As an Older Man, I Shall Wear Violet

POFEV logo for web[Next Tuesday, September 24, POFEV: People of Faith for Equality in Virginia is sponsoring “The Many Voices of LGBT Pride,” an interfaith service focused on the spiritual foundations of LGBT liberation, at 6:30 pm at Congregation Beth Ahabah, 1111 West Franklin Street, in Richmond. I will be offering some color-themed blog posts over the next few days to help us get ready for this celebration, and the celebration of Virginia Pride on Saturday, September 28, at Kanawha Plaza, in Richmond.]

Rainbow flag 8 colors 1978Violet. The color at the other end of the original rainbow flag from hot pink is violet, and according to Gilbert Baker, it signifies spirit. Poet Judy Grahn opens her exploration of “gay cultural history,” Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds, this way (the first chapter is entitled, “Sashay Down the Lavender Trail”). . .

‘Our color is purple, or lavender,’ my first lover affirmed, intensely whispering to my avid and puzzled young ears the forbidden litany of who we were or might be. ‘No one knows why this is, it just is,’ handsome Vonnie said, her lips against me like the vibrant breasts of birds . . . .

Another Mother TongueI once wrote a poem–it probably sits in a notebook somewhere–whose first line was “The purple pansies are lovely this year.” I think I borrowed the opening from poet May Sarton. I meant it as an affirmation of being a “pansy,” reclaiming what had at one time was, and perhaps today among some still is, a derogatory term for being a gay man.

purple panxyBut it was really about my Aunt Grace, whom I suspect was a lesbian–at least she was a spinster, that description we used to use for women who lived alone and with other women (May Sarton was probably called a spinster more than once). Auntie, as we called her, taught me about purple pansies, lavender scent, and spring violets. Again, my absorption in this knowledge should have clued my family into understanding my same-gender-loving ways (and me, too).

Some say this purple-centeredness comes from a mixture of female red and male blue (of course, this connection was in earlier times reversed, female was blue and male, red or pink),  Some point to ancient times, before male-dominated history, when women carried the spiritual life of the community. I see an echo of this in the story in Acts 16 where Paul encounters Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth (she worshiped at the river with some other women–it has long seemed to me possible, if not likely, that she was a lover of women). She certainly was an independent woman, inviting Paul back to her house and leading the women to accept Christianity.  Of course, purple is often associated with royalty, and there often were gender-bending and “different” people in royal courts–eunuchs and jesters, for example.

Violet color rangeBut why did Baker choose violet, why not purple? It may be, as Wikipedia tells us, that “From the point of view of optics, violet is a real color: it occupies its own place at the end of the visible spectrum, and was one of the seven spectral colors of the spectrum first described by Isaac Newton in 1672.”  The difference between violet and purple is that violet appears in the visible light spectrum, or rainbow, whereas purple is simply a mix of red and blue. Violet has the highest vibration in the visible spectrum. So violet is not a pale imitation of purple.

I am sure Baker knew this, as an artist. So, he picked violet, even though we may think of purple as the stronger shade. That feels so very “gay” to me, another example of the sort of “secret” knowledge that LGBT people have from living outside the normal social realms.  The artist, relying on scientific knowledge as well as historical associations, picked what appears to be the softer color to the rest of the world even though it has more strength in its essence.  The resilience, and even survival, of LGBT folks, like those in other marginalized groups, often depends on such knowledge (at least among some who can carry forward the group identity and traditions).

rainbow flag in front of the Supreme Court June 25 2013
Waving the rainbow flag in front of the US Supreme Court

The replacement of violet by purple as the rainbow flag evolved may be seen as a sign of the “normalizing” of LGBT experience. Some people complain about this–I think of people who wish there was not so much emphasis on marriage equality, some of whom reject the insistence that marriage be limited to couples only. They don’t want “us” to become so blended into “het” culture that our special history and ways are lost. I understand this–and even hold it in tension with my desire and work for political and religious liberation– although I am not in agreement with those who claim LGBT people are a separate people. I am not a separatist.

VioletsAccording to various interpreters, purple stimulates the imagination and inspires high ideals. It is an introspective color, allowing us to get in touch with our deeper thoughts. It carries the energy and strength of red with the spirituality and integrity of blue. This is the union of body and soul creating a balance between our physical and our spiritual energies. I am beginning to see this even more in violet (and lavender, and what is often called “lilac” on paint chips).

When I am an old Woman I shall Wear purpleI mentioned in an earlier post, in this series about the rainbow, the book, When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple.  It is a glorious evocation of claiming all the parts of being a woman that society mutes, ignores, and belittles. I celebrate that. But for me, as I am moving into the second half of my life, about to turn 67, as an older man, I shall (begin to) wear violet.