What’s in a word?
An off-hand remark, something about “those people”, or a middle school bully calling me a derogatory name and pushing me into the lockers. Deep down, I knew I was transgender back then, but I denied it and learned early on how to play the role that everybody expected of me. I turned to sports and soccer was my first love. I was the goalkeeper, the shield, the last desperate defender, the person whose mistakes would be most visible and costly. I kept a picture of my freshman soccer team in my locker.
In tenth grade, I made the mistake once of telling a girl I was only semi-seriously dating that I sometimes wore women’s clothes when no one else was around. She broke up with me and told her cousin, my biggest bully, my forbidden secret. The very next day I turned the corner to my locker and froze in my tracks at the scene before me.
Reflexively clutching my books to my chest (a habit girls have; boys carry them in one hand at their side) I slowed my pace and took in the details. A locker, my locker, visibly broken open. I saw my sweatshirt strewn haphazardly on the floor, my book for the next class with its brown paper bag cover that my mom and I had made tossed casually aside, the pages bent. There was some blood smeared on the door of my locker.
The assistant principal stood talking to a few of my classmates, a few my teammates from the soccer team. As I approached, the assistant principal spoke but I only caught bits and pieces through my heartbeat pounding in my head: my bully’s name… broken into… Curt, my right back… there was a fight…. Curt had stepped in… defending me now off the field as well as on… My eye was drawn to the floor before me. The smiling faces, the team banner. “Feel the Love” had been our team motto the year before. I saw my shape in the picture frame, awkwardly holding up the “#1” sign after the varsity team won the county title, but my face was scratched out, erased.
The team picture, but with a word scribbled on it now… a word that every queer person has run into at some point in their lives. My stomach lurched and I lost my lunch, the tears streaming freely. Scratched across a picture of one of the happiest moments of my life, across a picture of myself and my closest friends, “faggot”.
Words have meaning, but words carry power beyond their literal definition. For me, when I hear “faggot”, I hear that I am unsafe. I am not alone.
Queer people, even closeted folks, learn early on that there are certain cornerstones to homophobia and transphobia. Spaces that allow the word faggot to be casually thrown around are hostile places. Even if the word isn’t intended as a put-down for queer people, even if it’s meant as a joke, it indicates the space is a welcoming environment for homophobes. If silence is the response to that insidious word, then homophobes and transphobes take it as a sign to push things a bit further. Banter turns into harassing a trans person in the restroom or morphs into direct threats against queer people.
There is an issue with queerphobia in MLS stadiums and the current policies and solutions don’t seem to be working. As it stands, these stadiums cannot be assumed to be a safe space for queer people.
To get a handle on how homophobic speech and actions are dealt with in American soccer fan culture, my co-author for this piece and I reached out to MLS and the major supporters’ groups around the league. We heard back from the league office and six supporters’ groups. Geographically, all six respondents were from areas considered more liberal, areas where homophobia is culturally considered less acceptable. Each talked of proudly flying Pride flags during games (shout-out to Sons of Ben for flying the trans pride flag during a match while the largest trans health conference in the United States was being hosted in Philadelphia; I remember seeing that while I was still in the closet) and all were very welcoming to me as an out trans woman.
We got the sense that for the supporters’ group leadership that responded, having an open and tolerant section at the stadium where LGBT people are welcome and supported is a priority. However, the sad reality is that we heard from just 6 of 20 fanbases. What concerns me is that I don’t know why the other supporters groups didn’t get back to us. I have to wonder if it’s a general apathy towards homophobia, or just plain laziness. For many supporters groups websites, there were no directions on how to send a media inquiry, so it’s possible that at least a few of the non-responses were due to a broken communication system.
Both MLS and many of the supporters’ groups who responded also cited their commitment to celebrating Pride.
Pride month is a time for LGBT people to celebrate what makes us different. Pride’s roots come from protest: When homosexuality, and even wearing clothes of the opposite gender, was illegal, police targeted LGBT hangouts and conducted raids to boost their arrest counts. Then, being queer literally made you an outlaw.
On June 28th, 1969, an early morning police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village became the last straw. A protest riot ensued. Led by trans women of color, drag queens and queer folk, the LGBT community finally stood up together to the constant raids and demanded a safe place to express their sexualities without fear of arrest.
It was the spark that LGBT people needed to begin finding their voices, their places in society.
This year I marched in my first Pride parade, having just recently started to come out of the closet as trans. For me, it was chance to openly wear a skirt and declare loudly that this is who I am. It was a chance to show anyone that wanted to break into my locker that I would no longer be intimidated. And yes, it was also a chance to have fun with people who had similar experiences to my own.
Pride has become the de facto way to be seen as supportive of LGBT people. Pride’s roots came from protest, but the modern day event has been divorced from its original purpose. If you attend any Pride event across the country nowadays, you will see endless lines of corporate tents hawking their goods for the gay dollar. MLS is no exception, making its own play at the wallets and support of LGBT fans.
In recent years, more and more supporters’ groups have begun celebrating Pride. What began as an informal display of LGBT rainbow flags during a match in June has expanded to six MLS teams hosting official Pride events at their stadiums. It’s heartening to see the rainbow flag and, more rarely, that trans pride flag being flown so proudly in MLS stadiums. It’s unquestionably a positive development, but supporting LGBT people is about more than just flying a flag during Pride month.
When we reached out to the MLS front office for a statement on homophobia in US soccer fan culture, they highlighted their “Don’t Cross the Line” campaign.
