In Bogotá, I hear the word maricón – a derogatory term for ‘gay’ – or its related term marica, on average, about 30 times a day. And, sadly, it’s not because people are voicing their support for equal human rights for homosexuals.
In most of Latin America, ‘maricón’ is widely used to refer to someone gay, effeminate, cowardly, bad, or deviant. The origin is apparently related to the name ‘Maria’ and was first used to criticise effeminate men so, in associating effeminacy with negative characteristics, it is, in one fell swoop, potentially derogatory of both effeminate men and of women in general. In Colombia, however, guys also use this as a term of endearment with their friends – similar to ‘dude’ in English.
When I tried, this weekend, to explain to some male Colombian friends (who were, as is common, generously peppering their conversation with the term) why I find it offensive, they replied with something along the lines of: “But it’s not offensive here. It’s fine in our culture.” Hmmmm…all that could come to my mind was this excellent talk by Ash Beckham about the similar normalisation of pejorative uses of the word ‘gay’ in English. I know that my friends are not homophobic and they were not even intentionally referring to homosexuality at all. As Ash Beckham explains in her talk, “What it often comes down to is not about hate or bigotry but about laziness. ‘Gay’ is a really easy word to throw in but it’s not what you’re trying to convey…Say what you mean and mean what you say because the words that you choose matter. When you use ‘gay’ in a pejorative way, the effect that it has on the gay kid in the room or the kid with gay relatives is that being gay is ‘less than’ or ‘inferior to.'”
My Spanish is not perfect yet so, Colombian friends – correct me if I’m wrong – but I think it’s a similar case with maricón and marica here. Even if it’s a cultural norm, it doesn’t mean that we can’t all make an effort to shift to language that isn’t derogatory of a specific group of people and to say something when our friends use these terms. And if you’re still not convinced that it makes a difference, check out this short film about an alternate reality where homosexuality is the ‘norm.’
Good luck, happy Monday and happy St Patrick’s Day, everyone.