Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Homosexuality and the Color Green

Sometimes you come across a reference that keeps popping up, here and there, in unexpected places. And even though it's being referenced, no one is actually talking about it at any length. I came across a 1974 interview with Barbara Gittings, one of the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, in Katz's Gay American History. She mentions that in her search for material on homosexuality after she first realized what she was, "there'd be pop-level material which said "the homosexual's favorite color is green." That upset me, because my favorite color was blue." (pg 421, 1992 edition)
And then elsewhere in the same book, discussing a character from Helen R. Hull's 1923 book The Labyrinth: "Hull goes so far as to emphasize Margaret's green dress, green hat, green coat, green eyes, and green identification card, a color symbolism, no doubt intended as an "in" clue to Margaret's sexual orientation-- green being one of those colors traditionally associated with homosexuality." (pg 539) The footnote here discusses Oscar Wilde's green carnations and a 1933 Broadway play called The Green Bay Tree.

Green? Why green? I kept seeing it: Chauncey's Gay New York mentioned it several times: a man wearing a green suit in NYC during the 1920's could be beaten up or killed. Drag queens wore green dresses at the city's huge drag balls of that era. Cornelius Willemse, an investigator who infiltrated Bowery resorts and set up raids on gay bars, entitled his autobiography Behind the Green Lights-- a reference, also, to the theater, which at the time still used limelights.

Strangers (Graham Robb):
pg 59: “Medical concepts like ‘contrary sexual feeling’ and ‘the intermediate sex’ were the template for tales that could make sense of life in all its details: the shape of one’s hand, the behavior of one’s parents, a predilection for the color green.”
pg 151 (on tokens): “The carnation was a traditional symbol of the anus, and the colors green and red had a long association with homosexuality. Pinkness seems to have acquired consistently homosexual connotations only in the 1900s, but green had been a gay color for centuries. Effeminate men in Ancient Rome were called galbinati because of their fondness for the color green.” (The note here directed me to Martial and two works in French. Helpful, thanks.)
pg 226:“Edward Prime-Stevenson’s character Dayneford, in ‘Out of the Sun’ (1913), has a small library in his villa on Capri, its walls ‘tinted in the significant green’…”

Gay L.A. (Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons):
pg 59: “[Rudolph] Valentino’s style—his clothes, his grooming—were iconographically queer, and they created an absolute panic among homophobes, as a Chicago Tribune column revealed in 1925 when Valentino visited Chicago wearing what the writer sardonically described as “a symphony in green.”"

I went to other sources. They told me variously that green was associated with Venus and Aquarius (Ganymede- surprisingly telling), that a person who wore green on a Thursday during the 1960s was gay, that it was considered unlucky in various British traditions for being a faerie color or associated with the Celtic underworld, that it marks characteristics ranging from love, the "base desires" of man, witchcraft, the Devil and evil, loss of virginity or worldliness (Greensleeves), and prostitution. See this picture, or Chaucer, wherein the Devil wears green, not Prada.

I went to the library and dug up the artbooks. In medieval art, certain people wear green: witches and promiscuous women, Jews, people making fun of Christ on the cross, at least one of the Magi at any given portrayal of the Adoration, and (oddly) the apostle John in more than one portrayal of the Last Supper. The Beloved Disciple he may be, lover of Jesus in a certain distinctive medieval and Renaissance tradition, but as far as I was aware he was not usually portrayed as effeminate.

A friend I enlisted to help me dig for links turned up this version of the Hanky Code. Kelly green: hustler if worn on the left, john if worn on the right.

None of these discoveries are very surprising. Homosexuality has been associated with prostitution for quite some time, even looking at slang. "Gay" was originally attached to promiscuous women at the end of the 19th century. In the 18th century, a "quean" was a prostitute. The colorful phrases "he-strumpet" and "he-whore" were attached to gay men by people who could not imagine the sex practices involved being for fun rather than money. Going centuries earlier, sodomy tended to be lumped in with heresy and witchcraft rather than being a separate consideration-- look up the fate of the Knights Templar.

Why isn't the association with green around anymore? Gay men wear pink now, supposedly. Just watch Jeffrey. I only came close with this page, which claims that prior to WWII, pink was for boys (related to red, a strong manly color) and blue was for girls (suggestive of the Virgin Mary, and supposedly softer and daintier). I believe that part, the poster provides several magazine quotes from that time. But it does not really explain why Germany and unspecified "neighboring countries" switched and began associating pink with girls in order to label homosexuals in the Nazi concentration camps with the pink triangle.

4 comments:

Neddy said...

In Havelock Ellis' 'Psychology of Sex', he writes "The love of green (which is normally a preferred color chiefly by children and especially girls) is frequently observed", in relation to 'gender inverts' - the early 20th century understanding of the queer. And funnily enough, my favourite colour happens to be green. Maybe there's some truth there... hehe

Anonymous said...

wuaw. That makes me really curious - im gay, and an atheist - and i dont know if this is only a danish phenomenon but i seem to remember reading that green was the color of God?
Great blog btw

Kelli said...

I recently found a copy or " Labyrinth " , by Helen R. Hull, in an old box, from an uncle's house when we were cleaning it out. I started to read it, and realized that pages 117 - 132 are repeated, and pages 133 - 148 are missing. i was wondering if this was the only copy like this or is there others? thanks for anyone's help with this.

Kelli said...

I wasn't sure where to post that comment or to whom, so if this is the wrong place, could someone direct me otherwise.thanks again!