Everybody draws the line somewhere

When I entered O'Neill Collegiate Institute in Oshawa, Ontario, in the mid 1960s, the walls of the building had recently undergone some creative remodeling at the hands of a group of students from Central, a nearby rival school.

When I entered O’Neill Collegiate Institute in Oshawa, Ontario, in the mid 1960s, the walls of the building had recently undergone some creative remodeling at the hands of a group of students from Central, a nearby rival school. It wasn’t the world’s most original graffiti, relying largely on the time-honoured practice of scrawling the word “fags” in orange spray-paint.

Homosexuality at that time was an invisible condition, and the words “fag” and “faggot” were tossed about freely, without regard to any suggestion that the recipient was actually homosexual. Closeted gay students were no doubt oppressed by the casual way that any reference to homosexuality was assumed to be an insult, but the consequences of exposure would have been too terrible to contemplate, and no gay student came forward to complain about the graffiti.

But there was another, un-closeted, group targeted by the smears. O’Neill was well known for having a significant number of Jewish students, and the artists had not forgotten to include these in their mural. I remember distinctly the word “Jews” smeared on the grey wall in yellow paint, with such a heavy hand on the spray-can trigger that streaks of yellow ran down from each letter. I don’t know if the perpetrator was aware of the significance of the colour – the Nazis forced Jews to wear a yellow triangle pinned to their clothes – but it was certainly not lost on Jewish students.

The school administration announced that, since the attack had come in retaliation for something O’Neill students had done to Central the previous year – I believe it involved the theft of some goalposts – the student council would have to bear the cost of sand-blasting the walls. I was with a couple of Jewish students when they heard this news. “If it said ‘fucking Jews’ it would have been gone before we ever saw it,” said one. “Only the first half,” his friend replied.

Much the same could be said about an incident of vandalism last February at Vanier Catholic Secondary School in Whitehorse. The vandal in this case scratched the word “faggot” into a gay student’s locker, and just like the O’Neill administration in 1967 the Vanier school principal took a leisurely approach to remedying the situation.

In my high school days it was hard to believe anyone could be so insensitive as to leave anti-Semitic slurs up for weeks on the wall of a school where many of the students were Jews only one generation removed from the Holocaust, but while the Jewish kids were angry, I don’t know of any who felt personally targeted by the attack. What was done at Vanier was a hate crime directed at both a group and an individual, a girl who declares that she asked for her locker to be fixed, only to be laughed at by the principal. She eventually left the school.

The attack on Shara Layne’s locker became part of a larger story when it was revealed that the local bishop had posted a policy on gays on the school’s website, a policy that institutionalized homophobia in the name of religion, and ran contrary to the Yukon government’s policy of inclusion. At a public meeting held in April to air parents’ and students’ concerns, deputy minister of education Valerie Royle said that the decision not to repaint the vandalized locker was made by the property management branch. Apparently the maintenance people thought it made sense to wait till they were painting all the lockers.

As those Jewish students at my old high school were pointing out, everybody draws the line somewhere. We all know that there are certain words that would never have been allowed to remain on that locker past the first day. Some of the more extreme profanities would have been painted over before recess. And suppose instead of a homophobic taunt, we had seen a racial slur. Suppose a black student’s locker had been defaced with the word “nigger.” Would the school have left that till the scheduled locker-painting came around?

So let’s look at this word, faggot, a word so inoffensive it can be left scratched into a gay student’s locker until she gives up and transfers schools. A faggot is a bundle of sticks tied together for burning. It’s said that witches slated for burning were often referred to as faggots, and that since sexual deviance was one of the presumed sins of witchcraft, a faggot came to mean a homosexual.

There is some doubt about this interpretation, since there’s no written record of gays being called fags or faggots till the 20th century, when they may have been named for the practice of “fagging” at private schools. A fag, in that context, was a young student indentured as a servant to a senior boy. Fags were often sexually abused, and most were subject to canings and other sadomasochistic punishments. In this context, a fag is a sex slave.

People call other people faggots when they mean them harm. They use it when they beat them, sometimes to death. This is the word that was directed at an individual student, as well as at every gay student at Vanier. In a shocking example of persecution, the school principal let the word remain there, with the knowledge and consent of the deputy minister of education, who tried to cover the matter up with lame excuses. And here’s the most shocking thing of all. Both of these people still have jobs.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.