When it comes to the LBGTQ+ movement, we all recognize the rainbow flag as the most universal symbol, used to represent the diversity and beauty of LBGTQ+ people. However, lavender is also strongly associated with LGBTQ+ people, and a lot of individuals are curious about why and what the symbolism here is – as well as why some people choose to get lavender tattoos.
Lavender, and indeed other shades of purple, has been heavily associated with gay and lesbian fashion trends. Back in the 1920s, gay men were sometimes referred to as “lavender boys,” and the lesbian movement in the US was termed “the lavender menace” by Betty Friedan.
Lavender has symbolized many things related to the LGBTQ+ community, including desire, feminism, and later empowerment. Many turns of phrase relating to lavender have been used to describe the LGBTQ+ community in both positive and negative ways, and today, it’s seen as a mark of empowerment and pride.
What Does The Lavender Tattoo Mean?
Many members of the LGBTQ+ community choose to get lavender tattooed on themselves because of the connection this beautiful plant has with their group. Nobody is quite sure whether the term was originally meant to refer to the color or just the herb, but either way, there’s no question that it is seen as inextricably linked with this community.
Many LGBTQ+ events use lavender interchangeably with the rainbow as a symbolization of pride, so in its simplest form, a lavender tattoo might be used as a mark of pride, a clear statement that the person celebrates who they are and feels good about it.
People might get a sprig of lavender tattooed on themselves, or another design done in this color. In some cases, it’s argued that the color is used because it incorporates both the pink hue that is commonly associated with feminine and the blue hue that is commonly associated with masculine, bringing these two colors together to create an overriding vibe of unification.
It’s also said that the stripe in the middle (the lavender’s stem) represents both genders coming together, and that lavender can represent bisexuality. There are many associations tied with lavender, but if you’re thinking of getting a lavender tattoo or you know somebody who has one, these are a few possible connections.
Some individuals may choose lavender as a tattoo specifically because of its history with the LGBTQ+ community, so to fully understand the meaning behind this kind of tattoo, we need to look at some of the history it has had, and how it has interacted with this colorful world.
Where Did The Concept Of Lavender Come From?
There are quite a few different theories, but the use of this symbolism is perhaps most famously connected with Abraham Lincoln. In 1926, Carl Sandburg wrote that, “A streak of lavender ran through him,” with the implication being that Lincoln may have had a queer side – an idea other historians have explored, although it remains disputed.
1920s literature has various other uses of this term to mean male-male love, although it is sometimes difficult for us to be sure exactly what is being referred to, because of the negative approach society had for this kind of love at the time. Many references are deliberately obscure and subtle. Some historians argue that the writing about Lincoln is only intended to suggest he was gentle.
Certainly, though, the concept of lavender as a symbol for the gay community has continued, and there are many other uses of it, both positive and negative. For example, in 1969, Betty Friedan, an American writer and feminist, called lesbians “the lavender menace” when trying to distance her feminist movement from any association with them because of public negativity.
In response, various lesbian activists wore t-shirts with the phrase “Lesbian Menace” to an important women’s event, and managed to gain the support of the crowd. This was a significant moment for the LGBTQ+ movement, and “lavender menace” remains an important phrase. Some people who get a lavender tattoo may choose to do so specifically because of this event.
The term “lavender boys” has also been seen, starting around the 1920s, and in this case, it was used to refer to gay men in a derogatory way, implying a lack of masculinity. We should also remember “The Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, when President Eisenhower created a witch-hunt intended to remove homosexual men and women from working for the federal government. This caused around 5,000 federal employees to lose their jobs.
Again, some people with lavender tattoos choose to remember this specific historic event and the victims who suffered as a result of this widespread and state-initiated discrimination.
When Did Lavender Become A Positive Symbol?
There’s no exact date when lavender took on more positive associations; like many LGBTQ+ symbols, it has been seen in both positive and negative lights by different people and at different periods throughout history. Even today, you may hear it used in a negative context, although it is more commonly positive now.
However, around 1969, there was a significant shift, and people started to associate the color with empowerment. Shortly after the Stonewall riots, a “gay power” march from Washington Square Park to New York’s Stonewall Inn saw the use of lavender sashes and lavender armbands.
