Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Color Symbolism [II, 11]

A superb enhancement of our daily life, color has attracted attention from various points of view. These include study of the scientific properties that produce color effects in the human eye and brain, the evolutionary value of color (that is, why do we see in color and not in black and white?), and the use of colors by artists.

There is also such a thing as color symbolism. It seems that humanity acknowledges no universally valid set of responses to colors. Instead color symbolism varies according to culture. For one culture a particular color will elicit one emotion, for another a different color will serve the same function. For example, in Western civilization black connotes mourning, while in some Asian societies white performs this function. In our own society today some men will avoid wearing lavender or pink because of their fruity associations. In Japan Yukio Mishima evoked this general idea in his homosexual novel entitled Forbidden Colors.

Yet which are the “forbidden colors”? The identification of the colors that are so marked has varied widely. Indeed, over the centuries so many hues have been linked to homosexuality that any enumeration must be selective. The following text presents a few salient examples.

According to Latin poet Martial (writing ca. 100 C.E.), several colors were associated with effeminacy in imperial Rome. He describes an exquisite “who thinks that men in scarlet are not men at all, and styles violet mantles the vesture of women; although he praises native colors and always affects somber hues, grass-green (galbinus) are his morals” (I, 96). While scarlet and violet were the traditional colors of effeminacy, an off-green seems to have been the new “in” color of Martial’s day. The censorious poet even uses the galbinus shade as shorthand to designate the lifestyle as a whole.

In late Victorian England, Robert Hitchens’ novel The Green Carnation (1894) helped to revive the association. Oscar Wilde and members of his set did in fact sport such a buttonhole at evening events. In 1929 an American physician, John F. Meagher stated flatly of homosexuals: “Their favorite color is green.” The Philadelphia lesbian activist Barbara Gittings (b. 1932) has recounted how as a young woman she wore green in order to signal her orientation to others in the know. This association even gave rise to an urban legend, for in the 1950s American high school students avoided donning green garments on Thursday, reputed to be “National Fairy Day.” In Italy in 1960 there was a scandal about the balletti verdi, green dances, invitation-only events in which well-heeled older men would gather to see go-go boys cavort. These gatherings were so called, it is claimed, because the boys were “green” (that is to say, young and desirable). Today a green queen is a UK term for a gay man concerned with environmental issues.

Another color associated with the decadent 1890s was yellow, because of the London periodical that was almost synonymous with the aesthetic sophistication of that era. Perhaps there was some recollection of the connotations of the hue in the Middle Ages, when it symbolized heretics, sinners, and deviants of various kinds.

A current Russian term for a gay man is golubchik, from goluboy, light blue, evidently through association with the blue blood of the aristocracy of tsarist days. Some speakers will avoid this compromised adjective, sticking to siniy, meaning “dark blue.” Cécile Beurdeley’s major book on gay art is called L’amour bleu (1978). From the early years of the twentieth century, pornographic films were called blue movies, applying to both heterosexual and the less common homosexual specimens. A more favorable connotation emerges from the Spanish gay sobriquet for Prince Charming or Mr. Right: el Príncipe Azul, the Blue Prince.

Sexually, probably the most enduringly significant sector of the color wheel is the red to purple range--as Martial duly implied almost two thousand years ago. His view found support in the Bible, for based on a passage in Isaiah (1:38) scarlet came to rank as a kind of general descriptor for sexual sins, a notion reinforced by the Apocalyptic “scarlet woman,” the Great Whore of Babylon. With great poignancy Nathanael Hawthorne evoked the link in his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter). According to Havelock Ellis, one could not safely walk down the streets of late nineteenth-century New York City wearing a red tie without being accosted, since this garment was then the universal sign of the male prostitute. In gay slang this fashion was referred to as “wearing one’s badge.” In this period “red-light districts" developed in a number of cities, where the availability of bordellos (usually heterosexual only) was signaled by such street lights.

