Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Plants [II, 40]

From time immemorial human beings have distinguished plants that are useful--for food, medicine, or ornamental purposes--from those that are noxious, as toxic mushrooms and poison ivy. Although homosexuals are regarded as dangerous, it seems that no noxious plants have ever been utilized to symbolize them. Perhaps this would attribute too much power to a disparaged minority. Matters are otherwise with the useful plants.

Whether still attached to the soil or severed from it through plucking or harvesting, plants connote defenselessness, together with the capacity to serve those who avail themselves of them. Edible plants may be regarded as the ultimate symbol of passivity and sexual availability, as seen in tomato, a now-dated US heterosexual expression for a woman as a sex object. Tomatoes are red, soft, and easily ingested, whether eaten raw or cooked.

In the same-sex realm several edible plants have come to the fore, as Spanish apio, celery, and coliflor, cauliflower. Maize flour is used for making tortillas in Mexico; hence tortillera, a lesbian. In Italian finocchio, fennel, is the most common current term for a gay man.

In American English the word fruit enjoys wide currency. Briefly, in the 1930s, bananas was used for a gay man perceived as loopy. A staple of Asian cuisine figures in rice queen, one of a number of food terms used for ethnic preferences (e.g., taco queen) In Britain a potato queen is attracted to Irish men; a tandoori queen to South Asians. A spag-fag (from spaghetti) goes for Italians.

The term faggot, common in American English, ultimately derives from plants (sticks of wood). In their natural state faggots are not edible. However, in Britain, where the American meaning of the term has until recently been little known, a faggot is a food item consisting of pork viscera, chopped, seasoned with herbs, shaped into a ball or stick, and fried or baked.

Some individuals are reputed to use vegetables as masturbation aids. The insertor chooses, say, an eggplant or a yam, making an appropriate indentation. Such acts are neither homosexual nor heterosexual, but (possibly) phytosexual.

When all is said and done, though, it is flowers that have proved most apt in this family of tropes. During classical antiquity the theme of picking flowers stood for enjoyment of life’s pleasures, which must be gathered before they fade: the carpe diem motif. For many cultures the budding of plant life in spring represents nature’s perennial, though transitory self-renewal. Ancient pederasts wrote poignantly of the anthos, or bloom, of the adolescent sex object, destined to fade all too soon.

The idea that flowers have specific meanings, that there is a “language of flowers,” is more recent. This concept has been traced to eighteenth-century Ottoman practice, when flowers provided a secret code for love messages in the harem. The concept of the selam, a flower code able to express a range of meanings, spread to Western Europe, so that by 1820 the French poet Victor Hugo spoke of “sweet messages whereby love speaks with flowers.” In 1884 Kate Greenaway summed up Victorian lore on the subject in her book The Language of Flowers. One dialect she omitted was the homosexual one, which was then known to a very small group.

In 1894 Robert Hichens’ novel, The Green Carnation, popularized the dyed flower as the distinguishing mark of the aesthete, though the Oscar Wilde scandals in the following year led quickly to the abandonment of that popular badge. Other writers of the period created a kind of personal flower symbolism. In 1895 the homosexual aesthete and sexologist Marc-André Raffalovitch published a volume of poems entitled Tuberose and Meadowsweet. Inspired by Walt Whitman a group of late nineteenth-century British poets styled themselves the Calamites, from the calamus plant. In 1911 the Uranian poet John Gambril Nicholson published a volume of pederastic poems called Ladslove.

Flowers figured prominently in the interior-decoration schemes of the Arts and Crafts movement, and they were central to the fin-de-siècle imagery of the Art Nouveau in architecture and the minor arts. In fact Art Nouveau floral designs came under attack as dangerously erotic, though no one could adequately articulate this objection. More recently some have detected lesbian content in the flower paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, though the artist herself denied this assocation.

The association of pansies with male homosexuals is documented in America as early as 1903. Dressing up in an overelegant fashion may be termed pansying up, while an effeminate boy may be called pansified. Robert Scully’s A Scarlet Pansy, a witty novel of gay life of the era, appeared in 1933. Other flowers that have been associated with male homosexuals are lilies and daffodils. The use of violets as a gift between women in Edouard Bourdet’s play “The Captive,” a major event of the 1926 Broadway season, engendered an association of this flower with lesbianism that lasted several decades.

The slang term for the act of several persons having sexual intercourse with each other simultaneously is a daisy chain. While such a gathering might be heterosexual, the usual interpretation is that it is a gay orgy, with a queue of partners each penetrating the next anally (except for the foremost man).

In continental Europe the color pink-—rosa or rose—is associated with homosexuality. These words derive from the beautiful flower, the rose, which has been erotically charged at least since the time of the thirteenth-century romance, Le Roman de la Rose. Traditional Japanese culture associated the chrysanthemum with the anus, so that a “chrysanthemum tryst” could symbolize a gay anal encounter.

In recent American usage wallflower refers to a usually younger individual, who is gay and readily perceived as such by others. Yet because of their naivety and inexperience such persons remain "unaware" or have not yet accepted thier orientation in their own mind.

The reasons for the popularity of floral symbolism are various. Botanically, flowers have both male and female organs of reproduction. During the early nineteenth century the study of this phenomenon led to the creation of the term bisexuality, though it is doubtful whether this recognition had much direct impact on the popular imagination. Flowers assume complex shapes and colors as a means of passive sexual attraction, since must lure insects that will bear their pollen to their floral partners. Then too, they often have a scent, something to which homosexuals are allegedly addicted.

In Greek mythology the death of young heroes could give rise to flowers and other plants, ostensibly springing from their blood. Especially touching is the story of the lovers Calamus and Carpus. When the latter drowned accidentally, Calamus, inconsolable in his grief, found solace in being changed to a reed. It was this plant, the calamus, which inspired a series of poems by Walt Whitman on same-sex love. Hyacinth, the lover of Apollo, was killed in a discus-throwing accident. The beautiful Narcissus, having spurned the love of a nymph, was caused by the goddess Aphrodite to feel unquenchable love for himself. At length he gained relief by being turned into the flower that bears his name.

In our society flowers, because of their delicacy and beauty, are most commonly given by a man to a woman. Flower names, such as Blossom, Camille, Daisy, Lily, and Petunia, are reserved for women—-though at one time they were assumed by a few gay men as “camp names.” The adjective florid means ornate and excessive; it can also describe the advanced stage of a disease. Finally, flowers can be raised in hothouses to assume striking, even bizarre shapes. These artificial creations represent the triumph of culture over nature, of artifice in short--a principle that also serves to buttress our society’s stereotype of the homosexual as unnatural.



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