If you've seen the Mexican national soccer team in person, or even watched it on television, the chant likely won't have escaped you. Whenever the opposing goalkeeper settles the ball onto the grass to take a goal kick and takes a few paces back, the crowd readies and the volume builds.
The goalkeeper lunges forward and launches the ball upfield.
Puto is a deeply offensive word. It means male prostitute, but it's probably even more derogatory than calling someone a "fag." There is no possible justification for ever using it, but it has seeped into Mexican soccer culture. In fairness, it's also been heard elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, including in the United States.
The slur, and its ongoing use, underscore why the Zorros Club de Futbol Gay exists. In a country where homophobia is still a part of the social fabric, a gay soccer team isn't merely a safe place to play, or a personal support system. It becomes other, bigger things almost by necessity: a political statement, and a modern, public counterweight to age-old prejudice.
"We have that problem and it's really hard," says Nicolas Pineda, one of the founders of the Zorros. "I think we are very bad. For example, FIFA fined the Mexican Football Federation for the shouts of machismo at sporting events, and in response, federation officials said that this is 'something normal' in Mexico. Of course it is not. If they do not accept that there is a problem we can hardly move forward to eradicate it."
The puto chant has been defended on these incomprehensible grounds for years by a lot of people who ought to know better. Like other slurs, it has been deemed non-offensive by many simply because it's commonly used—as if something can't be insulting because, hey, everybody says it and you hear it a lot.
In this bigoted sporting climate, the Zorros emerged in 2013, born out of a team called Tri Gay. That was a sort of gay Mexican national team—the regular national team is nicknamed "El Tri"—that appeared in the 2012 International Gay and Lesbian Football Association's World Championships in Mexico City. Today, the Zorros have three teams that play a seven-a-side variation of soccer, a faster game on a smaller field, on urban Astroturf pitches all over Mexico City. The teams are active in an all-gay league in the capital and the surrounding Mexico province, because a regular league would make for uncomfortable arenas.
From May 26 through June 4, the Zorros will be making their international debut, venturing north of the border during a time of strained political relations to compete in the 2017 World OutGames in Miami.
Much of the team is made up of cash-strapped college students, so to help pay their way, the Zorros held an online fundraiser. They easily hit their goal of $1,000—covering a single member's expenses. But several players were denied visas—likely on account of insufficient demonstrable income, the Zorros suspect, which makes them a perceived risk for overstaying would-be visas—and so the team had to scramble to find four replacement players to make up a full roster.
The source of most of those fundraiser donations were a different sort of reality check. "It is important to note that most of the people that helped us didn't come from Mexico," says Pineda. "It's something that didn't feel so good."
The bulk of the money came from the U.S. An American team from Florida also offered to provide water and equipment. Both gestures were heartening, but also show how long a road the Zorros still have to travel in their home country to help bring about genuine acceptance.
While the Zorros haven't had many incidents during and around their games in Mexico, they also have sought to avoid them. "We had some problems two years ago when the other team—heterosexual, of course—they insulted us," says Pineda. "It's the machismo. We've been bullied in our social networks by Mexicans. The machismo here in Mexico is a problem that we have in all the sports, not only in football."
Now that the Zorros have begun gaining some attention from the Mexican media, comment sections and their social media pages have become a free-for-all for unchecked hate.
In a survey, few of the players reported having been discriminated against on the field because of their sexuality, although many had homophobic slurs hurled at them at one time or another. Still, the team doesn't feel that it would be entirely safe to enter into a regular league. "I do not agree with self-segregation," says Rod, a 28-year-old forward on the team. "But for the moment it is the solution for many. If homophobia disappears we should not be divided into sports."
The Zorros face deeply ingrained stereotypes. "Some athletes believe that sports are exclusively for heterosexuals and see LGBT society as inferior people, incapable of having a sport-worthy level," says Alfonso, 26, a defender.
"Once a coach yelled 'This is for men,'" adds Freddy, a 38-year-old forward.
Amidst this vitriol, the squad has become a kind of soccer-playing support group. "The first principle is friendship," says Pineda. "More than a team, we try to build a family, a group with values." The players are anywhere from 17 to 38 years old and are in very different places along their journey of acceptance. Anybody can play, with their skills matched to one of the three teams. And players don't have to be out of the closet to join. If they worry that signing up for a gay team in a gay league will publicize what they might not yet have told their loved ones, players can opt out of having their names on the public rosters or their pictures on team social media in order to protect their privacy.
"Our goal is not only to gain acceptance as much in Mexican society but in the gay players that don't know how to accept themselves," says Pineda, who came out of the closet when he moved to Mexico City to go to college when he was 21. "We make this environment for friendship and safety. With us they are not obligated to say they are gay, and they feel comfortable in the team. After that, they can get out of the closet."
The primary point is to make players feel safe, comfortable, and loved. The team is a place where you can focus on and enjoy soccer without worrying about anything else. "Because I like football, it seemed a better idea to do it with people who are like me," says Marck Palacios, a 29-year-old forward.
But alongside that, there's competition. The Zorros have big ambitions. They hope to medal at the World OutGames. And then they want to make it to the Gay Games in Paris in 2018 and the EuroGames in Rome in 2019.
That could be the most important piece for the Zorros. They want to be as successful as possible on an international stage, because success—even in a niche segment of a variation of a major sport—could bring positive attention. And positive attention could, in turn, help normalize homosexuality in a country where homophobic chants are the norm. Normalcy leads to acceptance. "It's going to be really good for the community," Pineda says.
Mexico is evolving into a country that's more tolerant of different sexual orientations, albeit slowly. Eventually, the onus will be on the homophobes to adapt. "We talk about a barrier that I think is changing, the world is already more open," Alfonso says. "Machismo must change to fit our current society."
"It's difficult, but I think it's somehow generational," Palacios says. "There's going to be a point where it's going to end and there will be better coexistence and acceptance."
To help speed the process along, the Zorros want to shatter stereotypes, including one of gays being unathletic. "On our side it only remains to show that we are at the level of anyone and that no matter race or sexual orientation, we can compete as equals," says Sixto Mitre, a 26-year-old midfielder. "Our goal is to give the community confidence so that they know that football and sport in general is for everyone."
"It is evidence that homosexuality is not any kind of incapacity or punishment of God but we are normal people and we can play football against anyone," says Ivan, 20, a forward on the team.
The Zorros aren't just here to win soccer games. They're here to convince their country that anyone can win soccer games.
"For me, Zorros is important since we not only play for a result on the scoreboard, but for the young people who are looking to generate change in society and want to start with themselves ," says 29-year-old midfielder Neth Saucedo. "Visibility helps us to raise awareness."
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