Intro: Santiago is an intense city with a repressive military and macho history. Yet in very recent years, gay life has begun to emerge from the shadows and relax into the light of better times. LGBT activist organizations coexist with trendy gay bars and clubs.
This story is offered in memory of Daniel Zamudio, a young gay man (photo right) who was tortured and murdered by homophobic thugs in March 2012 in Santiago. As a result of the public outrage against this crime the national congress quickly passed hate-crimes legislation that includes sexual orientation in its human rights protections. “Since Daniel’s aggressive murder happened, we’ve been learning how we are going to construct effective protected society with more love, where no one, no one is discriminated against for any reason. Because all Chileans have the same rights,” said Vice President Rodrigo Hinzpeter.
On the Front Lines
I am sitting in an outdoor cafe on top of Santiago’s Metropolitana Parque, a small mountain in the middle of the city ascended by a hundred-year-old cable car. From the terrace up here, beyond the palms and willows I can see a one-eighty view of Santiago.
The snowy Andes would be visible were it not for the usual pale blue-gray dry haze that engulfs most of the city most of the time. More colorful are the dozens of bright red Coca-Cola cafe chairs that surround me, four to a table.
Looking down from the highest point of this hill, behind me, is a fifty foot white statue of the Virgin Mary, arms outspread to the masses below. In the amphitheater descending down from her feet, the Pope ceremoniously conducted High Mass fifteen years ago on his visit to Chile. In the background I can hear a tape of Andrea Bocelli singing operatic and Neapolitan songs. It all seems peaceful, well ordered.
But life is less serene for the folks in an anonymous building down in the heart of the city. On Viollier Street in Providencia, there is a unique organization, the United Organization of Sexual Minorities (UOSM), which has been serving the lesbigay and transgendered folks of the city and country since 1991. It is the only such organization in this country of fifteen million fiercely hetero (mostly) souls. Two strong impressions stand out from my visit to their office: fervent, energetic busy-ness and cigarette smoke.
A Visit to UOSM
It was Thursday night and every room and cubicle in the modest six-room complex was buzzing with activity. The lesbians were in intense discussion about coordinating their goals with the larger organization. The hotline volunteers answered questions or talked calmly to lonely callers. Two guys were squeezed into the tiny computer room working on the organization’s web site. And in the only place left, four members of UOSM gave me a couple of hours to explain their work as an organization and their lives as gay folks in the Chilean culture.
Carlos Sanchez Soto, a bearded man in his forties with Lincolnesque features, was one of the directors: “It is very dangerous to be gay in this country. Look, forty five percent of the people thing it is okay to be violent against gays. Seventy percent disapprove of homosexuality”, he pointed out in an angry tone.
This was daunting but not unexpected news. Chile is Catholic territory. Having been to other South American countries where heterosexism was not often aggressive (Peru, Uruguay and Argentina), I asked my hosts why there was such a difference in this country.
Alexander, a fey darling in eager search of a husband, attributed it to Chile’s violent history since independence in 1810, including Pinochet’s bloody coup in 1984 which drove out (with help from the CIA) the left-leaning Allende. Alex said that the military has interfered with Chile’s government and society for a very long time, and their leaders have never liked gays or been held accountable. One notorious period of persecution was under President Campos from 1932-38 when homosexuals lived in fear of government sanctioned witch-hunts where people disappeared without explanation.
“The other villain is the Catholic Church”, added Jasmin a transgendered soft-spoken women in her fifties appearing much like a sturdy earth mother. “They hate the homosexual. It is a sin from the Bible and that is all they can say. But they are also against straight people too–everyone is a sinner,” she said with a scornful laugh.
Such historical and current discrimination from the church, which holds tight hands with the government, creates an attitude which allows unenlightened police to justify aggression against gays, but most especially against transvestites who often work the streets as hookers. Police tolerance is very low for these poor gays whose limited education and low social status keep them alienated, often from the gay community as well.
Sanchez was profiled in the New York Times (October 16, 1999) in which he described his organization’s efforts to alleviate the degrading treatment of jailed transvestites in Santiago’s San Miguel prison. From time to time, Carlos and others from UOSM stage small protests at the Supreme Court Building to press for recognition and better treatment of gays. Mostly they are ignored or laughed at by the police.
But there is a limit to the active police pursuit of gays now, especially in the last decade as the aging tyrant, Pinochet, stepped down in 1989 (and now dogged by prosecutors for his crimes against humanity).
