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09.20.12

Blue Jays Suspend Yunel Escobar for Gay Slur, But That’s Not the Real Issue

Is maricon really hate speech? Or is it harmless locker-room, boys-will-be-boys slang? The answer lies somewhere in the middle, writes Jay Michaelson.

I was first called “maricon” in 1986, on the playing fields of my junior high school. Doubly ignorant, I didn’t know what it meant in Spanish (roughly, “faggot”), and I didn’t know—yet—that I was gay.

In fact, my homosexuality had nothing to do with it; I was called “maricon” for the same reason that Yunel Escobar, the Toronto Blue Jays shortstop, had it written in white letters on his eyeblack during a game last weekend: it’s a derogatory term used in athletic contexts for anyone who doesn’t throw like a man, act like a man, or score goals like a man. You strike out, you’re a maricon. Jocks talk trash in the locker room, they call each other maricon. It has about as much connection to homosexuality as does the word “gay” when kids use it to describe television shows, sweaters, or music they don’t like.

Nonetheless, Escobar was suspended for three games as a result of his actions. The Blue Jays’ general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, admitted, “I don’t know if there is a right way to deal with these things,” but there’s no question the suspension was the right decision. Still, on closer inspection, the case turns out to have almost nothing to do with gay rights, and much more to do with gender and culture.

First, the Blue Jays did what they had to do. Is maricon really hate speech? Or is it harmless locker-room, boys-will-be-boys slang? The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

On the one hand, jocks calling each other “faggot” isn’t OK. Like the use of the word “gay,” it associates homosexuality with various negative traits, often gendered in nature. As advocacy organizations have reminded us for years, it’s as offensive to say “that’s so gay” when you mean “that’s so stupid” as it would be to say “that’s so black” or “that’s so Jewish.”

On the other hand, Escobar’s use of the word isn’t hate speech; he’s not a bully using it while he beats up a classmate he perceives to be gay. I take Escobar at his word that this was basically locker-room talk—a joke, meant to razz other players.

There is plenty of space in between, however, which justifies Escobar’s suspension. Much is said in the locker room that can’t be said in public: sexual jokes, profanity, insults, and trash talk of all kinds. In close-knit environments, commenting on one’s ethnic, racial, or religious background can be a sign of intimacy; you’re safe among friends. Yet doing so in public is still wrong.  Likewise, my close friends, gay and straight, can make the occasional remark about the number of pairs of shoes I own, or my taste in pop music. But for a stranger to do so would be inappropriate.

Given all this, there are three interesting takeaways from this particular incident.

In close-knit environments, commenting on one’s ethnic, racial, or religious background can be a sign of intimacy; you’re safe among friends. Yet doing so in public is still wrong.

First, this may not even be about hate speech at all. Suppose an African-American athlete wrote the N-word on his uniform. Even though the word is used by black people all the time, in a variety of contexts, when it comes into contact with whites the chemical reaction is so explosive that we don’t even write it here, and it would surely be grounds for suspension from baseball.

Likewise maricon. The language used by the Blue Jays in suspending Escobar wasn’t focused on bigotry or discrimination, but, in the words of The New York Times, on being “more careful and respectful.” That seems exactly right. No one is alleging that Escobar is a bigot or a homophobe—indeed, not that this really matters, but one of Escobar’s responses to the debacle was to point out that his friends who are gay were not offended. This wasn’t hate speech, it was disrespectful speech.

Indeed, that same language—respectful, careful—is the perfect response to right-wing cries about “political correctness.” (I’ve never understood what’s so objectionable about political correctness. It’s always seemed like what I was taught in kindergarten: to be polite, to not insult people with words.)

Second, the Escobar case highlights just how fast social values have shifted when it comes to gays and lesbians—and the occasional whiplash that results. It’s not that we’re all waving rainbow flags, but as commentators have noticed, we have relatively quickly moved to a kind of détente when it comes to sexuality: even if you have a moral judgment about homosexuality, you keep it to yourself, and it’s increasingly unacceptable to insult other people on the basis of it.

This is true even in professional sports. According to my friends in the sports world, there are still dozens of high-profile closeted athletes who are afraid to come out. But there are also many athletes like Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, who sent a hilariously profane letter to a Maryland legislator who wanted the Baltimore Ravens to prevent players from speaking out in favor of same-sex marriage. These and other straight allies show how the pendulum has swung in favor not just of LGBT people specifically, but of responding to the fact of sexual diversity with old-fashioned values like “live and let live,” and not being a jerk.

Yet the whiplash still occurs, as the Escobar case illustrates. It takes time for behaviors, especially community-driven ones like locker-room antics, to catch up with changing social mores.

Finally, this case brings up intersections of gender, sexuality, and culture. Maricon is, after all, a Spanish word, used by Latinos in a culturally specific way. It’s easy for Anglo commentators like me to misconstrue it or take it out of context, or assume it means the same thing as “faggot” means in English. It doesn’t—and that alone tells us a lot about how sexuality and gender are construed in different communities.

At heart, maricon is a term used by two macho cultures, each of which is not so much homophobic as sexist. Really, what was I doing on the sports field back in 1986? I wasn’t homosexual—I was throwing the ball “like a girl”; I was a “pussy,” a sissy, an effeminate man. Maybe maricon’s real target isn’t gays, but women.