The first chapter of Judy Grahn’s wonderful tome Another Mother Tongue from 1984 deals extensively with the color purple and its historical meaning and connections to gay people. She posits both current and ancient connections to the color for us as a people.
Whether or not there are legitimate historical connections to the color purple and queer folk it certainly has appeared repeatedly throughout the ages in association with those of us often seen as “other”. For example we have continued to own and quite liberally use the word lavender, with lavender of course being a pale shade of purple.
I was involved with a project of the LGBT Center of Colorado called Lavender University in the late 1970’s. Interestingly one of the more successful gay male hook-up Internet sites is called the Lavender App, first appearing recently in 2015. There are many other examples of the use of the word lavender in describing our organizations and us.
The color purple can be created mixing shades of red or magenta that have a more feminine association with blue and its male connotations. Though I prefer to view us as a distinct phenomenon rather than a hybrid of the straight male and female I can live with purple being attached to us as an expression of the ambiguity and mystery we present to the larger hetero society. It is to our advantage to keep them guessing as to who we really are. It is of course also a color historically associated with power and royalty. For years I had a wonderful flouncy silk purple shirt I would wear for special occasions that required that I appear as royalty.
Sadly it was the color purple in the form of skin lesions that began to strike fear in many gay men at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. The rather sudden and mysterious appearance of purple skin lesions on gay men over 35 years ago quickly became a dreaded hallmark of the disease. I am referring of course to the lesions of Kaposi Sarcoma (K.S.) which we now know is caused by a herpes virus, the acronym for it being HHV-8, human herpes virus 8.
I would add that the lesions appear most purple on white skin. When K.S. lesions are an issue for darker pigmented folks the lesions can still appear purple but also often have a reddish or brown hue.
K.S can cause problems other than just skin lesions with the sarcoma able to involve internal organs as well. It was the facial lesions though that I personally feared the most. If one wanted to be on the down low with your HIV infection it was often hard to mask the facial lesions. I was never one to be shy about my HIV but I was certainly vain enough to fear a lesion on the tip of my nose. There are limits after all to ones love of the color purple.
HHV-8 is most commonly transmitted through saliva. There was apparently a fair amount of this virus among sexually active gay men in the 1970’s and as HIV began to spread, and severely compromise immune systems resulted, HHV-8 was able to take advantage and in many the result was Kaposi Sarcoma. Fortunately with the advent of effective AIDS drugs that restore pretty good immune function this virus, though certainly still around, causes dramatically less K.S.
HHV-8 can now I suppose, be viewed as just one more little virus that uses us humans as transport media but kept in check if our immune systems are in good working order.
I’ll end with an interesting antidote I heard Sunday at the gym watching television coverage of Nancy Reagan’s death. She was a close friend of Rock Hudson. It was apparently a photo taken of the first couple that also caught the back of Rock’s head while he was visiting the Reagans in the White House that showed a suspicious lesion on his neck.
As incredulous as it might sound, the photo catching this lesion supposedly alerted Hudson to the fact that perhaps he was also at risk for this new and devastating illness. Being quite familiar with how AIDS would present and progress I suspect there must have been some major denial in old Rock’s life to not notice any other symptoms before a K.S. lesion showed up on the back of his neck. Or perhaps it is just one more validation of the strength of the color purple, a hue capable of often grabbing one’s attention.