Nevertheless, framed within the immovable forces of Catholic morality, Latino machismo and militaristic ignorance, sexual attitudes still continue to follow the old negative proscriptions against gays and urge conformity to heterosexist norms.
A Quiet Life in Bellavista
Thus alerted to the risks and fears of the gay community, two nights later I walked to the gay owned restaurant restaurant in Bellavista area just across the Mapucho River. This is an area of trendy restaurants, cafes, discos and eclectic architecture. Capricho is owned and tended to by Marcos and Angel who heartily greeted me on my entry. Angel spoke perfect English.
My youthful dark haired waiter also introduced himself as Saul and I was given a small table in corner of one of the three dining rooms. The place was busy with late night diners, mostly men, in twos or threes; I also saw a table set up for eight.
A warm ambiance emanated from the soft sconce lighting tinted by parchment shades, wood ceiling beams and burgundy tablecloths–a ‘Parisian’ sense of intimacy among friends and lovers seated over candlelight, drinks and good food. Not to mention that dubious atmospheric–cigarette smoke. Virtually everyone smokes here.
The cast of characters in Capricho that night was virtual Proust: in one corner were two friends, one looking like Oscar Wilde the other like Salvador Dali, their hands stroking the air with imaginary brushstrokes; two women both clothed alike in dark colors as if mirrors of each other; a pair of sweet young men sitting with a thirties friend who occasionally held both their hands and stroked their faces; a swarthy lawyer and poised engineer (Angel told me) gazed at each other, restrained and inaudible, dressed in quiet chic.
It was a very different impression from the one described earlier by the activists downtown. Here was a close, bustling atmosphere with gay men and women casually laughing, chatting, holding hands, greeting and kissing friends (an obvious ‘stage-one’ couple were having a hard time not caressing each other as they tried to eat).
This was a key venue for middle and upscale gays in Santiago, a favored watering hole for souls not in hot pursuit (for those in heat or in need of motion, Bokhara and Fausto bars are nearby). In this place life appeared normal, safe and loving, surrounded by acceptance and gourmet food, handsome waiters and ebullient hosts willing to sit a while with patrons.
No one seemed concerned about harassment here; the natural heart of companionship ruled. It was a soothing antidote to the front line angst and drang being confronted by the folks over at UOSM.
Lunch with Angel
The next day I met with Angel, the cordial owner of restaurant. Like most owners of fine restaurants, Angel likes food–he is not thin. So for lunch he took me to his favorite Chinese eatery just across the river from his own cuisina. In Capricho he serves mostly seafood and European food, For lunch he likes Chinese.
He is a bald smiling man whose love for his life in Santiago seems reflected in his bouncy energetic step as we walk through the park on the way eat. He was born and raised here and has been to Europe, USA and other SA countries “Buenos Aires is so beautiful,” he declared with a sweep of his hand toward the river, the trees and the distinctly European architecture.
We sat alone in an ornate, high-ceiling oriental room and talked about life, restaurants, lovers, and the future. “The life is good here,” he started. “It’s a big city and you can have the life you want now.”
This was a theme in our conversation as we considered the ‘scene’ in today’s Santiago. Through the eyes of this prosperous entrepreneur, co-owner and manager of a popular restaurant in Santiago life appeared good, accomplished by hard work. After being a couple for two years, he and Marcos opened Capricho about a year ago, living upstairs at first, “so it felt like we were inviting friends to our house”. As the restaurant’s reputation spread and prospered, Angel and Marcos have been able to rent a flat directly across the street from the restaurant (about US$400 a month for a three-bedroom place).
Angel and Marcos are a typical middle class urban gay couple in Santiago–well dressed, well fed, over-worked and in love. ‘How did you meet?’ brought a broad wide-eyed smile from Angel as he recalled their first glances at a party. It was mutual love at first sight and they have not been apart since, working day and night to bring the restaurant to life. “We met together and felt the love right away–both of us. It has been very good.” Angel was 39 and Marcos 31 at the time, both with their own flats and careers–Angel was a businessman while Marcos managed another restaurant. (The restaurant now has a website: www.gaychile.com/capricho/index.html).
They live much of their social lives within the extensive gay community of this metropolis of four million where most people are, Angel pointed out, “too busy to make much protest about homosexuality. Yes, they know it’s around, from the TV, radio talk shows and newspapers; and there is AIDS information”.
