“Pansy”

A creative non-fiction essay by Sheila Busteed, Writer and MA Student (UAH).

PANSY. The word has always churned my stomach.

A weak, effeminate, and cowardly man or boy.

A contemptuous term used to refer to a male homosexual.

How could such revolting slang grow out of the name given to a vibrant flower?

Granted, these offensive definitions have only been around for a few generations, I’ve learned. The word once held a deeper meaning. It’s connected to the French word for thought, while older Latin roots lie in the verb meaning to consider or to weigh. These etymological connections are why the pansy flower is a symbol of remembrance. So why is it that, when I hear the word, the first thought that comes to mind is how it’s been used to hurt others? Could the flower itself share characteristics with the connotations now associated with it? I decided to investigate.

In Plaza de San Diego in the Spanish town of Alcalá de Henares, I discovered a public garden filled with pansies of all colours – blue, white, yellow – planted in rows. They first caught my attention two months ago. While surrounding plant life appeared barren or still lay dormant, waiting for winter’s chill to wane, the pansies were flourishing, filling the courtyard with much-needed cheerful hues. A far cry from being weak, these flowers were standing strong against the icy breeze and cloudy skies. As I approached one of the flowerbeds and knelt down to examine the pansies more closely, I noticed that one grouping of blue pansies with vivid yellow eyes were staring up at me, their petals adorned with beads of crystalline water from the recent rains. Something else about the pansies caught my attention. Perhaps it was just my imagination; I couldn’t help but think that, despite the damp and dreary weather, these pansies were smiling. I continued to visit that patch of pansies over the coming weeks in search of further enlightenment. As I gazed into their eyes, the sight of the surrounding blue petals caused my mind to jump to a memory. I recalled the image of a drag queen’s eyeshadow, worn during a performance I saw back in Canada. That man’s makeup job could easily rival that of Mimi in “The Drew Carey Show,” and his costume was more daringly provocative than anything I’d have the guts to wear.

Yet there he was, appearing in public and performing on a stage for all to see. Hardly the act of a coward. Just like the garden pansies: they had not shrivelled under the harsh light nor weakened as aqua de vida evaporated.

These flowers even had the fortitude to withstand abuse. During another visit, I discovered a careless person had flicked a cigarette butt into the flowerbed my pansies called home, without putting a thought to the long-term harm its toxins may inflict. As I came to my friends’ aid and collected that piece of trash for proper disposal, a flashback hit me. I remembered the first time I heard the word used as a way to spew verbal bile at someone. Pat was the only openly gay boy at my high school. “Pat the Fag, Pat the Pansy,” they used to shout at him in the hall. This was the root of my contempt for pansy’s unfortunate linguistic implications. Pat and I had become friends so, naturally, I had defended him. Then one day after class, he asked me to stop. He didn’t want to see me become a target. The bullies’ words didn’t hurt him. He’d withstood far worse in his hometown near Montreal. Now, in the plaza with my pansies, I was moved by their silent strength despite having had a filthy fag flung in their faces.

PANSY. A weak, cowardly flower unable to survive in harsh conditions?

Hardly the case, as I’ve discovered. Pansies are hardy and adaptive creatures. They can grow rapidly, even in tough times. Closed-minded gardeners may see pansies as weeds or pests. But I perceive a base that’s as resilient as wood and have grown to appreciate their leaves’ soft underbelly. My pansies boast a sprawling yet close-knit family, and they appear to be a neighbourly bunch, happily sharing soil with several other plants of no relation to them. Here, my flower friends are an integral part of a harmonious community. Pansies have taught me to discard those cruel meanings I once associated with their name and to embrace only the definition befitting their nature – strong, courageous, thoughtful, and admirable. One day soon, those hateful slang definitions will be struck from memory, lost to the dictionaries of history, and the new pansy will sprout unencumbered under virtuous, loving light.