From this point on, lavender started to be more heavily associated with pride, self-actualization, and joy in the movement. You will certainly still see the term used in negative ways, but it’s most frequently a positive now, and it’s important for us to remember this. Those who choose to get a lavender tattoo may do so because they want to make a strong statement about who they are and reclaim this beautiful flower and color for their movement.
Where Else Is Lavender Used?
The use of lavender has appeared in many different contexts from this point onward, and it’s a well-recognized symbol to the whole community and many outside it.
In 1980, New York City saw the development of a group of seven gay male writers, who met up and wrote under the name “The Lavender Quill.” The term “Lavender Marriage” also became popularized, meaning a marriage of convenience between a man and a woman, intended to cover up the true sexuality of one or both partners.
There are also events such as Lavender Graduations and a Lavender Law Conference at the LGBT Bar Association. These are further ways in which we can see how the term lavender is threaded throughout the LGBTQ+ community and how it has meant many different things, but almost always shared an association with gayness.
What About Violets?
It’s hard to comprehensively address the lavender trend without at least making a short note about violets and the importance of their symbolism in the LGBTQ+ world. It’s very likely that violets led to the association with lavender, or at least increased the strength of this association in the minds of everyday people.
Violets contributed to the connection between purple and passion, as well as purple and hidden love. They were famously used by the poet Sappho, who described her liking for women in “violet tiaras,” all the way back in the 7th century B.C.
That text remained influential for centuries, and even as far forward as the 1920s, women tended to send each other violets to symbolize attraction in a world where they could not openly express their feelings. The receipt of a violet by one woman from another helped them to identify each other in safer, more subtle ways.
The connotation between purple and homosexuality grew. Although purple was a common choice for clothing from the early 19th century to the late 19th century (because purple dye became more readily available), toward the end of the 19th century, it started to become associated with homosexuality. Men began to eschew lavender garments for fear of being seen as gay.
Other forms of purple are also associated with the LGBTQ+ movement, although lavender generally has the strongest connotations. Famous playwright Oscar Wilde sometimes talked about spending “purple hours” with rent boys, and many other gay American men were characterized as having a “streak of lavender.”
Pansies, very often purple, are also associated with LGBTQ+ individuals thanks to the colorful clothing worn by drag performers in the 1920s and 1930s. It quickly became a derogatory term, but again it creates links between the color purple and the LGBTQ+ world. There was a “Pansy Craze” with amazing underground drag balls being held in both New York and LA in the early 1900s.
There was also The Pansy Project, created by Paul Harfleet, who encouraged people to place a single pansy anywhere that transphobic or homophobic events had taken place. These flowers were intended to promote thoughtfulness and kindness toward each other.
Lilacs similarly have associations with the LGBTQ+ community, so there very much seems to be a connection between purple flowers and these individuals, although lavender remains the most popular and commonly associated option.
So Why Purple?
It’s hard to say exactly why the color purple has been associated with homosexual love throughout the centuries, although there are many theories, including the blending of blue and pink mentioned above, which can represent gays, lesbians, and bisexuals all together, and suggests a harmonious overlap of the different sexes to create something beautiful.
Some people believe it’s because purple is an expensive and rare color in man made items, but it appears commonly in nature, with many purple flowers displaying their colors proudly. Purple is very often associated with the “other,” that which is different from the norm and set apart, but still frequently viewed as desirable.
It’s likely that many different symbols have fed into the meaning of purple throughout the years, with no single one being the obvious factor. The use of purple flowers by many influential LGBTQ+ writers has undoubtedly had an impact, and the use of the term in derogatory ways has also helped to eventually popularize it as people have fought to reclaim it.
No matter what your associations are with purple, there’s little doubt that many lavender tattoos are used in the LGBTQ+ community as symbols of pride and love. Individuals who get these tattoos may be celebrating their gayness and the fact that they belong to such a rich community, or they may be sending secret messages – or something else entirely.
There’s no single meaning to the lavender tattoo; it can carry a multitude of different connotations. However, there is certainly a very strong link with the LGBTQ+ world and the celebration of their diversity and uniqueness. It’s an important symbol that has been used for centuries, and both the color and the herb have important meanings in the community.
Many people choose to get this tattoo as a proclamation of their sexuality and their feelings about it, while others choose to do so because they want to commemorate the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and reclaim this beautiful color for the movement, creating positive associations and demonstrating pride in who they are.