“Don’t Cross the Line” is a pretty standard, general nondiscrimination campaign that generalizes bigoted behavior and speech as “bad”. Its landing page features videos from league stars in English, Spanish and French. The accompanying statement notes, “We will not tolerate discrimination, bias, prejudice or harassment of any kind.” Prejudice equals bad. The “Take the Pledge” link redirects to the RISE website, which is, as the MLS official description states, a “nonprofit organization dedicated to harnessing the unifying power of sport to advance race relations”. Race relations undoubtedly need to be addressed, but I had asked about homophobia.
As a person with two letters in LGBT, I don’t feel like either the DCTL statement or the RISE pledge applies to me. I need the league to stand up for me.
As my coauthor expressed in part 1, supporters’ culture seems to lack a solid definition of what, exactly, homophobic behavior is and how it should be dealt with. The individual supporters’ groups actually do follow the RISE pledge to “not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind”: Supporters groups already embrace policies “to speak up whenever [they] know discrimination is happening and [they] will stand up for victims”.
The problem is that there is little official guidance as to what the league considers homophobic abuse and discrimination. It’s left to individual supporters groups to define homophobic speech or behavior and self-police the bad apples. But when what’s considered hateful differs from place to place, from person to person, self-policing won’t work. A wishy-washy, non-committal policy cannot create a consistently safe environment for LGBT people. MLS implores fans to “Don’t Cross the Line” … but where is the line?
Nowhere else is this more reflected than in the “puto” chant. When I first came across the word, I was still deeply repressing my own queerness. I gave off a vibe of being into LGBT rights under the veil of being a good liberal. But I am not Hispanic and I don’t speak Spanish, and because I didn’t want to misinterpret something from a culture that I didn’t understand, I researched what the word meant within its cultural context. I read that there were homophobic connotations to the word, loosely translated to “male prostitute”. I learned that it is a common expression in Mexican culture, similar in usage to “faggot”.
But who was I, a white, (at the time) male-presenting person to question another culture? I didn’t want to make waves or draw attention to myself, so I decided to leave it alone. Back then, when I thought I’d stay closeted forever, I decided that “puto” was a someone else problem out of necessity. If I stayed quiet on the issue, maybe no one would notice what I was trying to hide.
Now, having come out and starting to attend games as a trans woman, I have no choice. “Puto” not only offends me, it brings me back to my broken locker, to having “faggot” scratched into a picture of one of my most cherished memories. I can’t help it. Even when people argue that the word has a different context, I can’t change how I feel. I can’t change feeling unsafe when thousands of fans chant a Spanish phrase likened to the English use of “faggot”. I need MLS to take this seriously. When MLS says that they wouldn’t be able to comment on the chant, it doesn’t make me feel any safer.
There’s precedent for taking precisely this sort of action. Just a few years back, MLS made a concerted effort to stamp out a different goal kick chant: “You suck asshole!” A dumb phrase screamed by people who thought it was funny. MLS decided that by eliminating YSA, it would make their stadiums more welcoming to families. Many of the original clubs in MLS still depend on the family dollar, so it would make sense to cater to the demographic.
The move to eliminate YSA centered around one fanbase in particular, Red Bull New York. We reached out to Steve Ferrezza, Board Member and Travel Coordinator for Empire Supporters Club, for some insight into how the league attempted to wipe out YSA:
“When MLS cracked down on You Suck Asshole, they focused all of their attention on us. We were threatened with sanctions, forfeiture of points, and vilified as if we were chanting for the drowning of puppies.”
He went on to describe a recent trip to a different MLS stadium, where he heard a mix of YSA and “puto”.
“I haven’t heard Garber say anything about them. I do not believe that YSA and p*to are comparable. One is a stupid chant that got laughs, the other is homophobic and deplorable. For them to step in on one and not the other is confusing to say the least. I do not understand why the league isn’t cracking down the way they did with YSA. Not only did they threaten to sanction us, we were told that if we did stop, our team could get allocation money. Which is a completely different story. The league needs to step in and put a stop to it as soon as possible, before it spreads throughout the various SCs and makes us all look and sound horrible.”
Sanctions, forfeiture of points, bribing fans, offers of allocation money to the club in question. All were previously used to achieve the league goal of eliminating an offensive chant. So why the silence on “puto”? “Puto,” like “faggot,” is a gateway to more vicious harassment. When a queer trans woman like myself is surrounded by people screaming that word, I can’t trust that my next trip to the bathroom will turn out okay. When you tacitly allow puto for 90 minutes, you’re inviting harassment on the bus ride home. Supporting LGBT fans takes more than waving flags and marching in parades and partnering with corporate social justice consultants.
MLS should start by taking a stand against “puto”. They need to work with their LGBT fans to clearly define unacceptable behavior from their fanbases. They ask us “Don’t Cross the Line” and then don’t tell us what the line is, declining to even comment on “puto” for a story that two queer soccer fans and journalists are writing for a website that boosts the voices of marginalized people. The league has the tools to fight back against the spread of this chant, just as they had with YSA. Now is the time for action on this, before the chant becomes ubiquitous.
The league must also establish a clear and consistent bathroom policy that extends across each of its facilities. MLS must ensure that trans people can use facilities consistent with their gender identities, and that there are enough gender neutral bathrooms to allow anyone that wants to use them to relieve themselves there during halftime. Such a policy, implemented throughout the league, will send a loud and clear message that homophobia has no place inside their stadium walls.
I need the league to protect me. I can’t do it alone. I can’t depend on the compassion of strangers who took an online pledge. Watching “puto” spread is terrifying – not just because it’s insulting to me, but because of what it represents. The bullies are trying to get into my locker again and I need MLS to be my Curt, my right back who defends my flank both on and off the pitch