In the 1960′s, before the Regenstein Library was built, racism wasn’t hard to find in the graffiti written in Harper Library and elsewhere on campus. Today, it has been driven into the “private” space of men’s bathroom stalls, along with a number of other comments that would likely be censured by other graffiti-writers, if not brought to the attention of the campus “bias response team”. In some of these bathroom stalls, the mask of civility drops to reveal expressions of racism and antisemitism that you can’t find in “public” graffiti spaces like the stacks, study carrels, and whiteboards of the Reg.
What you don’t find in the bathrooms is a disproportionate amount of homophobia. Why make a special trip to the bathroom when you can freely insult LGBTQ students wherever you would normally write graffiti?
Looking through my graffiti corpus*, there are 141 unique pieces that either use anti-LGBTQ language or single out LGBTQ students (see the photo set). Out of about 1700 photos, that seems to be a trivial number. And in a sense, it is– from hieroglyphic sex graffiti to philosopher-name wordplay, fun over time and chemistry, University of Chicago students mostly write about other things.
Those 14 pieces, though, appear less trivial when compared with the graffiti directed towards other groups. Graffiti expressing racism (1)2, antisemitism (4), and misogyny (4)3combined total up to 9 pieces. (See the photo set.) Of those, the racist graffiti and three of the four antisemitic pieces are located in men’s bathrooms. In contrast, only two of the 14 LGBTQ-related pieces (14%) are in the bathroom– the rest are in public places.
Remarkably, graffiti that can be read as relating to LGBTQ students seems to be more likely to attract remarks in public than in the bathrooms. There are no comments next to the m4m ads in the bathroom, but juxtapose two names of the same gender in the Reg stacks, and additions of GAY, lesbos, or fags inevitably follow.
Three of the 14 pieces (21%) use the word “gay” as a generic derogatory term. It’s used in response to a drawing and quote, as a reason for not partying (“Why leave now? Let’s Party For the Rest of the Night. No, I’m gay“, and has been directed towards the Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
Half of the graffiti (four pieces, plus the comments on two same-sex names, mentioned above) makes reference to homosexuality as an insult. Phrases like “Marshall(straight)” and “aileen(NOT HOMO)” make it difficult to read the “proof” for Travis = gay2 as an example of “gay” as a generic insult. A recommendation to “do your work nonstop” during fall 2007 concludes “& this advice applies to homosexuals as well“– nothing explicitly negative, but one does not get the sense that LGBTQ students are being singled out positively. More direct is a piece in Latin: “tu es gay, ego > tu” (you are gay, I am better than you). Most recently, “gay/flamer” was used in response to a student’s objection about another student using the word “retarded”.
The pie chart, right, shows the relative distribution of the words used in LGBTQ-directed graffiti. Out of 22 instances (some pieces of graffiti have more than one), “gay” is used 36% of the time, followed by “fag” at 27%. The particular offensiveness of the latter term probably helps account for its use in both pieces of men’s room graffiti. The word was used by itself, without any apparent context from other nearby graffiti. In both cases, the word was neutralized to some extent by the insertion of a strategically placed “L” after the “F”. The two examples from the Reg stacks are somewhat different. One, mentioned above, was in response to two men’s names with a heart. This use was protested, but that response was subsequently trivialized with a “your mom” remark. The other example was captured during one of my earliest trips to take pictures in the stacks, and the original comment is cut off but clear from context. There was an ongoing discussion where insults were being thrown around, and one student wrote “Stop being a ball-sucking fag”. At some point, another student replied: “Tell him. I’m just working with what’s already on the table. And what makes “Asshole” more mature than “ball-sucking fag” anyways? I’d say that the later[sic] is a little more self-aware in this context, you ball-sucking fag.”
That said, even in the face of anti-LGBTQ tautologies (right), there are signs that sexuality is becoming a non-issue. In a Harper men’s room stall, someone wrote “Fags are Gay”, subsequently diffused somewhat when an “l” and “r” were added. But then there’s the follow-up comment: “Definitely so, but who cares dude?” It’s not ideal, but maybe it’s its own kind of progress.
* This corpus documents the walls in the Regenstein bookstacks weekly since September 2007, the A-level whiteboards daily for a few months in early 2008, the study carrels every quarter or so since last summer, the B-level men’s room from earlier this year, and the Harper and Reg bathrooms once in the last week.
1 Not counting God, why am I gay? which may have been written sincerely rather than as an insult. I’m also not entirely sure what to make of “Joke’s on you– I’m gay” in response to “If men could get pregnant, would you do it?”. It doesn’t necessarily seem homophobic, so I’m not including it in the count.
2 There’s also two pieces of graffiti, one from a Crerar men’s bathroom and another from the Reg stacks, that make positive comments about “Asian pussy” and “Black pussy“. Perhaps not racism, but not exactly in good taste.
3 I’m interpreting “misogyny” liberally here– I think at least the proof of women = problems falls more in the category of making a joke out of a phrase that exists in popular culture rather than an insult towards women.