I'm a relatively new fan to soccer, having only discovered how much I enjoyed it during the Women's World Cup in Germany in 2011, six matches of which I watched over and over and over again as part of the research for an academic article I was working on. I've only ever seen one international friendly match in person, which is the first time I noticed the fans of Mexico's national team chanting "puto" in unison at the opposing goalkeeper as he cleared the ball. Of course, as a linguist, as someone who has studied homophobic discourse, and as someone who cares passionately about improving the lives and life chances of LGBTQ people, the Mexican fans' practice of yelling "puto" immediately captured my attention. During the 2014 FIFA World Cup currently underway in Brazil, a controversy has erupted over the practice, and FIFA, the international organization that governs the competition, has reportedly opened up an official inquiry.
Some accuse the gay community of something akin to the sometimes over-the-top flopping that soccer players do in order to try to get a penalty call: something happens, organizations and individuals cry foul, and a public (non)apology follows. This cycle, and therefore the gay community, is blamed for reinforcing a victim mentality, for distracting from important issues with petty concerns about name-calling, and for overreacting, being too touchy or just not getting it. As happens frequently when the inherent bias in a term or expression is pointed out, those who defend it trivialize the complaint by reference to the "language police", and the dreaded term "political correctness" is dusted off and trotted out to try to shame people into silence. Despite this pressure to look the other way, it is important to stand up and call out linguistic practices that are hurtful and dangerous, even if they are part of beloved traditions. We know that homophobic slurs are not just words; we know that they reinforce a reality in which LGBTQ people are vulnerable to attack and abuse, not on a football field, but in the streets, at work and at home. Slurs translate into real physical violence because they condone and normalize hate. Slurs translate into suicide, substance abuse and self-harming because they underscore the message that LGBTQ people are not worthy of life, love, and happiness like everyone else.
Yes, sport is a hyper-masculine domain that has tended to be very hostile towards gay people, so it should come as no surprise to find some homophobic discourse in and around a major international sporting event. Sport is a reflection of who we are and ritual through which we can perform our identities. Racism in sport? Yes, of course, because there is racism in society. Sexism in sport? Yes, of course, because there is sexism in society. Same goes for homophobia in sports. This does not mean that we should just shrug our shoulders, grumble "oh, well" and move on. It means that we need to recognize instances of homophobia in sport and take steps to change both sport and society in an effort to create a more open, welcoming and fair world. We don't do this by excusing obvious examples of racism, sexism and homophobia as tradition and part of the cultural heritage.
What exactly does 'puto' mean? Well, like most words, it means a lot of things, and its meaning and use vary by context. The Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary (Diccionario de la Real Academia Española) provides four definitions, three adjectives and one noun. The noun 'puto' is defined as "Man who has copulation with a person of his sex." It is not highlighted as offensive or derogatory as other words are in the dictionary, although this of course does not mean that people do not find it offensive. As Geoffrey Nunberg points out in his recent piece in the Atlantic about the question of "Redskins," even if a word has a "benign origin," it can develop a derogatory meaning and the force of a slur because over time the word may be "infused with the attitudes about the thing it names." Negative attitudes about homosexuality and non-heteronormative gender identities mean words describing LGBTQ people may become infused with negative connotations. Wordreference.com, a top online dictionary, in contrast, does label the use 'offensive' and translates it as 'fag, faggot.' As I mention in an earlier piece that I wrote about George Lopez's highly problematic use of 'maspoot' (from 'más puto'), the meaning and use of 'puto' was debated internationally when the Mexican rock band Molotov released a song in the late 1990s with that word as its title. Then the band's defense was that 'puto' was simply being used an insult term against corrupt Mexican government officials, equivalent to 'jerk' or 'wimp,' and not related to sexual orientation. This should sound familiar to those who have read or heard the justifications by those who have used "fag" or "faggot" in public discourse and refused to apologize, from Ann Coulter to Eminem. However, as with 'faggot' in English, the insult word gets its sting from the homophobic belief that being gay is something to be ashamed of and that a man who has sex with men is one of the worst things you can call someone. If the insult is built on this homophobic foundation, then can its use be anything but homophobic, even if not directed at a gay person with the intent to attack his sexual identity?
So, in my opinion, the current controversy over 'puto' boils down to two simple questions: (1) is it a homophobic slur?, and if so, (2) should its use be banned by FIFA? The short answers are: yes, and yes. The question of how to carry that out is not an easy one, but cutting it out of the broadcasts of the game might be a good start. Outsports.com reports that ESPN will try to avoid broadcasting the chant during Mexico's game against Croatia on Thursday afternoon. Whether the broadcasters will address the situation directly or not remains to be seen.
FIFA, who has made an effort in recent years to confront racism and gender bias, might have another fight to add to its to-do list, although the organization itself is currently quite under attack itself for not only the current World Cup in Brazil but for the inhumane slave labor that is currently being used to prepare for the World Cup in Qatar. In a statement on the FIFA website on the eve of the international competition, the organization says that the following statement will be read in the stadium before the beginning each game (emphasis added): "Today we strive not only for victory in the game, but for the victory of peace; for mutual respect, regardless of gender, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, religion or class. These are the values and aspirations of FIFA, the wider world of sport and people everywhere. We pledge to do our utmost to achieve global peace and a life of dignity for all." The question is, then, what will FIFA do about the blatant disregard for the spirit of this statement echoing through the stadium?