Be vocal. Be visible. Be fierce.

Advice for Pride Month this year, when forces of hatred and fear, wielding harassment and intimidation, seem increasingly arrayed against LGBT+-folk, threatening our celebrations, attacking the symbols of our communities, spreading malicious disinformation about us, and acting to curtail our rights — so that we have to confront these forces publicly and fiercely. An image of resplendent, powerful, ferociously sharp-toothed pride for the occasion, covering the spectrum from intense red to vibrant purple:

(#1) From my 6/27/15 posting “Gay Pride”, with my comment: rather more adult males than you’d expect in a pride of lions — but then these are gay lions, so they bond with pleasure

(Already back then, 8 years ago, the image was clearly memic, distributed from hand to hand from an original source no one knew (or cared about); some creator crafted this remarkable image and paired it with the punning title Gay Pride — a gay pride for Gay Pride — but we’re almost surely never going to be able to identify the source. It came to me again yesterday, through another acquaintance who found it on Facebook.)

From #1 a fortuitous find enabling an associative leap to a famously savage leonine diorama. And then in another associative leap, to feasting with panthers, to big cats in general (especially those of the genus Panthera), and to gay men who are beautiful, powerful, and fierce.

The ferocity of the lion. In #1, ferocity in repose. But then I came upon a lion memorably fierce in action. On a postcard Ann Burlingam sent me from Pittsburgh PA in May 2022, a close-up from the diorama Lion Attacking a Dromedary (which has been in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh since 1898). The close-up shows only the savaging lion’s head, the camel’s rider, and the camel’s head. The full photo, in which the background of the diorama is darkened so as to focus on the scene, and not on the diorama’s setting in the museum:

(#2) This distressing diorama — note the agony and fear in the camel’s eyes — is “a visitor favorite”, according to the postcard notes

From Wikipedia:

Lion Attacking a Dromedary [French: Lion Attaquant un Dromadaire] is an orientalist diorama by French taxidermist Édouard Verreaux in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It depicts a fictional scene of a man on a dromedary struggling to fend off an attack by a Barbary lion.

The diorama was created for the Paris Exposition of 1867 and subsequently shown at the American Museum of Natural History, Centennial Exposition, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Lion Attacking a Dromedary was purchased by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 1898 and has been in the museum’s collection ever since. … In 2020, the diorama was removed from view in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the lack of accuracy. … later that year …, Lion Attacking a Dromedary was returned to public view with additional context.

Since the 1890s, Lion Attacking a Dromedary has been criticized for its sensationalism and lack of accuracy. The male figure, referred to as an Arab by Verreaux, is a fictional pastiche of five North African cultures. Despite the criticism, the diorama is considered to be Verreaux’s masterpiece.

Now, if the diorama had appeared in an art museum, presented as an entirely fictional scene, there would probably have been no issue — and I suspect that that’s the way most people approach the thing. But it’s in a natural history museum, and so purports to be an accurate depiction of a cultural moment (as well as animal behavior), and that’s a problem.

Here’s the restored diorama in 2018:

(#3) Now in its museum setting

This big cat feasting on camel steered my mind to other feasting big cats, and then to feasting with big cats, and so to …

feasting with panthers. Oscar Wilde’s coded way of referring to his sexual experiences with young working-class men — attractive, powerfully masculine, possibly dangerous young men. Young big cats.

His phrase, quoted, then has served as a formulaic expression for titles and names. Two notable examples:

— a 1974 tv play: [Amazon’s description of the video] A surrealistic mixture of reality and imagination, “Feasting with Panthers” takes place in the life, mind, memory and vision of Oscar Wilde while imprisoned in England’s Reading Gaol during the late Victorian Era

— the 1968 book Feasting with Panthers. A New Consideration of Some Late Victorian Writers by Rupert Croft-Cooke; the jacket blurb:

The great flowering of decadent art towards the end of the nineteenth century has prompted the author to examine the lives as they affected the work of some writers of the period, men who made a cult out of their own sexual idiosyncrasies, and could boast as Wilde did of his hurried affairs with stable-boys and blackmailers as feasting with panthers. The period is from 1857, the year of Swinburne’s meeting with the Pre-Raphaelites at Oxford, to 1895, the year of Wilde’s trials. The first section of the book deals with Swinburne, a great poet but an impotent masochist obsessed with flagellation. The second revolves round John Addington Symonds, a considerable historian and essayist who applied ‘Greek Ideals’ to his affairs with gondoliers and Swiss peasants. The third is concerned with such figures as Edmund Gosse, Walt Whitman, Edward Fitzgerald, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Walter Pater and Ernest Dowson, and there are a host of people who may not be known except to students of the period – for example, Lord Houghton with his library of pornography; Edward Cracroft Lefroy, the parson who wrote poems to footballers; and John Gray, the beautiful priest, and the opulent Raffalovich who built a church for him.

The lexicon of big cats. Panthers, tigers, and lions, oh my: all big cats in the genus Panthera: beautiful, powerful, fierce — and dangerous. Lexical notes from NOAD:

— nominal big cat: any of the large members of the cat family, including the lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard, clouded leopard, cheetah, and cougar. Panthera and other genera, family Felidae.

— noun panther: a leopard, especially a black one.

— noun leopard: a large, solitary cat that has a yellowish-brown or brown coat with black spots and usually hunts at night, widespread in the forests of Africa and southern Asia. Also called panther. Panthera pardus, family Felidae.

— noun tiger: a very large solitary cat with a yellow-brown coat striped with black, native to the forests of Asia but becoming increasingly rare. Panthera tigris, family Felidae.

— noun liona large tawny-colored cat that lives in prides, found in Africa and northwestern India. The male has a flowing shaggy mane and takes little part in hunting, which is done cooperatively by the females. Panthera leo, family Felidae. [ah, lions are where we came in]

Since PTLs — panthers, tigers, lions — are all in the genus Panthera, it would be natural to give panther an extended sense in which it embraces all members of the genus, especially the PTLs (but also jaguars, snow leopards, and hybrids like the jaglion and the tigon).

And then we have a word that can naturally be extended metaphorically to gay men who are beautiful, powerful, and fierce — like the warrior, protector and defender St. Michael, but gay and without the wings. It’s time to conjure up panthers like the ones in #1. Street-fighting panthers.

For the rest if us, in tough times:

Be vocal. Be visible. Be fierce.

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