Property owner defends what gay neighbour calls 'disgusting behaviour'
A lawn sign that celebrates “traditional marriage” has drawn loud criticism from neighbours and Niagara-on-the-Lake residents for being a message of homophobia and intolerance.
The sign, which is displayed on the lawn of 17 Henry St. in Virgil, says, “Celebrating our traditional marriage” and includes the male and female gender symbols intertwined.
NOTL resident Barnabas Farkas took to Facebook Monday to express his anger about the sign, calling it “disgusting behaviour.”
Farkas said he is openly gay and has been married to his husband for 16 years. He lives a short walk away from the sign.
“This morning on my way to work this is what we had to pass. Here we are in the 21st century, putting up lawn signs like this,” said his post.
“In the times when kids are still struggling to come out, be themselves, you put a sign on your lawn not only stating the word 'traditional' but you even had the male and female sign printed! All I can say is shame on you and shame on the person who printed this for you.”
The property also displays a “No More Lockdowns” sign.
Rudi Koller, who owns the home and had the sign printed in Toronto, said he has no plans to take the sign down. In fact, he said he had multiple copies printed in anticipation that they might get stolen.
“I put (it) up last week and I'm saying what I believe in,” he said in an interview at his home Tuesday.
“A man and a woman. That's the sign, right? In a marriage.”
Asked to clarify whether he is against gay marriage, he said “I don't hate them. That's their lifestyle.”
“If I have a neighbour living beside me, the way I grew up, I have to respect the neighbour. I have to respect their lifestyle, but I don't have to agree to their lifestyle. But I will not hate them.”
Koller doesn't use Facebook and hasn't seen the chatter online, but said he doesn't believe his sign is discriminatory.
He put it up in “protest” of the town considering a rainbow crosswalk and benches and flying the Pride flag in June to commemorate Pride Month.
“If they have the right to promote their lifestyle, then so I too have the right to promote my lifestyle,” he said.
“I believe in one woman, one man marriage. What they do is their stuff, but I don't agree that the town falls over their feet, and only promotes them.”
Koller said he doesn't understand why members of the LGBTQ+ community are advocating for rainbow crosswalks.
“Here they can get married, they have the benefits, everything, so why are they pushing? Why are they want to be advertising more and more, like the sidewalk, and the park benches? Why are they pushing for that?” he said.
“What we're gonna do next, paint the town rainbow colours? Because they will not stop when the sidewalk is painted and when the park benches are painted. They will find another excuse to demand more, and I think this is discriminatory, what the town is doing to the rest of the people. Because there's no promotion for the rest of the people.”
He said it's not fair to people who aren't members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“What (has the town) done for the native, which is a minority. What have they done for the Black people, is a minority, what have they done for the low-income people in town?”
“The responsibility of the mayor and councillors is to promote equality to all the people. There's no equality, when we only promote one group.”
Lord Mayor Betty Disero said there are “a few things wrong with the sign.”
“One, the sign is not permitted by bylaw. Two, there is a general absence of specific symbols for any majority because they already have privileges that others have not been privy to,” she told The Lake Report.
“Three, it is negatively provocative and may be designed to bait rather than engage in meaningful, civil dialogue. Four, Posting this signage appears to ignore the history of exclusion faced by the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community and the strength the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community has shown in the face of adversity. This sign, unfortunately, does not represent the equity and inclusion we are striving to achieve.”
Koller said he was raised never to hate anyone, but to “counterbalance” what he perceives to be a one-sided narrative “promoting” the LGBTQ+ community.
Asked what he thought about the scores of people who see his signs as hate speech, he said “that's how the gay people try to shut everybody down.”
“Let's say you don't like it, I could say, 'Oh, you're hating me.' That's what the gay community does. Like I say, I don't hate the gay community.”
“If they have the right to display their sexual preference, then it's my responsibility, not my right, my responsibility, to display my belief. But nobody talks about the responsibility anymore.”
“I do it because I feel my responsibility to promote our marriage, our lifestyle. If minorities can do it, why can't I do it?”
Koller said one of the signs was already stolen while he was at church on Sunday this week. He said plans to keep one on his lawn.
Hundreds of comments by Niagara-on-the-Lake residents decried the lawn sign and expressed the same feeling of disgust and disbelief as Farkas felt.
“How sad, they must feel very isolated and alone in their beliefs to have to put out a message like this. Perhaps they’re hoping for like-minded people to knock on their door. This does not represent NOTL. We represent NOTL,” said Facebook user Brett Sherlock.
“I find this very disgusting and offensive! It’s the year 2021! Love is love! I’m sorry these people find this remotely acceptable!” said Adriana Miele.
“This is nothing but crystal clear message of hate. I hope they don’t have children to continue this bigotry,” said Tim Vandelaar.
“Why? Who does this? Doing something like this is deliberate in their intentions to hurt another human. You don't do this thinking it will be fine. Some will argue that people put Pride signs out so why can't they for this. That's privilege right there … not being able to accept what privilege means and what it means to be oppressed,” said Kathryn Hoshkiw.
Somewhat ironically, Koller insisted he was taught not to hate others.
“My father always said, real men and real women, they do not bring out hate,” he said.
When pointed out again that his sign is perceived as hate, he said that's “hogwash.”
When told his flag offends many people, Koller said, “I was offended when I go into the town hall, to the post office and see the Pride flag flying.”
Told of some of Koller's comments, Farkas said it is unfortunate to see his neighbour behaving this way.
“I would like to ask him, did he put an 'All Lives Matter' sign out during Black History Month or when the Voices of Freedom Park opened? Did he protest when Niagara Parks opened the Landscape of Nations? Probably the answer will be no to all. So, therefore he is nothing but homophobic. As I said many times, people don't have to like us, or accept. Just have respect.”
“There are many kids just alone in this area (I am two streets away from him) and a sign like this can do lots of damage,” he said.
To some of the people supporting Koller, Farkas suggested they do some research on why Pride Month exists.
“I invite them to educate themselves. Learn about our community, learn the history, what the previous LGBTQ+ generations had to go through to get to where we are today — and we are still fighting. Fighting because of people and behaviour like this.”
“We still have a long way to go, unfortunately. When one celebrates their marriage, they have balloons, God knows what animals and big letters at the front of their house. Fun stuff. When one has a sign out (next to an anti-lockdown sign) that states 'traditional' marriage with a female and male symbol, that's not celebration. That's a statement, that's a message, that's vile and targeted,” Farkas said.
It's “easy for the straight community to come up with signs like this then use the free speech card or religion or whatever else they come up with. In some people's eyes, we are still nothing. Some people, even locally, commented under my post, saying 'choice of sexuality.' We are more than nothing. We are humans and it's not a choice. This is us and this is Canada in 2021. There is no place for signs like this.”