Photograph by Steven Higgs
Erin Davies spent two months traveling the country documenting reactions to the word "fag" spray-painted on her car by a homophobe in her hometown of Albany, N.Y. She met Brandon Monson, right, in Laramie, Wyo., where his car had just been vandalized for sporting a human rights sticker.
When Erin Davies set off cross-country in June to document reactions to the word "fag" spray-painted on her VW bug, she expected to hear stories about hate crimes like the one that happened to her.
She figured, "I would meet up with these people who had vandalized car stories, these untold stories that got covered up, and I would kind of shed some light on them."
Davies knew her car would draw attention. Just waiting for the Albany, N.Y., police to show up after she reported the vandalism on a public street near her apartment, at least 50 people passed in an hour. To the individual, they reacted.
"All these random strangers were coming together to talk about it," she said during a recent visit to The Bloomington Alternative office. "Nobody walked by without looking at it, without commenting on it."
At that moment Davies, a petite, 29-year-old redhead who's been out since she was 17, was feeling the "humiliation and shame" that any victim feels in the aftermath of a hate crime.
"I immediately thought it was a personal attack," she said. "Maybe someone had seen me and my girlfriend. But fag is a derogatory term for a gay man."
Davies ultimately concluded she was targeted for the small rainbow sticker on her back window.
Thanks to delays caused by her insurance, Davies had time to think before acceding to her initial impulse to remove the offensive verbiage from her car as fast as possible.
But she spoke to friends. She observed people's reactions. And she turned conventional wisdom on its head.
"I decided to embrace it and drive the car," she said.
She told an Albany news station that she planned to drive the blue-gray bug, with "fag" painted next to her face, for a week to raise awareness about hate crimes.
Then a friend in Baltimore encouraged her to take the story cross-country, suggested the name "fagbug" and set up a Web site for her called fagbug.com.
Davies left Albany on June 27. Before arriving in Bloomington 55 days later, she had traversed the Deep South; the desert Southwest; the West Coast, from San Diego to Vancouver; and back through cattle country, corn country and the western Great Lakes.
Along the way she interviewed more than 500 people, most on video, and wrote and posted a blog on fagbug.com about her experiences.
Davies knew her fagbug Odyssey would be a bit "scary" but admits that, from her life in New York as a graduate student studying to be an art teacher, she hadn't really thought America was "all that homophobic."
She found out differently at her first stop in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she learned about Sean Kennedy, a 20-year-old man who was beaten to death in March outside a Greenville, S.C., bar for simply being gay.
Kennedy's 18-year-old assailant hit him in the face so hard that he broke his wrist, Davies, said.
"Very quickly within my trip, like within one day of my trip, I learned, 'Okay, it's not just these vandalized car stories that I'm telling,'" she said. "Things are a lot worse than I ever realized."
Davies "ditched" the route she had set and went to South Carolina to meet Kennedy's mother Elke, who is on a personal campaign to educate the public about hate crimes. She stayed with her for three days.
"I've met some people along the way who have changed my life," she said.
Next stop, rural Polk County, Fla., where 25-year-old Ryan Skipper was brutally murdered in May for allegedly making an unwanted homosexual advance. His body was found in a roadside ditch with 20 stab wounds and a slit throat. Two young men, ages 20 and 21, were charged.
"The guys went around bragging that they just killed a faggot," Davies said.
She hesitates. "Going to Winter Haven and Juanita, Fla., that was a very scary rural environment where you could easily imagine something like that happening," she said. "Just talking to the people there, it was a whole other mentality, a whole other world."
In Florida, she learned about Aaron Hall, the 34-year-old Crothersville man who, like Skipper, was brutally beaten by two young Jackson County men for allegedly making an advance.
She added Indiana to the end of her itinerary. Hall was killed in April, between Kennedy and Skipper.
While standing outside a car wash in Laramie, Wyo., Davies met Brandon Monson, whose car window had just been busted at a gas station. When he told the station attendant that he had a "human rights equality sticker" on his window, he said, "That sort of thing happens here all the time."
Monson told Davies that he was in Laramie to see if there was a memorial to Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was also brutally beaten and thrown in a ditch in a nationally publicized 1998 hate crime.
Since Davies was in Laramie for the same reason, and Monson was on his way to Greencastle, Ind., and he had shared his story so freely, she invited him to join her.
The more she learned about hate crimes, the more preoccupied Davies became with "gay panic," the notion that straight men are so threatened by gay men that they feel violence and even murder can be justified.
"I'm a lesbian, and I get hit on by men all the time," she said. "But do I feel that bothered by it that I'd feel justified in killing them?"
While in Indiana, Monson drove the fagbug as an experiment. And on their way back to Greencastle from Bloomington, a police officer stopped them just outside of Spencer.
"Basically we got pulled over because the word 'fag' was on my car," Davies said. "And that's the only reason we got pulled over. We weren't doing anything wrong, as far as driving goes."
The cop asked why they were driving with an obscenity on their car. When they explained it was an exercise in public education, he responded: "How could you possibly be educating people? That makes absolutely no sense. I want to take a razor blade like right now and take that off your car."
Despite their entreaties that he not, Davies said, "He actually took his fingernail and started scraping. As soon as we told him we didn't want to take it off he started scraping it off with his fingernail."
After saying he could not be interviewed on camera in uniform, the officer drove away.
After stopping back by the Alternative office for a videotaped interview the next day, Davies and Monson drove to Crothersville to talk about Aaron Hall. The next day she sent an e-mail.
"Thanks for taking the time to meet with us," she wrote. "We met with Aaron's mother last night and a few people along the way. Two guys yelled out 'fag' at us while we were on the side of the road, and I signaled for them to come back, and they did, so we interviewed them."
While her eyes were opened to the frighteningly harsh realities of being gay in America, Davies said her two-month adventure has been a healing experience of sorts.
"I've got to see people's reactions good and bad," she said. "But, literally, the good responses I've gotten are like 1,000 compared to one bad one. There's been so many random acts of kindness, it gives me chills thinking about all the things people have done for me all along the way."
Davies is going to take a year off from school and is planning a speaking tour. She's also going to make a documentary of her journey.
"I just think that it's very inspiring that something that could easily have made me question humanity or question people or the goodness in people has totally done the opposite and kind of restored my faith in the fact that there are so many good people out there," she said. "It's awesome."
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAltenative.com.