Thursday, September 20, 2012

A knock on the defense offered for Yunel Escobar

A brief update on the ongoing Yunel Escobar and the "tu ere maricon" controversy, which I first blogged about here and here.

The common defense that's being used, in the hours and days following the press conference, is that the possible negative connotation of the word is being overblown. Latin American players and reporters have been quick to say that there's a translation problem - both linguistically and culturally speaking - and that it really wasn't a big deal. "Maricon" means a lot of things, they say, and lots of people use it everyday and in casual conversation with friends and family. So, no problem, right?

Well, I don't really buy it. In fact, the culture-gap/culture-clash defense strikes me as pretty weak. Worse, it strikes me as, at best, a bit clueless and, at worst, indicative of a much larger problem with homophobia and a misunderstanding of how it operates and perpetuates. (And I'm not even gonna go anywhere near the "boys will be boys" type of defense that's been offered by Dirk Hayhurst and others. Honestly, if I need to explain why that one is unbelievably fucking problematic, you're probably not going to understand anything that follows, anyway.)

Players and coaches like Omar Vizquel and Ozzie Guillen quickly defended Escobar by saying that Latin Americans use the word in casual conversation with their friends all the time, to show them affection, to tease them, and/or to emasculate them. 
  • Vizquel: "We say that word very often, and to us, it doesn’t really mean that we are decreasing anybody or talking down to people or anything like that. It’s just a word we use on an everyday basis. I don’t know why people are taking this so hard and so out of place or out of proportion."
  • Guillen: "In my house, we call (each other) that word every 20 seconds. I've got three kids," Guillen added.  "For us, it's like 'What's up, bro? What's up, dude?' It's how you say it and to who you say it. But that's our country.

Now, admittedly, I'm no expert or cultural anthopologist with expertise with respect to the Caribbean. But I am keenly aware of just how much more dangerous it is to be an LGBTQ person in Central America than it is in Canada. And that difference, that danger? I'm going to suggest that it has a lot to do with the ease with which people like Vizquel and Guillen can brush aside Escobar's words. (Just a quick note: I am not so naive as to think that race isn't playing a factor in the way that the Toronto media has taken up the story. But that's another story for another day.)

Because this defense sounds an awful lot like "when we say 'fag', we mean you're too sensitive. we don't mean you're gay or anything'." This sounds an awful lot like "when i say he's a 'pussy', i mean he's weak. it doesn't have anything to do with women, so it can't be sexist". It sounds like they don't recognize the implied equivalence - that if, say, "pussy" means "weak" but it also means "woman", then a connection is implied between "weak" and "woman". It sounds like they're pretending - or are genuinely oblivious to - the power that words carry, the things that they say in excess of what we intend for them to say all the time.

And that power? It doesn't go away if we stop acknowledging it - it just becomes invisible. As Irene Monroe puts it, in her coverage of this story, "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." Being unconscious or numb to the word's connotations through overuse isn't a good excuse - like I said before, it's indicative of the larger, systemic problem.

The response of people like Guillen and Vizquel is also a remarkably unempathetic. Every one of these responses has, from what I can tell, been offered by straight Latin American men who use it in conversation with other straight Latin American men and note that other straight Latin American men don't find it all shocking. WHAT A SURPRISE. But what about all of the gay men that they talk to? (I mean, in addition to the men that Escobar employs.) Or that don't talk to them because the language makes them feel unsafe? Or, worse yet, who join in the discourse because they would feel more unsafe if they didn't play along? Because - guess what? - that happens all the time. They don't exist, I guess. In fact, if the media-response outside a couple papers in Toronto is any indication, the whole queer community doesn't exist! Or, you know, you could look for them, because you would find them.

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As a totally unrelated aside, I can recall the comic book creator John Byrne explaining that, when he was a kid growing up in England during the 50s, it was not uncommon for the English to use the word "nigger" in everyday conversation. He said that it was even relatively common, at least where he grew up, to give the name "Nigger" to cats and dogs. And, he adds, it wasn't racist at all! But how's that possible, you ask? Because the white people who used it didn't think it was racist.

That makes sense, right? A bunch of white people casually use a derogatory word for non-white people, and they apply it endearingly to animals and, of course, without malice or intent to harm - so that's totally cool, right? Because who could be offended by a word loaded with painful historical baggage? Who could be offended if that word's given as a name to a dog? End of story.

And if that logic strikes you as totally fucked up... then maybe you can see that I was lying when I said it was a totally unrelated aside.

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