Eight years ago in Albany, N.Y., Erin Davies walked to her car to find it had been vandalized. Red spray-paint letters announced on the hood "u r gay," and the driver's side window screamed "fag" — responses, it seemed, to the rainbow sticker affixed to the car. Initially shocked but undaunted, Davies decided to turn the incident — and her Volkswagen Beetle — into a message of empowerment.
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Courtesy of Erin Davies
Thus was born the "Fagbug," Davies' mobile slur-reclaiming conversation starter, which she'll drive to Johnson State College this week. Its original graffiti replaced with rainbow vinyl wrap, the car will pull into JSC's quad on Thursday, April 16. Its very presence is sure to get people talking about gender identity and hate crimes. Davies, who is visiting campus for the school's Pride Week, will give a talk Thursday evening.
An artist and activist based in Syracuse, N.Y., Davies says the Fagbug project has allowed her to exercise both those functions. She's been on the road with the Fagbug for almost exactly eight years, crisscrossing the country to initiate dialogues about hate crimes. In an email interview, she writes that she considers the car a "performance piece" and "a catalyst to a much deeper conversation."
Though Davies has been successful in sparking that conversation, it hasn't been easy. "Sadly, the longer I've been doing this, the more hate crimes I document per year," she writes. "Every event I do, someone shares a similar story with me. Politically, a lot has improved over the last eight years; however, that also comes with a bigger backlash from people who don't accept the gay community."
Fagbug is also the title of the 2010 documentary that Davies directed about her work; a sequel, Fagbug Nation, came out last year. When she's not making appearances with her one-of-a-kind vehicle, Davies teaches art classes and produces independent video projects.
When she meets with students or appears in Pride events around the country, Davies writes, she speaks about "turning negative experiences into positive ones, about overcoming fears, accomplishing goals, taking risks, having respectful dialogue with people of opposing views, and having a sense of humor."
Jacob Fourier, a 23-year-old senior at Johnson State, is a theater major and copresident of the Johnson State College Pride Alliance. Though familiar with Davies' work from having seen Fagbug, he says it was school administrators who suggested Davies visit campus as a guest speaker. JSC Pride requested that the invitation be coordinated to coincide with the school's Pride Week.
The fact that Pride Alliance is only a few semesters old, says Fourier, reflects the "very small" scope of LGBT culture on campus. From 2008 to 2012, he says, the school had no such organization. Fourier characterizes the JSC campus as "really friendly and very open," noting that, to his knowledge, no gender-related hate crimes have been committed there.
Fourier is optimistic about the growing visibility of gender and gender-identity issues at JSC. "We were a campus that was very cisgender [a term used to describe people whose gender identities match their birth gender], very white, very heteronormative," he notes. "But just in the last two years, that has started changing. The number of open LGBT students has multiplied, and ethnic diversity has increased."
The upcoming visit from Davies and her Fagbug, Fourier believes, can only push that conversation further in the direction of inclusiveness. "There's a whole huge range of sexual identities and gender identities out there," he says.
That's the mission of the Fagbug, after all: opening eyes and creating awareness of human rights and the complexities of gender identity. For Davies, it's a highly personal mission, too. "I wasn't accepted as a young person when I came out, and it really scarred me. Being involved in this type of activism was the only thing that healed my wounds from childhood," she writes. "I can't change things for my former self, but I can help make things easier for others."
Davies still has no idea who tagged her car that day in Albany, but that didn't stop her from dedicating her first documentary to that anonymous, ill-intentioned soul. "The entire project has been my response back to that person," she writes. "At this point, I have interviewed thousands of people from all over the country, and the person who vandalized my car would be the No. 1 person I'd like to meet."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Art, Activism and Identity Fuel
the Fagbug Crusade"