Out in the World: The Pansy Project brings healing to sites of hate crimes

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday December 2, 2022
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Artist Paul Harfleet plants a pansy by the Campanile on the University of Kansas' campus to mark an incident of homophobic abuse. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas
Artist Paul Harfleet plants a pansy by the Campanile on the University of Kansas' campus to mark an incident of homophobic abuse. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas

Homophobia is on a deadly rise in recent years as hate crimes against LGBTQ people increase around the world. Reports from governments, human rights and LGBTQ organizations, and media from India, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States record the uptick in the numbers as headlines splash across news outlets documenting the increased violence.

Activist Paul Harfleet said that the global queer community needs healing from hate and homophobia in the wake of mass shootings at popular LGBTQ bars in Norway, Slovakia, and the United States.

Lawmakers continue to propose anti-gay bills. Russia is amending the 2013 so-called gay gag law for minors to now include adults. In the U.S., more than 300 anti-transgender laws target gender-nonconforming youth. LGBTQ Pride events saw attempted violence, as did Drag Queen Story Hours, including in the Bay Area.

To promote healing, Harfleet started The Pansy Project years ago. It was in 2005 that the gay British man turned the common garden flower and the derogatory term used against gay men into a symbol of anti-homophobia and healing. This artist's creative solution has been to plant and photograph or paint pansies at sites where homophobic incidents or hate crimes have happened to heal people and communities. He started with the sites where he experienced anti-gay rhetoric in Manchester, England.

For nearly 20 years, Harfleet, who declined to state his age, has traveled the world planting, photographing, and painting pansies wherever he is invited by communities and posting them on his website and social media. He has developed merchandise around the project with his 2017 graphic book, "Pansy Boy," and T-shirts. He's also designed the pansy seed packets for the queer-owned Hudson Valley Seed Company, been the subject of a 2015 French documentary, "Pansy!", and published his artwork in books, such as the recently released, "Flora Photographica: The Flower in Contemporary Photography."

Since 2019, the Hudson Valley Seed Company has donated a percentage of the sales from the pansy packet to the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention organization based in Los Angeles, said Ken "K" Greene, the 49-year-old queer nonbinary seed company co-owner.

The Trevor Project did not respond to the B.A.R.'s request to confirm the donation.

Greene, who owns the seed company with their partner Doug Muller, loved not only Harfleet's art, but his vision planting a pansy at sites of hate crimes and mapping it with The Pansy Project, they said.

"You can go around to all of these different sites and then the pansy will be there," Greene said. "You know, sort of lurking in this place and reminding people that this type of hatred exists but also transforming that moment into something of beauty."

They added that they also love the fact that the pansy pack is "queer seeds with a queer story."

Harfleet's project is separate from that of a nonbinary Oakland tattoo artist Cedre Csillagi, who recently launched "A Thousand Pansies," whereby for a $500 donation made to the Knights and Orchids Society, a Black-led LGBTQ services provider based in Selma, Alabama, they will ink people with a special pansy tattoo they designed. As Csillagi told the B.A.R., they were partly inspired by Harfleet's work.

Harfleet wrote to the B.A.R. stating that he's been following Csillagi's project since they reached out and asked for permission to use his idea for their vision.

"I think it's a lovely idea," he wrote, adding it's not the first time that the Pansy Project has inspired pansy tattoos. "I've met several people over the years that have had pansy tattoos inspired by work, which is a total privilege, a joy to know that a project I began continues to evolve in different ways so long after it began in 2005."

Harfleet wrote that he's considered getting a pansy tattoo himself but hasn't committed to one pansy artwork.

"Perhaps Cedre can convince me," he wrote, adding, "I'd love to meet Cedre, perhaps we could even plant pansies together."

"Our community is continuing to suffer and if The Pansy Project can inspire and raise funds for our community then I'm very proud," Harfleet wrote.

Pansy rising

The Pansy Project started on a bad day in Manchester in 2005. Harfleet stepped out his front door and passed a construction site where, he recalled, some workmen said just loud enough for him to hear, "I think it's about time we went gay bashing again, isn't it?"

Angered and upset by the comment, Harfleet tried to shake it off and get on with his day, he told the B.A.R. But he couldn't; the sting of the words stayed with him. When he got home, he and his boyfriend at the time decided to go for a walk in another attempt to push the pain and anger away. Instead, a group of men started throwing stones at them and calling them faggots and other anti-gay slurs. Harfleet had enough during that walk when, after the stone throwing, a guy asked the two men for money. The couple said no. The panhandler started to grumble under his breath, "OK, ladies."

