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Thom Brennaman and the problem of privilege

Brennaman’s use of a homophobic slur is less of a problem than the toxic culture which made doing so socially acceptable.

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Milwaukee Brewers v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The first time I heard the slur f*****, it was spoken by my mother and directed at me. I was nine years old, in the basement of my childhood home, having been awakened in the middle of the night for another of the nocturnal sessions she hoped would de-trans me. On this particular occasion, Richard Simmons was on the screen.

“That’s Richard Simmons,” she told me. “He’s a f****t. Do you know what that means?” I shook my head, but I knew already it wasn’t praise. “It means he has sex with the same sex. That he’s an abomination. Is that what you want to be?” She continued. “A f***** is someone who chooses that. If that’s what you choose, I will sit shiva [the Jewish mourning of the dead] for you.” My mother was, in essence, saying she would treat me being queer the same as if I died. I was confused; I didn’t know what sex was. All I knew was that whatever a f***** was, it was bad. It was vile. It was worse than death.

On Wednesday night, Cincinnati Reds play-by-play announcer Thom Brennaman, for reasons known only to him, referred to an unknown place on the air as the “the f— capital of the world.” He continued as though everything was normal for a while, including into the second game of the double-header, before offering an apology with all the sincerity one would expect from an apology interrupted for the important purpose of calling a Nick Castellanos home run. During that apology, he said this.

“I pride myself and think of myself as a man of faith.”

But that’s the problem, not an apology. Faith and religion have been used to justify the use of that slur for decades. Everyone I know in the queer community has had that slur hurled in their direction at some time or other. If it sounds dehumanizing, that’s because it is. As NPR noted almost a decade ago, the slur was used to refer first to wood kindling, and then to people burned at the stake for heresy by people who thought of themselves as “people of faith”.

By the mid-16th century, the word had become associated with the burning alive of heretics and was used in callous phrases such as “fry a faggot.” Faggot became a shorthand way to refer to a heretic. And by the 1800s, the term was also being used to refer derogatorily to women. . . . The OED cites a 1914 reference in a book of criminal slang as the first modern American use of faggot as a slur for a homosexual male: “All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight.”

Then Brennaman wrote a second apology, in which he proclaimed ignorance as to the origins of the word. Of course, that, right there, is the second problem, one which cisgender, heterosexual people do not and cannot understand because they are not queer. It is not a defense to violence against a marginalized group that you are unaware of the nature of your violent acts. And make no mistake - calling someone a f*****, a heretic who should be burned at the stake, is an act of violence.

But at the same time, we shouldn’t be singling out Brennaman here. Oh, we’re doing a fine job of heaping consequences upon him, with #FireThom trending on Twitter, all of which he richly deserves. But the fault here does not lie with Brennaman alone. The announcer evidently felt comfortable enough in the broadcast booth to deride an entire place as the “f** capital of the world” in front of dozens of colleagues and coworkers, and was confident his workplace was just fine with that.

And gee, I wonder why that might be? In the last couple of weeks alone, we’ve seen Athletics coach Ryan Christenson do the Hitler salute on camera, then Chris Russo on MLB Network call Fernando Tatis Jr. “ sort of an NBA guy” because of a host of racist stereotypes. Notably, Christenson, too, professed ignorance as to the racist and anti-Semitic origins of the Hitler salute.

Thom Brennaman believed that he wasn’t a homophobe; therefore, he thought it okay to use a homophobic slur because he adjudged himself not a homophobe. The problem, though, is that life and prejudice don’t work that way. All of us have these impulses. Like Brennaman, all straight people have implicit homophobic biases. All cisgender people have implicit transphobic biases. This is true of us all, irrespective of our friends or family. I’m a white person; as such, I have implicit racist biases, just as all white people do. I am not less racist for having a Black partner or Black friends. You, reader, have your own biases. Our biases are very much a part of who we are. We cannot dismantle bigotry until we recognize and dismantle the privileges we have from not facing bigotry.

And of course, the usual suspects have all weighed in with protestations that Brennaman isn’t actually homophobic, just as Christenson and Russo supposedly aren’t racist. But as I’ve written before in the context of Jonah Keri, by some estimates, ninety percent of writers covering professional baseball are white and a similarly dismal percentage are male. It is therefore no surprise whatsoever that a white, male corps of journalists would act, perhaps even unintentionally, to protect its own. In other words, a mostly white, male, straight press corps doesn’t know what prejudices people who aren’t white, straight, and/or male face in their daily lives. Sports journalism is so white and so male and so straight that just yesterday, Daniel Kaplan for The Athletic wrote a piece breathlessly noting the “surprise” that women and young people actually like baseball.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Brennaman’s initial home run-interrupted apology, in which Brennaman first apologized to the people who sign his paychecks. That is the ultimate privilege. Until earlier this year, it was legal in the majority of the United States to fire a queer person for being gay or transgender. Brennaman has never had to worry about that kind of discrimination. In fact, until earlier this year, it was legal in a majority of the United States to say that a place was the “f** capital of the world” whilst at work.

Should Thom Brennaman be fired? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. He will learn and grow, or he will not. Of course, he said he spoke with Billy Bean, an openly gay former MLB player, to increase his understanding of queer people, but that’s frankly pro forma at this point. To be quite honest, MLB has taken to hiding behind Bean in instances of homophobia just as it hides behind Jackie Robinson whenever the league does something racist. Tokenizing a random marginalized person isn’t fostering diversity or understanding; it’s just cowardice.

And that’s why whatever happens to Brennaman, Russo and Christenson will continue on, as will the culture that created them. How many times did Brennaman use those slurs, or others, before Wednesday, protected by commercial breaks. How many coworkers or colleagues were harmed by being forced to listen? His successor may use those same slurs, and if he has a modicum of caution, we will never know that nothing has really changed.

In the span of three weeks, Major League Baseball watched three of its cisgender, straight, white men engage in three separate incidents off appalling conduct. I see no evidence whatsoever that anyone has learned a damn thing from any of those instances. That is perhaps the greatest insult of all.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.