The flamboyance of wildflowers

My Pansy Craze Expedition commemorated an important era of queer culture before it was trampled like a super bloom.

Confetti Westerns is a serial column by Miles W. Griffis that explores the queer natural and cultural histories of the American Southwest.

In many major U.S. and European cities in the 1930s, a surge of queer underground parties sprouted like pansies from the soil. Queer and transgender performers sang proud songs about waving buttercups and daisies. The revelry attracted thousands, but after only a few years, homophobia and Nazism trampled this short-lived superbloom, which historians call “The Pansy Craze.”


When I was growing up near conservative Colorado Springs, Colorado, my classmates called me a “pansy” so often that I began to embrace the wild pansies in my backyard as part of my identity. I didn’t see the bright yellow-and-purple flower as weak; it could bench-press heavy mats of ponderosa pine needles. Derogatory terms like “daisy,” “evening botanist” and “lavender boy” have been used to demean effeminate men for over a century, but queer people have never shied away from horticultural association. From the feminine desire symbolized by Sappho’s violets to Oscar Wilde’s green carnations, worn on the lapels of gay men, we have often reclaimed, celebrated or spoken through flowers.

During the massive blooms of 2017, I set out on what I called “The Pansy Craze Expedition,” backpacking, biking and driving across the Colorado and Mojave deserts in search of flowers. Perhaps it was my own way of processing the violence against queer and trans Americans that intensified in 2016, culminating in today’s frenzy of transphobic legislation. Now, I view my expedition as an ongoing celebration of flamboyance. It’s also a protest against our worsening drought of equal rights.

“inland echo.” Oil on canvas, 2023.

This winter’s record-breaking precipitation has animated blooms as dramatic as drag shows. Their flamboyance of color follows a ferocity of gray, when atmospheric rivers hundreds of miles wide gathered moisture from tributaries over the Pacific and collided with the West Coast, shrouding the mountains in snow.

I continued my Pansy Craze Expedition this year with my boyfriend on a cold afternoon in March, returning to the Chumash’s Tšɨłkukunɨtš, “place of rabbits,” also known as Carrizo Plain National Monument. ɨłkukunɨ at peak bloom resembles a tie-dyed tapestry of yellow, purple and orange pulled tightly across its plain and scrunched in its ring of mountains. The swaths of flowers flicker in the sunlight like a hummingbird’s iridescent gorget.

We walked a narrow road up the Temblor Range and were surrounded by millions of hillside daisies. I call their electric gathering The Yellow. On all fours, I counted a daisy’s disc florets, full of male and female sex organs, thinking of writer Ellen Meloy’s term “botanical eroticism.” I felt like I was freefalling through an endless loop of daisies, the florets and yellow carpets recursively appearing within themselves.

The magical realism portal was opening and closing at the same time.

Farther up the hill, we entered The Purple, composed primarily of lacy phacelia. They emitted an ambrosial, gender-neutral perfume that drifted through the air like painted lady butterflies. The phacelia’s deep purple hue on shapely hills often reminds me of the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose phallic flowers were as masculine as the leather daddies who posed for him in subterranean sex clubs.

Mapplethorpe’s anemones, irises and other floral portraits projected into my mind within that funnel of phacelia. Flashes of leather thongs resembled the San Andreas Fault at the base of the Temblors and the blue-eyed grass the Chumash named “sh’ichki-‘i’waqaq,” or “frog’s g-string.” This year’s bloom was just beginning, but, like cut flowers, the displays would quickly wilt. The magical realism portal was opening and closing at the same time.

I told my partner about a memory that the author Jack Fritscher, Mapplethorpe’s former partner, shared with me: When he took Mapplethorpe to see the calla lilies in his Sonoma garden, they towered over the artist like redwoods. “It was a real Alice in Wonderland moment,” Fritscher said. Mapplethorpe died in 1989 of AIDS-related complications; Fritscher compared the effects of the disease to a time-lapse sequence, one that brought to mind a flower’s fleeting life. “An aging process that should take 50 years takes five months,” he said. “Robert worked fast because (the flower’s) beauty was brief.”

Our eyes were calmed by the all-consuming color as we watched whitecaps form on the ephemeral Soda Lake thousands of feet below us. A western meadowlark erupted from the swath of daisies with a thworp, her bright yellow chest making it look as if the flowers were suddenly turning into birds. She whistled as she traced a ridgeline toward the alkaline lake, and I thought about how quickly this emblazoned landscape will be scorched brown by the recurrent cruelty of its environment.

But today is cool and colorful and daisy pollen carried by gusts of wind cling to my legs. I gather it and smear The Yellow on my face like eyeshadow.

Miles W. Griffis is a writer and journalist based in Southern California. He writes “Confetti Westerns,” a serial column that explores the queer natural and cultural histories of the American Southwest.

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