Graffiti artists, if you’ve ever stopped to notice their work, are a pretty diverse bunch. I’ve seen graffiti on the walls of aging city buildings that are absolutely amazing and make you stop to check out all the fine, intricate details, while others are clearly no more than artist wannabes. Some, it’s quite obvious, can’t even make that sorry claim.
What’s more surprising to observe is those who take the time to write messages in public places that are not designed to be artistic expressions, but rather to convey the individual’s inner obsessions, usually violent, often times bigoted. I thought about this recently when I stopped at one of my favorite local spots, the Barnes & Noble bookstore at the intersection of Bumby and Colonial — which if you’ve been there, you know is not just a place to buy a book or a magazine. It’s like a giant coffee house and meeting place, where the staff won’t complain if you just relax on one of the couches and glance through a book.
While I was inside the bookstore’s bathroom, I noticed it scribbled on the wall: “Faggot die.” Now, I’m not here to pretend that my eyes popped out of my head or that I stood there in shock and disbelief. I’ve seen bigoted scribbling like this hundreds of times in my life, although more often than not, it tends to be in bathrooms at highway rest stops or in convenience stores located in rural places or bad urban neighborhoods, where anti-gay scribblings tend to line up along with the likes of “Call Debbie for a good time,” and so on.
I glanced at the “Faggots die” writing on the wall, and even took a photo of it. I didn’t do it because I wanted to complain to the book store’s management, and I’m not writing about it now in an effort to embarrass Barnes & Noble, which remains one of my favorite shops in the city. If you’ve been there you know they have a large selection of gay and lesbian books to sell, and the managers would probably be horrified if they had noticed the graffiti inside their bathroom.
The main reason I took the photo, and decided to write about it, is that I was struck by how mundane and pathetic this piece of graffiti was. Granted, something like this could raise the ire of gay rights groups, who might be tempted to cite it as an example of hate speech in a store often frequented by gay people, designed to intimidate them or harass them. They could also cite it as another example that we live in a bigoted society, and that this form of hate needs to be confronted and denounced.
But what I see is how cowardly this kind of writing is. Some loser snuck into the bathroom, went into a stall, waited until he was alone, and scribbled something on the wall, then ducked out anonymously. What it reminds me of is how open forms of hate speech have to be done in this pathetic manner, hidden and elusive, away from the sight of others, out of fear of what would happen if they got caught doing it — the bigot as social pariah.
When I first moved to Orlando in 2002, the city council was debating a citywide ordinance that would ban anti-gay discrimination in housing and employment. Opponents promised major protests at the council meeting when the vote was taken, but that never materialized. Instead, the ordinance passed easily, the law went on the books, everybody went about their lives, and nothing much changed. When the Orange County Commission voted in a similar law last year, it barely made a ripple. It was as if the commissioners were debating whether to rename Colonial Drive as Congested Drive.
Walking along Central Boulevard last week, along Lake Eola Park, I noticed it: the gay-themed rainbow flags hanging from the street lamps. There were no protesters out denouncing these flags, no claims of an assault on traditional values or the traditional family.
In fact, when the local gay community scheduled a gay pride parade in October, what made the news wasn’t the citizens who turned out to protest the parade — there were none — but the heavy rains that got it postponed.
The really big challenge for the guy who wrote “Faggots die” on that bathroom wall is how completely mainstream gay is today. We watch a gay couple interact happily on the hit show “Modern Family,” we turn Lady GaGa’s pro-gay song “Born This Way” into a mega-hit, we elect gay congressmen in states as diverse as Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Colorado, we cheer on Chaz Bono as he performs on “Dancing With the Stars,” and we leave all the overripe political arguments to those stale morning political talk shows like “Morning Joe” and “Fox and Friends.” For the rest of us, though, we ignore the political debates and move on with our lives. Been there, done that.
So to the guy who wrote “Faggots die” on that bathroom wall, I can honestly tell you, you didn’t shock me, or anger me, or intimidate me. Mostly I feel bad for you. You wanted to offend people. And nobody really cares.
And on this Thanksgiving Day, I know one thing I truly am thankful for: the many people in my life who don’t have time to judge, and really only want the same thing I do, which is to savor the joy of warm, friendly companionship in one of the great cities in this country.
Here’s to you, Orlando: a city that embraces and welcomes in its very diverse population, and finds ways to celebrate each and every one of us uniquely.
What a great feeling.
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