Scout's Honour: Daryl Vocat transforms a Boy Scout manual into a diary of gay awakening

By Agnieszka Matejko
Vue Weekly April 3-10, 2003
Edmonton, Alberta

Most childhood memories unravel into unrecognizable fragments preserved only in faded snapshots. But I do have one unphotographable memory that remains as vivid as if it happened yesterday. It's the memory of the first time I found myself secretly and shamefully attracted to a boy at my school. This boy was mean and unruly; I couldn't fathom why my eyes were continually drawn to him. It was frightening to be carried along by a new and alien surge of attraction, as if some wind were sweeping my away. Thirty-five years later, the source of sexual feelings is no less mysterious-and only slightly less frightening. It's hard to imagine what it would have been like if those feelings were prompted by someone of my own gender, while all around me words like "gay," "homo" and "fag" were being flung at other children.

This is the setting Daryl Vocat's show Perfectly Normal transports us into. The viewer becomes the young boy who is gazing into a mirror, his face filled with hope, turmoil and self-doubt; what he sees reflected back is the word "FAG" scribbled across his reflection. Vocat's images glow with the straightforward integrity of childhood while deftly sidestepping any tedious, didactic socio-political commentary on the status of gay people in a predominantly heterosexual culture. Using simple, innocent line drawings inspired by a Boy Scout manual, Vocat takes us back to a secretive, primal moment: the time when a torrent of sexual feelings first emerges in childhood like some underground stream bubbling to the surface. With poignant humour, Vocat creates an entirely unique version of a Boy Scout manual. He depicts, in his words, the "confusion, hope, wonder and awkwardness of growing up queer." "I grew up with that imagery," says Vocat, who joined the Scouts when he was five and stayed in the organization until he was 17. "I use it to tell a story of an experience."

Sex is larger than life for all adolescents, but for gay youth that amplification takes a vicious twist. "Everything you know about being queer is exaggerated," says Vocat. "In the boy culture, growing up, we were teased about being gay whether we were or we weren't…None of us knew what that meant." In the print "Crossing the Gap," a boy is wearily drawing the word "gay" in the sand. Looming above him are a pierced ear, a bent wrist and poppers. To him, that is what being gay is about: a limp wrested, flamboyant dresser. "I didn't relate to the stereotypes," Vocat explains, "but the stereotypes were all that I had to understand who I was."

Not all the silkscreens in Vocat's show portray events that he experienced, but "The Silent Spot" is one that he does relate to. It illustrates a boy writing a suicide note. "[I have] gone through the experience of being very angry, very alone in the world and hopeless," he says. "For a lot of queer youth there aren't a lot of resources. You can't go to your parents. Chances are your parents will reject you and be upset with you. I wanted to take this [experience] that was very private and make it very public, to say that people are going through this."

The first time Vocat announced his sexuality out loud was a weird and scary experience. "It's like admitting this is who you are, but also not understanding what it means, " he says, "because all the images and ideas about who gay people are came from people who are anti-gay. It is important to take that step, but it is sad, because there is still a lot of internalized hatred." The first time he finally spoke the words "I am gay," Vocat says, they seemed foreign. Words were followed by fear; fear of everyone "hearing" him, being able to see through him.
Thankfully, Vocat did not succumb to that fear. Instead, with childlike honesty, Vocat peels away the layers of encrusted memory and exposes the earliest stirrings of his sexuality.