There are quite a few insults that have become accepted by the communities to whom they were directed. They range from the name “Christian” given to the early worshippers of Christ, to the donkey logo of the US Democratic Party which was originally used by their critics portraying them as asses.
The lgbt community has had
many derogatory names over the centuries – e.g. sodomite, puff, bugger, and
fairy. Some have become accepted by the majority of the community and one,
“queer”, has become a term incorporated into academic disciplines. Non-English
lgbt insults have also become accepted, including the word which we examine
today as the USA celebrates its Hispanic Heritage Month.
The word is “mariposa”,
the Spanish name for butterfly, and its use as a name applied to homosexuals
begins in the prisons of 16th century Seville. Although it developed into an
insult later on it seems to have originated as some kind of metaphorical
allusion to the action of a butterfly around a flame.
The man who appears to
have first used the word mariposa, at least in writing, was Pedro de Léon
(1545-1632), a Jesuit priest who was a confessor to the prisoners of the Royal
Jail of Seville from 1578 to 1616. He wrote an account of his time there and
recorded many of the crimes for which the inmates was accused and convicted.
When describing those
convicted of sodomy de Léon refers to them as butterflies attracted to a flame,
getting closer and closer until one wing is burnt. Then as the attraction of
the flame continues to tempt the butterfly the insect flies into the flame and
is destroyed by fire. The flame, de Léon writes, is the temptation of sodomy
which attracts man into same-sex activity. This is by no means a meaningless
allusion because in Spain at the time men convicted of sodomy were burnt alive
at the stake.
Of the 309 prisoners who
were executed during de Léon’s time at the jail at least 48 were for sodomy,
and there were about 66 more cases which did not result in execution.
The Royal Jail of Seville
was one of the largest in medieval Spain containing up to 1,800 men and women.
It was where the most notorious and dangerous prisoners in Spain were
incarcerated with some of the poorest and prisoners form the Spanish colonies.
It was to the poor prisoners that the Jesuits sent “missionaries” to assist in
their defence during their trials, either financially, practically or
spiritually, and often after conviction. Conditions in the prison were
horrible. Overcrowded, dirty and full of lice and rats. This in particular was
of concern to Pedro de Léon.
At this period in Spanish
history the Inquisition brought to light the plight of many prisoners from the
lowest economic strata of society who were convicted purely because of the
absence of money to pay for any defence. Like all Catholics in the 16th century
the Jesuits condemned the practice of sodomy, but they saw a need to minister
to the poor and sent priests into many jails to assist them, whatever their crime,
and take their confession. For the condemned this meant spending every day with
them until execution, hearing their confession, and preaching on the evils of
their crime prior to the sentenced being carried out.
The religious denunciation
of the sodomites at the place of execution was often accompanied by the public
humiliation of the condemned by the civil authorities. This can be seen in the
first of the “mariposas” which de Léon accompanied to his death. In 1578 a man
called Machuco, an ex-slave who earned a living as a kind of pimp, procuring
boys and men for the homosexual pleasures of many in Seville. He is even said
to have performed “marriages”.
Machuco was led to his
death in the company of two boys who were dressed as he was in silk ruffs with
hair curled and faces painted in the fashionable manner regarded as effeminate.
Machuco, visibly distraught at his impending death, was forced to conduct a
sham marriage between the boys in front of a huge crowd, probably 15,000
people, in the centre of Seville. Pedro de Léon preached his sermon,
specifically denouncing men who wore ruffs, silks and laces. Machuco was then
burnt at the stake.
The two boys who
accompanied Machuco were not executed. Usually boys found guilty of sodomy were
flogged. But de Léon recounted one execution of a young mariposa called
Francisco Legazoteca. Whereas the execution of Machuco and other men were
greeted with great cheers and rejoicing from the crowds that case of young
Francisco received a different reception.
Francisco was convicted
jointly with a priest called Pascual Jaime. The boy’s cries created a great
deal of compassion and pity from the crowd. He desperately cried out that he
was bribed with fine clothes and seduced by the priest and was a fool to submit
The execution of men
condemned of sodomy in Spain never reached a higher level than in the 16th and
17 centuries in which Pedro de Léon lived. His description of them as mariposas
remained with us and became an insult. In recent times, like the pink triangle
of the Nazis, mariposa has become a label of defiance and pride. In the late
20th century many organisations began to adopt the word within their names.
More recently a new interpretation has entered the lgbt lexicon with the
emergence of transgender groups.