Group denies homophobia after billboard sparks outrage

Published on April 24, 2014
Opera on the Avalon’s billboard promoting its upcoming production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was removed Wednesday, after some complained it had a homophobic message.
— Photo by Tara Bradbury/The Telegram

Opera on the Avalon is refuting accusations of homophobia, saying it is an inclusive organization and longtime supporter of the local LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.

The opera company has been criticized for a billboard advertising its coming production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” featuring the tagline, “Filled with more fairies than St. John’s on Pride Day.” The sign, which was located on Bonaventure Avenue, across from the Re/Max Centre, was taken down Wednesday afternoon.

“It wasn’t meant to be hurtful or harmful,” explained Opera on the Avalon artistic director Cheryl Hickman. “It was supposed to be witty. We are horrified, because it was never our intention to offend anyone, and we apologize to anyone we may have offended.”

Hickman said the organization made the decision to remove the billboard, no matter what the cost, as soon as it received the first complaint about it. She told The Telegram she feels the offence taken at the billboard was likely due to a misunderstanding of the opera art form, which celebrates life and people in big themes, much like pride parades.

“I have read the comments on Facebook and Twitter, and so many of the people who have commented are people who have never been to any of our shows and many of them didn’t even know Newfoundland had an opera company until now,” she said. “We would never make fun of anyone in the gay and lesbian community, and we have been great supporters of the LGBT community. When you look at our track record of employment, you can see that. We are one of the places where people in the gay and lesbian community are safe. When I do a show, as a heterosexual, I really am in the minority.”

St. John’s resident Ryan Crocker, a member of the LGBT community, said he raised an eyebrow at the billboard, but isn’t personally offended, given the intent of the poster.

“It was a little bit of a miss, but given the organization, I knew it was an innocent mistake. It’s not a big deal, and it’s all been sorted out,” he said.

Noah Davis-Power, former president of St. John’s Pride Inc., has an entirely different view, and didn’t make any bones about it. He called the billboard disgusting, and Hickman’s comments in the media embarrassing.

“It’s not the intent that they had behind this sign that’s the issue. It’s the fact that they are apologizing, not saying they understand what they did wrong, but they are apologizing that people are actually taking offence and pointing it out,” he said. “‘Fairy’ is still a bully word. It targets flamboyant gay men, and the last time I checked, I don’t leave a trail of pixie dust when I walk.”

Musician Glenn Nuotio, who says he has listened to opera for more than 20 years — and who was called names as a kid for playing classical music — agreed.

“The suggestion that people who don’t know opera were the ones complaining is an insensitive tone-deaf response when you’re not actually sorry, you just got caught because you suddenly learned it was offensive,” he said in a written statement. “I can take a joke and make even better use of dark humour myself in my own songwriting and performances, but I’m not putting signs on highways or utilizing stereotypes and hurtful words to get noticed by the status quo.

“Without sounding like too much like a dramatic diva myself, I actually teared up a little when I saw that sign, and I don’t care how much of a God damn fairy that makes me, because I’ve been reminded that my love of opera makes me one for life.”

The billboard was taken down Wednesday afternoon and replaced with one advertising Opera on the Avalon’s upcoming production of “La Boheme,” with the message, “Love, despair, poverty, intermission, illness, death.”

Twitter: @tara_bradbury