The pansy is a variety of cultivated viola with boldly-hued flowers ranging from bright yellow to deep purple. It's a hardy plant that can bloom through the snow, and in the culinary world, it is prized as a garnish for everything from salads to cake.
But the name has historically been used as a slur against people in the LGBTQ+ community. As Hudson Valley Seed Co. co-founder Ken Greene explains in a personal essay about pansies, the name of the flower derives from the French word "pense" which means "to think." And thoughtfulness, being considered a stereotypically feminine quality that's "undesirable in masculine men," made the pensive pansy an easy target of homophobic language.
Reclaiming words that used to cause harm is nothing new to the LGBTQ+ community. And so, the community is reclaiming the name "pansy" as something that carries a message of resilience and strength, a metaphor firmly rooted in the foundation of LGBTQ+ food history. In fact, Hudson Valley Seed Co. created a pansy seed packet that does just that. They've also increased the diversity of seeds used all over the country.
LBTGQ+ Food History Is American Food History
You can't talk about the history of the LGBTQ+ movement without talking about food history. Several years before the powerful Stonewall uprising, early gay rights groups in Manhattan held "sip-ins" at bars and other eating establishments that refused to serve LGBTQ+ people. In the summer of 1969, patrons of Greenwich Village gay and lesbian bars fought back and protested the violent police raid of the now-memorialized Stonewall Inn. Chefs and activists published dozens of cookbooks between the 1950s and the 1990s, covering intersecting topics such as gay Jewish cooking, healthy eating for people living with HIV, and recipes pulled from LGBTQ+ literature. And today, Pride is celebrated with rainbow-hued, well, every-kind-of-food, and each year new products from queer beer to GLAAD-endorsed Kellogg cereal capitalize on the disruption of gender norms and the growing inclusivity of people with diverse sexual orientations.
For much of American history, members of the LGBTQ+ community were not openly welcomed or even acknowledged in the food world, especially at public eating establishments. Instead, the community relied on word-of-mouth to find hospitable locations or used informal directories of LGBTQ+-friendly restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.
Records from the only national LGBT guidebook dating back to the 1970s shows hundreds of gay and lesbian bars across the nation, but that number has steadily declined since then. According to a report by Eater, there are fewer than 20 lesbian bars left in the United States today, and the lasting effects of the global pandemic could hasten the closure of more in the near future. A major resource to keep the knowledge of these existing establishments in circulation is the crowd-sourced LGBTQ+ directory called EAT QUEER hosted by intersectional "food and queer culture" Jarry magazine.
However, as many local governments make discrimination against customers based on gender identity and sexual orientation illegal, there is no federal law against it; and besides, even if it's illegal to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ+ in a given location, that doesn't mean a restaurant or bar necessarily feels welcoming to the community.
Farming While LGBTQ+
Finding and fostering welcoming environments is central to the LGBTQ+ community, perhaps most of all in spaces where food is grown. Not surprisingly, the traditional American image of the white, cis-male farmer and his wife leave little room for LGBTQ+ people in the collective memory of what agricultural life should look like. But that doesn't mean LGBTQ+ people are missing from the rural food-producing world over generations.
In the United States, agricultural occupations and knowledge are often passed down through families, with descendants typically inheriting a farm from parent or grandparents. Historically, members of the LGBTQ+ community have been rejected or abandoned by their families, cutting off this important method and tradition of knowledge sharing. So while the LGBTQ+ community has always existed within the agricultural landscape, thriving there has never been easy.
As a way to fill this knowledge gap, many LGBTQ+ communities rely on their chosen families to continue these food-growing practices. During the counterculture of the 1960s and the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, groups within the LGBTQ+ community created food-growing organizations and rural sanctuaries across the nation.
With the development of digital communication and streamlined publication methods, virtual organizations such as the non-profit land project Lesbian Natural Resources (founded in 1991) and books like Garden Variety Dykes: Lesbian Traditions in Gardening by Irene Reti (1994) educated and built community through sustainable food practices. In their attempts to hold space for marginalized peoples, some of these earlier social organizations, like the womyn's land movement, often excluded members of the larger LGBTQ+ community. Nevertheless, these efforts helped pave the way for newer food and land cultivating initiatives that continue the tradition of knowledge sharing, but with a more inclusive platform.
- Queer Farmer Convergence: Created by worker-owned cooperative Humble Hands Harvest Farm in Decorah, Iowa to build community among LGBTQ+ farmers and to disrupt the "heteropatriarchal legacies in U.S. agriculture." They host a yearly gathering of LGBTQ+ farmers featuring practical farming skillshare workshops such as financial planning and farm ownership structure and stewardship.
- Queer Farmer Network: Also created by Humble Hands as an "antidote to the isolation" that many LGBTQ+ farmers experience in the traditionally conservative world of agriculture.
- Queer the Land: Based in Seattle, a project of QT2BIPOC (queer, trans, and two spirit Black/indigenous/people of color) who work towards a collaborative vision of collective land and labor ownership.
- Cultivating Change Foundation: Aims to "elevate LGBTQ agriculturists through advocacy, education, and community." Started in 2015, the foundation works to bridge the generational gap of knowledge between LGBTQ+ farmers and the traditionally heteronormative agricultural community and build an inclusive global network across the industry.
Bloom Where You Are Planted
This brings us back to Ken Green, pansies, and the impact of the LGBTQ+ community on food. Back in 2004, Greene, then a children's librarian in Gardiner, New York, realized there was a rapidly-dwindling biodiversity in our food system due the lack of heirloom and other non-GMO variety seeds. He had the idea that people could "borrow" seeds, much like we borrow books, and at the end of the harvest season they could return seeds saved from what they had grown. He started the country's first seed library program in a public library. Four years later, Greene and his partner, Doug Muller, moved onto a three-acre farm in nearby Accord, NY to run the Hudson Valley Seed Company.
Now the seed library is online, allowing people to buy seeds and support the program. Over the past decade, Greene and Muller, along with other local Hudson Valley farmers, work to grow regionally-adapted heirlooms with the goal of saving seeds from thriving varietals at the end of each season. Today, Hudson Valley Seed Co. is a leading supplier of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds to customers across the nation. To many home gardeners, Hudson Valley Seed Co. is known for their "art packs" of seeds with packaging designed by commissioned contemporary artists. Seeds, especially the heirloom varieties, also carry stories, Greene says, and the company's annual open call for artists ensures the continuation of the "celebration of diverse stories of seeds and their stewards."
One of these art packs is the Hudson Valley Seed Co.'s pansy mix seedlings, which features art by Paul Harfleet, creator of the Pansy Project. Greene commissioned Harfleet after learning about his activist-agricultural-art project, which plants pansies at sites of homophobic and transphobic abuse and documents the flowers on his website. While the work of Hudson Valley Seed Co. is not explicitly about the LGBTQ+ community, Greene shares his own experience with his sexuality and gender identity and how it brought him to seeds.
After years of hating pansies, and the negative stereotypes the innocent flower had come to represent, Greene decided to take back the term and make "the gayest seed pack ever." A portion of the proceeds from the pansy seeds art pack are donated to the Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention to LGBTQ+ youths. Harfleet's art is also available as a poster, featuring the many symbols of the LGBTQ+ community including a pride flag, trans pride flag, a pink triangle, a red ribbon, and many colorful pansies.
Like many other food-producing members of the LGBTQ+ community, neither Greene nor Muller grew up in farming families. But, they found the knowledge they needed to cultivate a quiet (but still radical) resistance within the agricultural world, one pack of seeds at a time.
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