“Pansy!” offers up flowers against homophobia in France

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Following the legalization of same-sex marriage in France, reports emerged that homophobic attacks in the country had risen by over 75 percent. Paying attention to these stats was director Jean-Baptiste Erreca, who decided to make a film that would highlight homophobia and transphobia in France. After some initial research, he came across a man and a project already deeply involved in this kind of work: Paul Harfleet and his photo-based Pansy Project. The result was Pansy! the film.

Paul started the Pansy Project over 10 years ago, inspired by having personally experienced three separate incidents of homophobia in one day in Manchester, England. “I just started thinking about the location and how I could mark it or how I could change it,” Paul said. “I just started thinking about the location and how I could mark it or how I could change it.”

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He thought to plant something that would symbolize positivity and growth, as opposed to simply leaving a flower at the site, which could easily be confused for a memorial. The choice to plant pansies came after some thoughtful consideration.

“The journey, really, to the pansy was that I wanted it to be some kind of plant that would live, that would be a flower,” Paul said, “that would somehow be identified as gay or flamboyant in the same way that I appeared to be.”

At first, he was reluctant to go with the pansy, thinking it a “weak” flower. The obvious connotations weren’t his favorite either. “But actually, the more I thought about it and the more I researched into it, the pansy was perfect because it’s associated with effeminacy for lots of different reasons.”

For instance, the word for pansy in French is “pensée,” which means “thought.” The flower is often associated with thoughtful/effeminate men. This French connection made the project’s involvement in the film all the more special. “It felt, in a way,” he said, “that the Pansy Project had gone home.”

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What did that look like? A trip around France meeting LGBT people, including queer women like Nathalie and Louisiane.

When Paul meets up with Nathalie, she tells him the first time she really noticed homophobia was after she became a co-parent. You see, her son had once confessed that he told kids at his school she was his godmother after other children had teased him when he spoke the truth. Her response has been a proactive one: she teaches high school-aged students about the problematic nature of homophobia and transphobia.

Louisiane was around that age when she had her first big brush with homophobia. It came courtesy of her mother, who saw some sensitive texts on her cellphone. As she got older, things went from bad to worse, with her mom disowning and then threatening her. Louisiane ended up in a foster home, during which time–and against all odds–she excelled in school and was accepted into a good university. But having been on her own from such a young age, money now stands in the way of her completing her education.

“I think the thing that did strike me, which is quite interesting for me, was that the young people in the film had just so recently experienced such terrible abuse,” Paul said.

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While Paul usually plants for people that reach out to him online, his trip to France gave him the rare opportunity to plant with the people the flowers were intended for. He said the process feels like a ritual and that there’s power in the disassociation that simple act allows for. “It feels like you’re fixing something,” he said.

Another part of the ritual is naming the photo of the pansy, which Paul works with the people he’s planting for or with on. The names usually include some of the hurtful words or phrases these individuals were subjected to. In the case of queer women, Paul said “Fucking dyke!” is very typical. The shock value is in seeing all these similar titles pop up when moving through his photo gallery.

“That is where the power is,” Paul said. “It’s the repetition of it.”

“The more I plant, the more disturbing it becomes,” Paul continued. “It’s kind of this double-edged sword because it looks like, ‘It’s great that you’re doing this, it’s a good thing to do, but it’s really sad that there’s more and there will always be more.’ And that’s the kind of sadness and the tragedy of the work. But it also has this positivity because I’m doing something positive about it.”

Next up for Paul is a children’s book he wrote and illustrated called Pansy Boy. He continues to tour the world with the Pansy Project and hopes to visit countries where homosexual activity is illegal. For the time being, he hopes people will continue to plant pansies of their own and send him their photos so he can share them with the world.

“It’s just such a gentle, calm, elegant thing to do in the face of such ignorance,” Paul said.

Pansy! is playing at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, which will take place from May 25 to 29. You can check out the project’s Facebook page for news on future screenings. To learn more about the Pansy Project, visit its website.

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