Gay History: Purple

You may feel like the sky’s hue tilted a little purple today. It’s not your eyes, it’s the reflection of all of us wearing purple for Spirit Day. While the annual event was founded in 2010 by Canadian teenager Brittany McMillan, our roots with the color purple are deep in LGBT history.

Spirit Day encourages the world to “go purple” to show support for LGBT youth and speak out against bullying. Purple has long been synonymous with gay and bisexual men and women, but why? It all comes down to timing and choice of words.

After some research (read: Googling) I traced the origin of the color’s association back to 1856, when English chemist William Henry Perkin was searching for a cure for malaria and accidentally discovered the first synthetic dye, mauveine. The dye had the ability to color silks a rich yet light purple shade, and it gave birth to an entire industry of synthetic dyes that by the 1890s were prevalent in fashion. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

The trend arrived at the height of gay playwright Oscar Wilde and artist Aubrey Beardsley’s fame. Beardlsey’s sexually explicit Art Nouveau depicted people of the same gender and, while quite controversial, led to conversations about homosexuality. These years were also wild with style, giving birth to the fashion magazine, Vogue. It wasn’t until 1926 that author Thomas Beers titled his book about the 1890s The Mauve Decade, and the more society learned about the prevalence of same-sex desire, the quicker mauve became symbolic of homosexuality.

Fast forward to the 1950s, and take the gay nostalgia associated with mauve and the faded purple’s likeness to lavender, and get Sen. Everett Dirksen’s term “lavender lads” — used repeatedly as a synonym for homosexuals during this political time of fear and persecution of gay men, later known as the “Lavender Scare.” Ultimately this led to the popularity of the association among society, and over a decade later, when the gay rights movement began, the color was ours.  —Scott McPherson