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VW Beetle helps drive conversation about being gay

“Fagbug Nation” includes interviews with people who approached Erin Davies to talk about her car. (Photo courtesy of Erin Davies)1 / 4
In “Fagbug Nation,” Erin Davies makes a side trip to the Equality House in Topeka, Kan. The rainbow-colored dwelling is across the street from Westboro Baptist Church headquarters. (Photo courtesy of Erin Davies)2 / 4
The follow up to “Fagbug” features Erin Davies’ attempt to get her rainbow-colored Volkswagen Beetle to all 50 states — which will require some extreme travel conditions. But she ultimately gets it to Hawaii, where the car is decorated with a giant lei. (Photo courtesy of Erin Davies)3 / 4
A “Fagbug Nation” screening and conversation with Erin Davies is 7 p.m. today at Zinema 2, 222 E. Superior St. Tickets are $5. "Fagbug" is available for streaming on Netflix. (Photo courtesy of Erin Davies)4 / 4

In the mid-2000s, Erin Davies found that her Volkswagen Beetle had been defaced with the words “u r gay” spray-painted on the hood and “fag” scrawled across the driver’s side window.

Her insurance company couldn’t get her on the schedule for five days, and because the VW was technically drivable, was reluctant to send her a loaner car.

So, she left it like it was — in fact, re-applied one of the slurs when it was wiped clean by a well-wisher — and set off for a trip around North America. Davies, who was living in Albany, N.Y., at the time, captured the responses of those she encountered for her documentary “Fagbug.”

“I really had no idea that that would be such a life-changing moment,” she said. “It was serendipity. One thing led to the next. It became more meaningful, the conversations that came from it. It kept snowballing.”

Related content: Duluth Superior Pride schedule

Davies will show the follow-up to the film during a screening at 7 p.m. today at Zinema 2 as part of Duluth Superior Pride. And, yes, she’s bringing the car. “Fagbug Nation” is a return to the road (and boat) for Davies, whose car was customized with a rainbow wrap at the end of the first movie. The car’s moniker is written in rounded letters on the side doors.

In her latest documentary, Davies shows off the bug in the only two states where it hadn’t yet made an appearance: Hawaii and Alaska.

‘The hero’s journey’

Davies’ theorizes that the Bug was vandalized by someone who noticed the small rainbow sticker on the back of her car.

She was eventually given a rental car, and she left the VW parked on the street in downtown Albany, where it became a point of conversation between Davies and her neighbors.

The incident was covered by local news. Notes were left on her windshield. She was stopped in the middle of traffic for conversations. One day, she tried to go for a run and ended up having a 45-minute talk with a man about what it means to be gay.

“I was just trying to live my life and do my own thing,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Syracuse, N.Y. “The conversation that my car was creating was interrupting everything I was trying to do.”

She heard her inner voice, Davies said, and it was telling her to just drive the car.

“I didn’t question it,” she said. “I drove it to school that day.”

Davies got a great parking spot that day, right outside of the admissions office at Sage College of Albany and close to where the then-grad student in art education needed to be.

Calls about the car started coming in to campus security. That’s when Davies borrowed a camera and began recording the responses of people who approached her.  

A friend purchased the domain name.

And when summer break started, she set off on a tour.

“The hero’s journey,” Davies likened it to. “Every great story, most films, have a character who is called to adventure. This is the challenge: Are you going to do it, yes or no? As you do it, there are these characters along the way.”

On the road, Davies heard about other hate crimes. She had car trouble and subsequently received a year-long sponsorship from Volkswagen, which covered gas, oil changes and repairs. Hotel rooms were donated and a young man told her that gay people are going to hell.  

More than once, a well-meaning person tried to erase the vandalism.

“I thought the reaction was interesting,” she said. “I didn’t have to go out of my way to ever talk to anybody. People were having an emotional reaction.”

Eventually, Davies moved away from the graffiti motif and gave the car its now-signature rainbow makeover.

Meanwhile, the car received national attention along the way — including a feature on Vanity Fair’s Stick Shift, the Gay Car Blog, which called the documentary “Best Gay Car Movie of 2008” — despite the writer having not seen it.

The very cheeky VF writer said of the vehicle:

“If she’s going for subtlety, I would say she’s taken a giant step backwards because her VW now looks like the car the protagonist would drive if there were an animated gay superhero show on Nick Jr.”

Getting to Alaska and Hawaii

When it was all said and done, Davies ended up touching 48 states with her increasingly famous wheels. In the years after her tour and movie-making, she finished grad school, got married and bought a house. Alaska and Hawaii began to weigh on her.

“Once I decided to do it, it all came together,” she said.

“Fagbug Nation” chronicles Davies’ quest to get the car to the unvisited areas of the United States. This involved a tour from New York to California, boats, planes and plenty of mechanics.

At one point, Davies took her car to meet its counterpart — the rainbow-colored Equality House across the street from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

Westboro Baptist Church, formerly run by the late Fred Phelps, is known for its anti-gay platform and picketing.

The double rainbow photo was her most-viral moment in the eight-year adventure, Davies said.

A fisherman called “I love your car,” while she was running late in Alaska.

She asked if he was interested in an interview.

His story was one of her most-unique: A gay man married to a straight woman. Davies found herself pursuing an untested line of questioning:

“Have you seen each other naked?” she asked. (Answer: No).

As the conversation went on, Davies found a man who said he wouldn’t be comfortable married to a man. He said he just wanted to fit in.

The second film includes tales of bullying. It also shows Davies’ wedding. And there are enough mechanics that Davies said her friend suggested the title be re-worked to address the constant repairs.

Life with the Bug

Despite its makeover, it has still been subjected to vandalism. The Bug has been egged, keyed and mud has been thrown on it.

“It’s been spit on twice, on the windshield,” Davies said.

In Plattsburgh, N.Y., someone wrote derogatory words and that gay people need to die on the driver’s side window.

“They used dry-erase marker,” Davies said. “They obviously weren’t that serious about what they were doing.”

A few times Davies has been invited to speak at colleges or high schools — but was asked to park off the premises. In other cases, she’s had engagements canceled when her car wasn’t available for the appearance.

“I guess we’re together, the car and I,” she said.

Her car has about 280,000 miles on it and by now the repairs have far exceeded the original cost. After a collision with a light post — in front of a VW dealership — Davies became especially aware of the vehicle’s lifespan.

She isn’t sure what she will do when the car dies, she said. But after the accident, she wasn’t yet ready to make a decision, so she had it repaired.

Would she buy another car and wrap it in a rainbow?

Would she offer the car and the notes she’s received to a museum?

“It’s sentimental,” she said. “For now, I keep fixing it.”

Go see it What: “Fagbug Nation” screening and conversation with Erin Davies

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Zinema 2, 222 E. Superior St.

Tickets: $5

Online: “Fagbug” is available for streaming on Netflix

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