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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

asdf
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Dec. 4, 2020

Dawson City’s BHB Storage facility experienced a break-and-enter last month, according to Yukon RCMP. (File photo)
Storage lockers damaged, items stolen in Dawson City

BHB Storage facility victim to second Dawson City break-and-enter last month

A proposed Official Community Plan amendment would designate a 56.3-hectare piece of land in Whistle Bend currently designated as green space, as urban residential use. Whitehorse city council will vote on the second reading of the Official Community Plan amendment on Dec. 7. (Courtesy City of Whitehorse)
Future area of Whistle Bend considered by council

Members set to vote on second reading for OCP change

The City of Whitehorse’s projected deficit could be $100,000 more than originally predicted earlier this year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City deficit could be just over $640,000 this year

Third quarter financial reports presented to council

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley speaks during a COVID-19 press conference in Whitehorse on Oct. 30. Masks became mandatory in the Yukon for anyone five years old and older as of Dec. 1 while in public spaces. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
As mask law comes into effect, premier says $500 fines will be last resort

The territory currently has 17 active cases of COVID-19

The Town of Watson Lake has elected John Devries as a new councillor in a byelection held Dec. 3. (Wikimedia Commons)
Watson Lake elects new councillor

The Town of Watson Lake has elected John Devries as a new… Continue reading

The new Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation council elected Dec. 1. (Submitted)
Little Salmon Carmacks elects new chief, council

Nicole Tom elected chief of Little Salmon Carcmacks First Nation

Submitted/Yukon News file
Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to the unsolved homicide of Allan Donald Waugh, 69, who was found deceased in his house on May 30, 2014.
Yukon RCMP investigating unsolved Allan Waugh homicide

Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to an unsolved… Continue reading

A jogger runs along Millenium Trail as the sun rises over the trees around 11 a.m. in Whitehorse on Dec. 12, 2018. The City of Whitehorse could soon have a new trail plan in place to serve as a guide in managing the more than 233 kilometres of trails the city manages. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
2020 trail plan comes forward

Policies and bylaws would look at e-mobility devices

Snow-making machines are pushed and pulled uphill at Mount Sima in 2015. The ski hill will be converting snow-making to electric power with more than $5 million in funding from the territorial and federal governments. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Mount Sima funded to cut diesel reliance

Mount Sima ski hill is converting its snowmaking to electric power with… Continue reading

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Most Read