but rather imported queerphobia as an act of cultural imperialism. The history of queer resistance has been interwoven with racism and lateral violence.  This has resulted in present day maintenance of white supremacy and white washing of queerness that forces people of colour and Indigenous people to the peripheries of their own communities and queer spaces.  

Throughout history, symbols and conventions of display have given voice to the queer experience, freeing it from the heterosexual gaze. Whether it’s the bunch of lavender outside our grandparent’s house, an argyle lilac sweater vest, or the polished glass of a purple phone. Even for a moment, we are reminded of the past, present and future of sapphic desire.