"It was kind of quite a threatening interaction," Harfleet recalled. "It just made me really angry.

"Then I was telling people what had happened," he continued. "They were shocked that it happened at all."

At the time, Harfleet was just starting to get into street art. That's when he started thinking about how he could mark incidents of homophobia with art.

At first, Harfleet dismissed pansies. They were too common. Too average looking. They could easily be missed. They weren't angry enough flowers like birds of paradise. But tropical flowers don't bloom in the U.K. or Europe.

"I wanted them to be very angry," he said.

However, Harfleet couldn't dismiss the celebratory nature from the "Pansy Craze" of the 1930s where drag queens, known as "pansy performers," experienced a surge in underground popularity in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco.

"The meaning was so relevant and so significant," he said, recalling a moment in his childhood when he was called a "big pansy."

"That was a term because you're a big sissy or worse or something. It's anything that makes you seem like you're weak or feminine or not masculine basically," Harfleet said.

Everyday beauty

Harfleet planted and photographed his first pansies marking his own homophobic experiences around Manchester in 2005.

He realized he underestimated the pansy after planting his first ones. He noticed when he got down on the ground photographing the pansy that framing the flower in the lens transformed the pansy.

"Then it did look angry, and it did look sort of iconic and epic," he said.

Harfleet prefers to plant and photograph a pansy at the site where a hate crime happened rather than paint it on a wall or object to mark the spot of the incident. He's experimented with both planting and photographing and painting when pansies aren't in season. Pansies are in season in the spring and fall.

"The planting, I think, is the most successful thing because when you take the photograph of a pansy, it's in the location," he said, adding that painting a pansy doesn't have the same effect. "Seeing the pansy painted is really lovely, but it doesn't document so well."


Harfleet said that he also discovered the "healing act" of the ritual of meeting the people and community affected by the hate crime, planting the pansy, photographing it, and mapping it.

"That's a really magical, lovely thing to do because your focus is that moment of remembering, commemorating, and marking that experience," he said. "The photograph is an echo of that."

Soon after he planted his first pansies at the sites of his homophobic incidents and mapped them on his website, people, city officials, and event organizers started inviting him to plant a pansy at other scenes of hate crimes. First, it was around the U.K., then Europe, and then the Americas.

The pansy planting events are fully funded by the host community, Harfleet said. His book and T-shirt sales have also raised some modest funds for the project.

Harfleet is very conscious and sensitive to the victims of crimes. He only goes where he is invited. Unless a person wants their name and photo associated with the hate crime, most of the sites where he plants or paints a pansy do not identify the victim.

"It's actually quite a private experience," he said.

Harfleet noted the exceptions, a campaign for Michael Causer, an 18-year-old gay man killed while sleeping in his bed in Liverpool in 2008, and a French transgender man, only identified as Arnaud, featured in "Pansy!"

Arnaud's case was "very serious," said Harfleet. He had been "beaten really badly" with his boyfriend in the center of Paris. The attack got media attention.

"He could no longer go back to the location," he said. However, the film producers convinced Arnaud to plant a pansy with Harfleet at the site of his attack.

"That was probably one of the most emotional plantings I've done," Harfleet said. "He was visibly shaken to revisit the location. It had a massive impact on his life. He was hospitalized. His relationship broke up. It was just a really terrible thing."

Arnaud planting the pansy with Harfleet at the site of his attack for the film was "incredibly moving and incredibly healing," said Harfleet, who returned to Paris a month later and found Arnaud "transformed."

"If I go back to a location where I've been attacked, that location isn't just where I've been attacked, it's a location where I've planted," he said. "Your memory of that location is shielded by this activity. It's quite strange ... [but it] is what I think is powerful about it."

Where to next?

Harfleet would love to create a gallery photo exhibition of the Pansy Project, he said.

He also dreams of bringing the project to San Francisco. He's never been to the City by the Bay, he said, though he's been influenced by the late Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay supervisor and California's first gay elected official. Milk was assassinated along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by former San Francisco Supervisor Dan White at City Hall the morning of November 27, 1978.

Harfleet said doing a "Harvey Milk planting would be really powerful."

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

The State of California offers help for victims or witnesses to a hate crime or hate incident. This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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