Welcome to the ninth installment of More Than Words, where I take queer words of all sorts and smash them apart and see what makes them tick. Every week I’ll be dissecting a different word, trying to figure out where it came from, how it has evolved, where it might be going, and what it all means. It’s like reading the dictionary through a prism. Feel free to send word suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header by Rory Midhani
One of the dangers of publishing a newspaper called Intolerancia: you might get sued for intolerancia. Enrique Núñez Quiroz, who holds that job, found this out the hard way after he published an editorial in 2009 calling Prida Huerta, the publisher of rival Puebla paper Sintesis, puñal and all of Huerta’s writers maricones. In 2010, Huerta sued Quiroz for moral damage” (the Mexican equivalent of defamation); Huerta won and Quiroz appealed, enough times that the case made it all the way to the Mexican Supreme Court. Earlier this month, after deliberating hard and long over “the complex conflict between freedom of expression and discriminatory demonstrations — a first for Mexican jurisprudence,” the First Chamber of the Court ruled 3-2 in favor of Huerta, finding that since these words are homophobic, they don’t count as protected speech. What are these words? What’s going to happen to them now? Where did they come from, and what more do they mean now that they’ve been set apart?
The word maricón might ring a bell. I don’t speak Spanish at all and yet it still sets off alarms for me. University of Colorado linguist Sara Balder translates it approximately as “big Mary” and casts it as “by far the most frequently used heterosexist address term” in Spanish-speaking countries. Like most slang, it means different things depending on where it’s said and who’s saying it. In Mexico, it can be roughly pinpointed at the intersection between “gay person,” “bad person,” and “coward.” Like much slang, its potential to wound or incite falls on a wide spectrum — it’s bandied about jokingly (of course, not at all harmlessly) on school playgrounds, “that’s-so-gay”-style, but it’s also the slur that drove closeted boxer Emile Griffith to beat his taunter and opponent Benny Paret to death in 1962. It was supposedly Fidel Castro’s ultimate insult: legend has it he sent Gabriel García Márquez to leaders in Panama and Spain with the short message “Dice Fidel que usted es un maricón” (“Fidel says you are a maricón” — the ugliest sentence Márquez was ever involved with, I’d guess).
It’s a thoroughly modern slur in that it’s even caused famous people to give emergency press conferences: namely former Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson, who drew flack for saying it on Don Imus’s show in 2007, and Toronto Blue Jay shortstop Yunel Escobar, who was suspended for three games last fall after he wrote it on his eyeblack. Both later “apologized” by saying that they considered the word to simply mean “effeminate,” not bad-and-gay (because, you know, that’s not problematic! As Jay Michaelson of the Daily Beast says, “Maybe maricón’s real target isn’t gays, but women”). Puñal means “dagger,” and is slang for, roughly, a deceitful gay man.
But now, if a newspaper in Mexico calls you either of these things you can sue and you’ll probably win. Although this ruling will not inspire any hard and fast laws — because of how the Mexican judicial system is set up, the same issue has to arise several times, in several states, before a binding precedent is set — it will, at least, set the tone for future cases. And there may be a lot of those; Two attorneys predicted “a cascade” of similar lawsuits now that the ruling has hit the books.
Others hope that their decision will have further-reaching effects. According to the Associated Press, “the resolution was praised by the Mexican gay and lesbian community and anti-discrimination activists as a step forward in the fight for equality in this conservative country rife with machismo.” Alejandro Brito, the head of a gay rights group called Letter S, thinks it will have a positive effect on the media, and CONAPRED (Conseja Nacional para Prevenir la Discriminacion, or the National Council to Prevent Discrimination) thinks it will set, at the very least, a social precedent, and “clarify the public discussion of the validity of sending messages based on hate speech.” Fernando del Collado, a journalist and homophobia expert, was pleasantly surprised by the ruling, but says that detailed and far-reaching legislation will be required to actually combat a discriminatory tradition that, as in most countries, appears everywhere from “football stadiums to church pulpits and political discourse.” Critics in the opposite direction call the decision “ridiculous” and say it sets up a slippery slope of censorship that will lead to a long blacklist of words.
I’m a U.S. citizen, which makes me incredibly skeptical of any limitations on freedom of speech. But it also makes me crush pretty hard on government entities (especially judicial branches, especially right now) that appear to prioritize speeding along social progress rather than riding its coattails and dragging their gavels. I was very interested to see what the justices themselves hoped to accomplish with their decision. In a press release (translated in full by Andrés Duque at Blabbeando), the Chamber explained its reasoning, and in doing so revealed a decision-making process that seems inspiringly proactive. After acknowledging “the strong influence language has on people’s perception of reality,” and how that influence can lead to prejudice when the language used “takes for granted the marginalization of certain individuals or groups,” the court went on to state that:
“Homophobic expressions – in other words, the frequent allegations that homosexuality is not a valid option but an inferior condition – constitute discriminatory statements even if they are expressed jokingly, since they can be used to encourage, promote, and justify intolerance against gays [. . .] the words “maricones” and “puñal” . . . are expressions which are certainly deeply rooted in the language of Mexican society, but the truth is that the practices of a majority of participants in a society cannot trump violations of basic rights.”
In an editorial for the New York Times last year, Stanley Fish writes about two different governmental responses to hate speech. In the first, as practiced in Canada, “hate speech is a virus” that “produces enduring injuries to self-worth and undermines social cohesion.” It must be squashed at all costs. In the second, the modus operandi of the United States, “hate speech is an opportunity” to allow the ills of society to air themselves out, so that we can address the causes of the problem rather than band-aiding the symptoms. Those affected by the speech are seen not as victims but as “resolute individuals . . . made stronger by the encounter.”
Both of these methods have clear flaws. One seems to suggest that silencing ideas will make them go away. The other means that the Westboro Baptist Church can continue to picket military funerals. In this light, the Mexican Supreme Court’s method of dealing with hate speech — acknowledging the ill affects it can have on individuals and society, diagnosing certain words as intrinsically hateful in whatever context, and making a firm statement against them without censoring them outright — seems like a fantastic middle ground. If you officially question and invite your country to question why people use maricón, you end up questioning why the word exists in the first place. You treat it as more than just a word, and then you can treat — not just diagnose — the ills it arose from.