Homophobic epithets are so pervasive across the globe that most heterosexual people are sadly unaware of the psychological and physical toil they have on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people. Too often and cavalierly these epithets go either unchecked or unchallenged as hate speech.
Mexico, however, has stepped forward to define and reduce homophobic hate speech. Two commonly used words -- "punal" and "maricones" -- are the main targets. Both words closely translate as "faggot."
On March 6, in a vote of 3-2, Mexico's Supreme Court ruled that these two homophobic hateful slurs are not legally protected in the country's constitution as freedom of speech. The Supreme Court further ruled that any citizen offended by these words now could seek redress by suing for moral damages.
"Even though they are deeply rooted expressions in Mexican society, the fact is that the practices of the majority of society can't validate the violations of basic right," the Court wrote in support of its ruling.
The LGBTQ communities across Mexico are, no doubt, ecstatic by the ruling, hoping it will engender more respect and consciousness of their struggle. But as most LGBTQ Latinos know, these two homophobic epithets are so frequently and easily espoused throughout Latin American culture that many are not cognizant of their deleterious effect.
Case in point: Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was suspended last September for three games for wearing eye-black displaying a homophobic slur written in Spanish during a game against the Boston Red Sox.
With the phrase "TU ERE MARICON" (sic) written in his eye-black, the phrase can be loosely translated as "You are a faggot" or "You're a weak girl."
"It didn't have significance to the way that's being interpreted right now," Escobar emphatically stated through a Spanish interpreter. "That's not the significance that I put into it. That's a word used often within teams. It's a word without meaning, the way we use it."
Escobar, a native of Cuba, contested that the phrase is taken out of contest because used in his culture it is not intended to be offensive; it's merely used as banter in their friendly repartee.
"I have friends who are gay. The person who decorates my house is gay; the person who cuts my hair is gay. I have various friends who are gay. Honestly, they haven't felt as offended about this. They have just a different understanding in the Latin community of this word," Escobar stated, defending himself to the media.
While the word is no doubt homophobic it does seemingly carry different cultural connotations throughout Latin America.
Liberation theologian Miguel De La Torre wrote in his essay "Beyond Machismo: A Cuban Case Study":
"To tell a man not to be a maricón, also means 'don't be a coward.' Cuban homophobia differs from homophobia in the United States. We do not fear the homosexual; rather we hold him in contempt for being a man who chooses not to prove his manhood. Unlike North Americans, where two men engaged in a sexual act are both called homosexuals, for Cubans only the one that places himself in the "position" of a woman is the maricón. Only the one penetrated is labeled loca (crazy woman, a term for maricones). In fact, the man who is in the dominant position during the sex act, known as bugarrón, is able to retain, if not increase, his machismo..."
Language is a representation of culture and if a culture is unaware of or anesthetized to the destructive use of homophobic epithets it reinscribes and perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender identity and sexual orientation. Consequently, these ideas and assumptions are transmitted from field houses to playing courts and into the dominant culture. And unfortunately, even accepted or explained away among some scholars.
"It is derogatory, but it's not necessarily homophobic," said Maria Cristina Cuervo, a professor of Spanish at the University of Toronto.
While Professor Cuervo agrees that the phrase is insulting, she doesn't grasp, however, that if the phrase "TU ERE MARICON" goes unchecked or is not challenged it allows people within their culture to become unconscious and numb to the use and abuse of the power and currency of this homophobic epithet -- and the power it still has to thwart the daily struggles of many of us to ameliorate LGBTQ relations.
Also, part of the problem contributing to the unconscious insensitivity to the phrase is the cultural construction of "machismo." In many Latin American cultures, it is perceived a gross failure in masculinity. But this hyper-masculinity not only exploits women, but also unabashedly denigrates and targets LGBTQ people as scapegoats and pariahs.
Stephen O. Murray further points this out in his essay "Mexico" in the anthology The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America: A Readers of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, edited by Javier Corrales and Mario Pecheny that "The perceived failures of masculinity of "maricones" made (and makes) them "fair game" to be robbed, beaten, and used as sexual receptacles by males upholding conventional "macho" notions of masculinity, particularly policemen."
With landmark rulings made on behalf of LGBTQ citizens in many countries across the globe these days, violence, intolerance, and discrimination are still a constant.
Activists have for decades argued the relationship between hate speech and violence. Cleaning up language is just one more needed act furthering LGBTQ justice.
And Mexico is leading the way.