Manuel Betancourt on Navigating Queerness in English and Spanish
“In grasping for gay, I found myself caught between the two languages.”
Marica. Maricón. Mariconada.
Fag. Faggot. Faggotry.
Even written out like that, I can’t help but prefer the English versions. With their swishy f ’s and plunging g’s, there’s a typeset flourish to them.
In contrast, those Spanish variations, with their hardened c’s, have always felt like tiny pebbles thrown my way, their hurtful impact always dulled and amplified by how carelessly they were deployed in everyday speech. To this day, members of my family continue to use them interchangeably to mean “silly” or “stupid” or “useless.” In that sense, a word like marica is closer to how gay is sometimes used in the United States as a casual (and, to some, simply inadvertent) homophobic put-down.
Even in professional settings, I’ve been told, without a hint of irony or self-awareness, that the use of marica in Colombian slang is not really a slur. Not an actual curse word. Just a linguistic tic not worth translating as fag lest English speakers reading subtitles get mistakenly offended by what’s nothing more than a word casually peppered through otherwise banal dialogue. No worse than, say, damn or jeez or, yes, man.
For years this is how I experienced homophobia at home. Not with any one instance of openly hurtful provocation (though there were plenty of those as well) but with the insistent and incessant monotony of linguistic crutches that eroded any ability to claim those words, let alone those identities, as my own. It’s why I found refuge in the English language. It may be an illusory oasis whose own linguistic biases feel, in their foreignness, easier to parse out, discard, or ignore accordingly, but it’s nevertheless given me the tools with which to see myself anew.In shedding Spanish, I could shed the shame instilled in me.
When I came out to my mother, the words “Soy gay” felt awkward, the expression leaving a chalky taste in my mouth. What was odd in that moment, especially as the world seemed to stand still as my mom’s reaction slowly turned from shock and panic to anger and frustration (“What did I do wrong?” she asked herself out loud), was how ill-equipped I felt to handle it in the first place. Not just emotionally but linguistically.
I steered clear of words like marica (which had always felt like a slur) and homosexual (which remains all too clinical), but in grasping for gay, I found myself caught between the two languages, one serving as the makeshift bridge I needed to cross this particular hurdle. For, by the time I’d come out in our family’s kitchen on a listless Sunday afternoon, I’d had plenty of practice making my sexuality known, in ways explicit and implicit, to friends and colleagues at university in Vancouver.
It wasn’t just that I was thousands of miles away from anyone who’d known me growing up—I’d given myself the cleanest of slates with which to refashion myself—but that, in shedding Spanish (and the affected lower register my voice instinctively reaches for when I speak it), I could shed the shame instilled in me by those childhood taunts.
I am the first to admit I might not have been as successful as I first thought. Languages have a way of cleaving you in half. Looking back, what I accomplished by owning English labels as liberatory gestures was to ignore the root of the problem altogether; I only found a much more fitting garb for it. But perhaps, as James Baldwin writes, what I have always needed is a less constricting one. “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self,” he writes in The Devil Finds Work, “in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.”
Put simply, Baldwin reminds us that any identity you may claim (or that may be imposed on you) is layered on yourself. Or rather, on your “self.” Think of the labels you use to introduce yourself (gay, for example) or the garments you don to make those labels intelligible (a rainbow sweatband, say); they may feel innate, and may very well rub up against your sense of self, but there is, Baldwin cautions and comforts us, a nakedness underneath. One that cannot, of course, be made visible lest you wish to be made vulnerable to the elements (or, if you follow the metaphor far enough, to ogling bystanders).
This isn’t an outright rebuke of the work identity does, or a mere refusal to acknowledge the way identity makes knowable something about ourselves—after all, tight-fitting garments accentuate different bodies differently while loose-fitting robes have ways of shaping curves and muscles in decidedly varied ways.
There’s a call here to think of identity as a robe you cannot only discard and change but can loosen and tighten at will. A fluidity, in fact, that’s proffered as not only necessary but unavoidable. But, more intriguingly, I’m always fascinated by the latent eroticism Baldwin calls up, especially when you try to tease out who else may be feeling and discerning your own nakedness. Self-fashioning, it seems, can never stray too far from desire.
Excerpted from The Male Gazed: On Hunks, Heartthrobs, and What Pop Culture Taught Me About (Desiring) Men by Manuel Betancourt. Copyright © 2023. Reprinted by permission of Catapult.