Most people would try to avoid driving around with an anti-gay slur splashed across their car window. Erin Davies, however, embraced the unwanted paint job.
When she awoke one morning in 2007 to find the words "fag" and "U R Gay" spray-painted onto her Volkswagen Beetle, presumably because of the rainbow sticker on its trunk, Davies' initial impulse was to get it fixed as soon as possible.
At the time, Davies was in grad school for art education at Sage College of Albany in New York. She was living with her girlfriend and was angry when her insurance company said she it would be a few days before they could fix it.
But then she noticed how strongly people reacted to the vandalism, and her plans began to change. Davies embarked on a cross-country road trip to show everyone what hate crimes really look like and to film the experience. She made sure the words stayed on her car (even reapplying them several times after people tried to wash or scratch them off). She drove through 41 states and interviewed more than 500 people. She dropped out of school to edit the film, and in 2009, Fagbug was released.
Davies and her car are scheduled to arrive in Lexington on Friday to participate in the city's seventh annual Pride Festival. "I'm trying to get people from different views to have a conversation and gain a new understanding," Davies said of the film, which takes its title from the nickname given to her Beetle. "I think my car is kind of like a mirror. It forces people to confront themselves and where they're at with the whole idea of homosexuality."
Davies' life has changed and the Fagbug's reputation has spread. Davies, whose girlfriend from 2007 ended things 10 days into the first Fagbug road trip, is now married and has obtained her graduate degree.
The car, which was sponsored by Volkswagen for Davies' first road trip, received a full makeover at the end of the first film. It is now covered in rainbow stripes and has the word fagbug boldly painted on its side.
"A lot of people can relate to that concept of turning something negative and making it into something positive," Davies said. "I think both gay people and people who don't have a connection to the gay community can watch the film, connect with me as a person and start to feel for me as a character."
Since 2009, she has toured with her car and the film to speak at high schools, universities, and gay pride parades and festivals across the country. The film is available for streaming on Netflix and Hulu. Its Facebook page has more than 18,000 likes.
"Every time I speak anywhere, someone comes up to me and tells me that they have a similar story. Their house has been painted on or they've been bullied somehow," Davies said. "So many people have stories like this. Until that stops happening, we have to keep talking about it."
A message for victims
Chad Hundley, the office manager for the Lexington Pride Festival, is one person who was touched by the film.
Hundley says he was ashamed and embarrassed of his sexuality. He got married to a woman, had a child and attended Bible college before finally embracing the fact that he is gay. After seeing Fagbug, he contacted Davies about coming to Lexington.
"I was very highly moved by what she did to raise awareness around the country about vandalism and the bullying issue," Hundley said. "I think it hit a special place in my heart because I had struggled with my sexuality for so long and tried to keep it hidden. Eventually I realized that I'm never going to be truly happy until I accept myself for who I am, and I think Erin's message is helping more people do that."
Davies said she gets discriminatory comments and gestures almost daily. But Hundley said he doesn't expect that kind of reaction in Lexington.
"Since Lexington is so accepting with our fairness laws, I don't think we're going to deal with any negative things like that," he said. "That rainbow car will be a sign of how open and accepting this community is."
Second film funnier, 'more uplifting'
Davies will screen her new documentary, Fagbug Nation, on Sunday at the Kentucky Theatre. A question-and-answer session will follow.
Fagbug Nation follows Davies as she accomplishes her goal of driving her car in all 50 states.
"This second film is definitely more funny and comical and uplifting than the first one," Davies says. "It's trying to convince people to go out of their comfort zone and accomplish their goals. Any kind of dream they have, I hope it encourages people to go for it."
Employees of the Lexington Gay and Lesbian Services Organization, which organizes city's Pride Festival, say they look forward to watching the film and seeing the Beetle driving through the city.
"I'm really excited about it. It's a bright rainbow-colored bug, so obviously it's going to get a lot of attention," said Sarah Brown, the festival's marketing chairwoman. "It is just a nice thing to say, 'Hey, you're not alone in this. We're all in this together and there are people who care.'"
Davies said she isn't the only one who can benefit from sharing her bullying experiences. She suggested that everyone document their stories of discrimination.
"If you share your experiences instead of feeling ashamed and hiding them, you'll receive a lot of support and realize that there are so many other people like you," Davies said. "You can feel proud and comfortable and be the person who walks away feeling stronger."
Annie Garau: (859) 231-1685. Twitter: @agarau6.