Planting the Pansy Project in DC

By Kelly Zheng

Growing up in a low-income family in Upstate New York, seven-year-old Justin Kondrat enjoyed visiting his Grandma Pearl every weekend. They did not have much, yet he loved her small garden. Filled with tulips, pansies and sunflowers, it provided not just pretty flowers, but served as a place for inclusion and healing. Kondrat spent hours tilling soil, tending the plants and measuring flowers. When it was lunchtime, his grandmother would look for him only to find him deep in his own world.

“I knew I was different, but I masked it with gardening,” the 26-year-old DC-based horticulturist said. “Fortunately, I had a grandmother who taught me... and told me that being different didn’t make me any less human.” Of all the flowers Kondrat planted with his grandmother, the pansy was special to him -- a flower of beauty, resilience and sentiment.

However, he  knew there were other associations with his favorite flower. Fag. Sissy. Wimp.

A desire to combat these labels led Kondrat to be an activist for LGBTQ equality during his studies in horticulture production, environmental science and plant sciences at three distinct institutions. “From almost getting hit by a car to being told by the college administration that I won’t make a difference, it infuriated me into action,” he said. “I refused to let them win...”

Kondrat publicly identified as gay at age 21. His grandmother, mother and sister supported him -- even though his father did not. Seeking support online, Kondrat found The Pansy Project by British artist Paul Harfleet. Harfleet plants pansies at sites of homophobic abuse, whether it is emotional, verbal or physical.

Harfleet started the project 13 years ago because of his own encounters with aggressive homophobia. He said the pansy plantings are a conceptual art piece to create awareness of these incidents world-wide. He located victims’ stories around Europe and then branched out to North America. The flowers are photographed, posted on his website and tied to a searchable online map. Each pansy listed is named after the abusive incident and includes the victim’s story. Harfleet also wrote and illustrated the “Pansy Boy” children’s book. It is a semi-autobiographical allegory about challenging homophobia in a non-confrontational way.

After talking online and by phone for a year, Kondrat and Harfleet met last fall in London and planned for Harfleet’s trip to the U.S. this month. “Horticulture naturally invites everyone to feel welcomed,” Kondrat said. “These are heinous acts, but it brought Paul and I together to bring homophobia to light.”

During his April 3 book reading at Busboys and Poets in DC, he talked about his self-planted pansies in England. He also discussed planting 23 pansies with Kondrat during his week-long stay in DC, including one each at the White House and the U.S. Supreme Court.

A DC resident who identifies as queer, came to the event excited to meet Harfleet and get her book signed. “I really appreciate the positive aspects of the book, as it’s already difficult facing homophobia in real life,” she said. “Pansy Boy addresses it more simply, but there’s still a rich meaning.” She added that Harfleet’s work made her feel like there is hope and she is in a safe environment. She struggled with homophobia when her mother nearly disowned her for coming out.
Though there is still work to be done in relation to homophobia, Kondrat said if someone is thrown negativity, it is just that. It does not define their destiny. “You’re never truly alone,” he said. “Believe in yourself and things will come. You’ll get through it and when you do, you’ll have quite the story to tell.”

About the Author:
Kelly Zheng is a junior multiplatform journalism major, with a minor in technology entrepreneurship, at the University of Maryland, College Park. This spring semester, she is an editorial intern at Washington Gardener.
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