Prairie Dog
June 1999

What's In A Name?
By: Greg Beatty

The old children's rhyme, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me," isn't necessarily true Actually, names can hurt. In Queer-ish, Daryl Vocat examines this phenomenon by dissecting and deconstructing slang expressions often applied to gay men.

The exhibition consists of several dozen self-portraits of Vocat printed on narrow paper sheets. By repeating the same image over and over, he pokes fun at the mainstream notion that all gay men are the same. The portraits differ in their surface tint; however. The colours employed (red, orange, yellow, green, purple) reference the Gay Pride flag. Its "rainbow" appearance reflects gay men 's desire to build an inclusive community.

The way the colour blocks are arrayed suggests a spectrum. This is at odds with the tendency of dominant culture to slot people into binary categories: gay/straight, male/female, moral/immoral. The limiting effect this has on individual growth and development is dramatized by the close-cropped nature of the portraits. Rigid black borders constrain Vocat's smiling face on all sides. There's no room to move or breathe in these images.

Scrawled under each image is a slang term culled from an Internet dictionary. Some of the words (freak, switchitter, flip flop) embody the idea of gay sexuality being an unnatural deviation from the norm. Pansy, betty and poofter demean gay men by calling into question their masculinity (while also denigrating women). A third class of terms refers to the sexual interaction that is supposed to occur between gay men - rump ranger, dicklicker, manhole inspector.

War demonstrates how one of the most effective ways to dehumanize the "enemy" is to brand them with a derogatory name. For example, during the war Germans were called Huns or Krauts. American troops in Vietnam called the North Vietnamese gooks. And First Nations were referred to as bloodthirsty savages by European settlers throughout North American history. The slang terms employed by Vocat reflect the same agenda, complete with violent consequences.

As a society we have trouble coping with sex in general. Intragender sex is only one part of the equation, however. Homophobes are also uncomfortable with men who show their affection to one another. Yet in a heterosexual context, such feelings are traditionally celebrated. Vocat highlights this dichotomy in the final portrait in the series, where he substitutes the hateful slang used previously with the word "human."

The essential humanity of gay men is underscored in a related installation, which contains a plastic model of a human heart. The fact that this is a child's model and not an authentic heart laments the loss of innocence that occurs as children learn to hate, through their exposure to homophobic media, church dogma and peer pressure.

The heart also symbolizes love, and the desire we all have to be accepted by others. In Queer-ish, Vocat demonstrates that failure to address this universal need inevitably leads to isolation and marginalization.