The pansies and the birds will speak for us

About Paul Harfleet, who’s one tough pansy. Who I learned about from Richard Vytniorgu on Twitter (posted on 5/25):


Re-reading Paul Harfleet’s beautiful picture book on bullying at school due to a boy’s gender nonconformity, by @ThePansyProject. “His modest plan to raise awareness, increased the prospect of future fairness.”

Then about The Pansy Project. And about Harfleet’s ornithological apparel project Birds Can Fly. Earnest, passionate, humane, fiercely resolute, and delightful, all at once. But first, two p.r. photos for Birds Can Fly, showing Harfleet’s admirable presentation of himself as a proudly tough but whimsical pansy —  ‘(offensive) an effeminate or gay man’  (as NOAD has it).

(#2) Harfleet, queer as a coot (his makeup is fabulous), in his Queer As A Coot t-shirt (and a remarkable leather jacket), in costume as a coot

(#3) Harfleet in what’s officially billed as a Red Junglefowl t-shirt (but is obviously a cock t-shirt), displaying his package (flagrant pansies have cocks and balls, just like us less showy pansies), and also displaying his Tough Queen face (worthy of Emory in Boys in the Band, but with lots of eyeliner to better project his piercing blue eyes)

I try to imagine what the little bullied boy looked like. Not a lot like this, I suspect. So now marvel at what he’s made of himself.

First, the pansies. On this blog, in my 8/28/10 posting “Pansies”, with the offensive slang label (now defiantly embraced by some of us pansies), the face-like flowers that make the plants so symbolic, and artistic renderings of the flowers.

Plants in the genus Viola commonly called “pansies” have figured in literature and art for a long time, but the flowers that Harfleet features — in the logo for his Pansy Project:


resembling this purple beauty from the Wikipedia website:

(#5) (Gay-purple) pansy displaying the characteristics of the modern hybrids: the two upper overlapping petals, the two side petals, and the single bottom petal; plus the well-defined “blotch” or “eye” in the middle of the flower (from the Wikipedia entry)

— are distinctly modern. From Wikipedia:

The garden pansy (Viola × wittrockiana) is a type of large-flowered hybrid plant cultivated as a garden flower. It is derived by hybridization from several species in the section Melanium (“the pansies”) of the genus Viola, particularly Viola tricolor, a wildflower of Europe and western Asia known as heartsease.

… Modern horticulturalists tend to use the term “pansy” for those multi-coloured large-flowered hybrids [first bred in the early 19th century] that are grown for bedding purposes every year, while “viola” is usually reserved for smaller, more delicate annuals and perennials.

The Pansy Project. From the project’s website:

Paul Harfleet plants pansies at the site of homophobic abuse; he finds the nearest source of soil to where the incident occurred and generally without civic permission plants one unmarked pansy. The flower is then documented in its location, the image is entitled after the abuse. Titles like “Let’s kill the Bati-man!” and “Fucking Faggot!” reveal a frequent reality of LGBTQ+ experience, which often goes unreported to authorities. This simple action operates as a gesture of quiet resistance; some pansies flourish, others wilt in urban hedgerows.

The artist began by planting pansies to mark his own experience of homophobia on the streets of Manchester UK, he now plants pansies for others both on an individual basis and as part of various festivals and events. Increasingly his developing practice involves film making, at each location he visits, the artist makes a short film revealing the historical, cultural and personal histories of the plantings, these films have been shown at various institutions and festivals

Pansy Boy, the book.

Pansy Boy is a picture book written and illustrated by artist Paul Harfleet. Rhyming couplets tell the story of a boy who revels in the joys of summer, exploring the flora and fauna around him. Reluctantly he returns to school where he is subjected to incessant bullying. Intelligent and bright, he is driven to create a plan to reclaim his school.  Pansy Boy is a creative extension of Paul Harfleet’s ongoing artwork, The Pansy Project. The artist has been planting pansies at the site of homophobia since 2005 and it is this revelation that ends Pansy Boy, bringing the concept into the real world.

The author wrote Pansy Boy for his seven year old self. Designed to offer children of all ages an alternative version of childhood that transcends stereotype. Equally the book is an educational device that celebrates art, ornithology, horticulture and is a tool to help discuss playground bullying and burgeoning sexual identity.

And Birds Can Fly.

Birds Can Fly by Paul Harfleet uses illustration and design to educate and inspire bird lovers and promote creativity, kindness and acceptance. His mission is to adorn environmentally friendly garments with beautiful, thoughtful designs that celebrate the wonder of ornithology and the natural world.

The Emory echo. One tough queen. Compare #3 with Cliff Gorman as Emory in the 1970 movie of The Boys in the Band:


The Randy Rainbow contrast. An alternative pansy presentation of self: one ditzy queen, as in Randy Rainbow’s musical commentaries on the news:


Both Emory and Randy are (as you see them here) characters, fictional creations, though Randy Rainbow is the actual name of the man who plays the character in #7.

Both characters are dead serious, with moral agendas behind the apparent superficiality of the personas they project (of eye-rolling, disdainful self-involvement for Emory; of wide-eyed, scatter-brained silliness for Randy). This they share with Harfleet, whose ornamental, often sexualized presentations of himself can’t conceal the almost painful urgency of his aim to rescue the children, honor the despised, and celebrate nature’s gifts of flowers and birds.


4 Responses to “The pansies and the birds will speak for us”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    My father often called me a pansy back around 1950, referring to my abysmal lack of athletic ability rather than to my demeanor.

    Pansies are one of the few flowers that blooms through most of the winter in our moderate climate here in east Tennessee.

    I’ve often wondered if anybody understands the color genetics of our domestic pansies. It must be ungodly complex.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    Viola tricolor, a wildflower of Europe and western Asia known as heartsease.

    Or, at least in these parts (Northeastern US) as “johnny jump-up”, an annual that re-seeds prolifically.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: