08/14/2013 07:35 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

As American as Baseball and Homophobia


This past weekend I sat with my wife and my parents in the stands of a minor league baseball game, enjoying the small-town, Americana glory that is our national pastime. We consumed hot dogs, soft pretzels and fried dough. We cheered the struggling team (which, sadly, lost), the goofy mascot, the kids who participated in all the silly challenges and contests between innings, and even the small inflatable cow that inexplicably makes an appearance in the later innings to the roar of the crowd. We exchanged jokes and funny pleasantries with people seated near us, fueled by the camaraderie that results from being sports fans and being passionate about the same particular major league team (the Boston Red Sox, in our case).

However, I just cannot seem to let go of a comment that a fellow fan made.

Earlier in the game, my family and I had been discussing Alex Rodriguez, a player for the New York Yankees who is currently fighting a 211-game suspension -- the longest non-lifetime ban in baseball history -- for his use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). As Red Sox fans, we are, of course, pretty critical of the player commonly known by the nickname "A-Rod." I made a funny comment, and the fact that the youngish guy in front of us laughed out loud indicated that he was listening appreciatively. I also opined that it was pretty unfair to the opposing teams, particularly the pitchers, who had to face this player while he is appealing his suspension, since it is known that he has used PEDs, and they would have to suffer the consequences of whatever success he had at the plate, in terms of their statistics.

Later, the guy in front of us volunteered the name of a hockey player that I couldn't come up with, and at another point my mom accidentally kicked her water bottle down into his row, which the woman he was with retrieved. So we had had a couple of exchanges with them when, after receiving an update on his phone, he turned around and, with a blend of conviviality and disgust, shared the news that "Gay-Rod just got a home run!"

As the player in question is pretty universally disliked, and homophobic taunts are still pretty common in sports, I suppose it is no surprise that the "Gay-Rod" nickname is out there, although I had never heard it before. A quick Internet search indicates that it has an entry in the crowdsourced Urban Dictionary dating back to 2004: "A nickname given to A-Rod of the New York Yankees by Boston." Perhaps the guy did not pick up on the fact that my wife and I were a couple, or perhaps the nickname is so ingrained that it didn't cross his mind or tongue to refer to A-Rod in any other way. But suffice it to say that my fellow fan's comment went over like a lead balloon.

How do you react to a homophobic slur in front of your parents? Does "Gay-Rod" constitute a homophobic slur? Should I cut the guy some slack, given that for many young guys the term "gay" allegedly does not have any association with LGBTQ folks and is merely a synonym for "dumb"? Should I jump in and educate the guy about the damaging repercussions of the use of "gay" as an insult and the fact that it is ridiculous to deny that the force of "gay" as an insult is totally unrelated to LGBTQ people, our oppression, and the undermining of our emotional and physical safety? Is it better to risk coming off as a shrill, militant lesbian who can't take a joke or as a loser who doesn't have enough self-pride to object to a homophobic slur uttered directly to me (albeit about someone else) in front of my family? These are all questions I did not want to have to consider during my trip to the ballpark on a Sunday afternoon, and these are all questions that I don't want to still be thinking about days later.

A colleague recently sent me a message telling me that a research presentation I gave on public apologies over the use of the (roughly synonymous) terms "maricón" and "fag(got)" a few years ago allowed him to recognize the Spanish word when a fan sitting behind him at a minor league ballpark used it to describe the pitcher of one of the teams. He said that by his reaction to the word, the guy realized that he had understood it, which led to him having a "great chat" with his fellow fan, who happened to be the brother of the pitcher for the other team.

I'm annoyed that my experience was less than great. Of course, because of who I am, it's harder for me to let the slur go, but what is harder (and harder to admit) is that I want to. I want to just ignore it, attribute the guy with all sorts of good intentions that he may or may not have, and move on. "I'm sure he didn't mean it to be offensive" and "I'm sure the guy doesn't have a problem with gay people" are actually things I have said to myself since the incident. I've also almost convinced myself that he's still worrying about whether he offended us and if he should have apologized, even though my rational self is pretty sure that this is not the case.

Putting my internal struggles (and, some might say, delusions) aside, can I take this opportunity to ask all my fellow Red Sox fans to just stop saying "Gay-Rod"? It's not funny, it's not original, and it makes you look bad. If you must insult Alex Rodriguez -- and I'm totally fine with that -- why not use "A-Roid"? While it's not original either (Urban Dictionary has it described as a "new insult" way back in 2009), it's more to the point of the whole steroid/cheating thing, and it doesn't make you sound like a bigot.

Thanks, and please don't let my experience keep you from getting out there to enjoy some minor league baseball this summer. Call me crazy, but I do believe that one of the ways we can combat homophobia in sports is to insist on our right to be there, as athletes, as coaches and even as fans.