During the Nazi holocaust homosexual inmates of the camps were made to wear the pink triangle (rosa Winkel). Beginning in the 1970s gay activists rescued the symbol, turning it from a symbol of shame into a marker of pride and defiance. In Europe the words rosa and rose are widely used. The popularity of this shade seems to reflect the contrast boys/blue vs. girls/pink, suggesting gender reversal when pink is applied to males.

In American culture the word lavender—a blend of red and blue—almost speaks for itself. The expression “lavender lover” has long been current. In 1940 radio networks saw fit to ban a song called “Lavender Cowboy.” In 1941 Gershon Legman sketched a fanciful sequence of seven stages of homosexuality: “from ga-ga to the deeper tones of lavender.” This shade has a secondary association with scented powder and aromatic flowers, producing a subliminal effect of synaesthesia—parallel sensory perception. Words, it seems, can take on this hue. In America and Britain during the 1990s there was an upsurge in interest in what was termed lavender linguistics, the special usages of gay men and lesbians. In 1993 Professor William Leap founded the annual Conferences of Lavender Languages and Linguistics. Perhaps this field of research represents an instance of detoxification—adopting a term of disparagement and turning it around so that it becomes positive.

Beginning with the Romans it has been customary to refer to florid passages of writing as “purple passages.” Purple is the imperial color, and the emperor is the superlative of queen. Reflecting at the end of his life on his many bittersweet encounters with male prostitutes, Oscar Wilde situated them typically towards the end of day at the violet hour, with the off-shade providing temporary relief from the grayness of everyday existence. In his time gay Vienna was commonly termed das lila Wien, mauve Vienna. In 1980 a circle of seven American gay writers took the collective name of Violet Quill.

In trendy gay circles a black party is one in which the guests all wear dark leather. At a white party the attendees all wear white garments, to be sure, but there is an additional association: cocaine will be widely consumed.

During the 1970s some segments of gay-male society utilized a back-pocket handkerchief code with colors connoting one’s specific preference. For example, yellow signaled an interest in water sports or urolagnia, black stood for S/M, and brown for scatophilia. Often repeated in writings and charts, these observances never seem to have been very widespread.

Colors can be employed in combination—-symphonically, as it were. The Rainbow Flag has become accepted internationally as a gay and lesbian emblem. Designed by the artist Gilbert Baker, it was first flown in the 1978 San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade. Originally the flag had eight horizontal stripes: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit. For practical reasons the stripes were subsequently reduced to six. The pink and turquoise stripes disappeared, and blue replaced indigo.

From San Francisco the flag spread to other US cities and abroad. Gay businesses and households ubiquitously display the Rainbow Flag during June, Gay Pride Month. Not surprisingly the design has been adapted for use in such saleable items as jewelry, candles, and tee shirts. The decoration of the Montreal subway station Beaudry, in the gay quarter, incorporates a permanent version of the design.

While Baker may have invented his design independently, the idea is not new. In 1925 the International Cooperative Movement adopted a rainbow flag as its emblem. The seven horizontal stripes are red, orange, yellow, green, sky blue, dark blue, and violet. According to Charles Gide, the flag’s inventor, collectively the hues represent unity in diversity, as well as the power of light, enlightenment, and progress. In Peru this design of the rainbow flag has been adopted as a symbol of the Department of Cusco, and of the Inca people generally.

As we have seen the color preferences ascribed to gay people are various. Still, two features, not altogether compatible, stand out. First, there is a fondness for mixed hues and off-shades, generally chosen from the red-to-blue gamut. In keeping with the notion of the “third sex” as an intermediate entity, these hues may be associated with a particular time of day, the transition between daylight and night that is the special province of “twilight men.” Second, following the stereotype of homosexuals as “screaming” self-dramatizers who flaunt their abnormality, they are held to be irresistibly drawn to such bright colors as red and purple. One meaning of the word gay is “brilliant in color” (“Don we now our gay apparel.”) To be sure, such purported traits reveal the degree of prejudice that is involved, but over the years many gay people have acquiesced in adopting such colors, in part as a signal that can be easily understood by their peers.


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