“Also you must know,” he continued, “many ‘straight’ men go off on the side and later think it was because they were drunk. But they know, really. So I think it is safer now. The worst times are gone. The police know I have a good restaurant so I try to be friendly with them.”
The police cannot help being familiar with the now-visible gay scene that awakens nightly in Santiago’s Bellavista enclave of cafes and bars. Good business is good for the city. As Angel spoke about the ‘new’ attitude, I recalled that I noticed several gay magazines on display at one of the newspaper kiosks on the main boulevard Alameda. I doubt the police were ignorant of these journals.
Alone and Broke
If Santiago is big enough to allow cruisy bars, flashy discos and some privacy for better-off gays, it is also big enough to be anonymous for those hiding or lost, such as the disenfranchised and homeless youth–gay and straight. These drifters find temporary homes in shelters, a friend’s sofa or the streets of Santiago.
(image)I met Jorge on a pedestrian mall near the opera house. There was little conversation since he spoke little English and I very little Spanish, but he knew what he wanted and the means for getting it, money and sex. Through the universal language of eye contact and facial expressions he offered to make himself agreeable and available.
In what little I could understand of his circumstance, he was living away from his family and temporarily without work as a book keeper or accounts clerk. He had come to this area knowing there were tourists and knowing he had to come up with some food money and a little rent.
Here was one of the countless gay men (and women) who live a life close to survival, paycheck to paycheck–or nothing. Capricho for now, was a world away for Jorge. Before we parted I told him about the folks across town at UOSM and gave him their address. He had never heard of them and was surprised to know they existed. “They no make problemo?” he wondered a little suspiciously. No, I assured him in my best Spanish, “no problemo, es bueno aqui–amigos.” He smiled and said OK as he disappeared into the crowd.
Midnight Show Off
The next day I accidentally met a couple of easy-going gay guys (gaydar) hanging out on a street corner near my hotel. They said they weren’t really cruising, but most men in Santiago cruise, whether other guys or women. They playfully insisted they were enjoying the early evening balmy weather.
In a conversation about gay cafes and bars in Santiago they suggested I try the disco bar Bokhara in the Bellavista barrio. So later that night I walked over the Mapucho River past restaurant, past trendy bohemian cafes and university hangouts to Bokhara club at the very end of Ponino Calle.
The place is openly gay. Men dance and drink and laugh and watch erotic videos (not hard core). No one was dressed in outrageous outfits; more common were casual shirts and jeans. Entrance was gained on the ground floor of an old colonial style hotel.
Inside was actually cheerful, subtly lit and tastefully laid out with a shiny dance floor, flashing lights, cafe tables and bars on two levels. The requisite high-volume of pop-Latino-disco music made it difficult for me to stay in the main arena. As the music pounded and the crowd increased, paying US$8 each to get in, the ubiquitous cigarette smoke level increased.
The boys on the corner had told me Bokhara had a live sex show and the guy collecting the entry fee confirmed it. “Yes, at midnight” he assured me, so I hung around to see what they had to offer.
About one AM I grew impatient and sleepy. I asked the bartender when the big event started. “Very soon,” he said cheerfully. It was becoming apparent that time here was only a possibility, not an exact measure.
About two in the morning the live sex show finally appeared. On a tiny stage, five swarthy guys began to act out a mock gym scene (the weights fell off the barbell at one point). As they coached and spotted each other, skin contact soon became the focus as they shed their shorts to reveal pretty butts and big dicks (required for the job, I supposed). It was a rehearsed and amateurish simulation of group and dyad sex, including condoms on semi erections. The bodies were mostly nice, not great, except for one delicious gym slave. Although the penetration was faked and the blowjobs (no orgasms) mostly hidden, it was a fun show of flesh and fantasy under the wandering colors of the stage lights.
The crowd of about 75-100 guys were generous in their attitudes, not seeming to expect more than what they saw. It was all good amateur fun appreciated for the twenty minutes of titillation it provided. By the time it ended, everyone seemed to have been pleased.
As an encore, the actors invited a couple of customers onto the stage and teased them with some laughable skits. One had to try pulling the towel off one of the skin boys with his teeth while another almost got to lick whip cream off another one’s butt. However, that didn’t happen because the whip cream spray can didn’t work (on purpose?). So it all ended with good-hearted cheers and some announcements about the shows for next week.
Eric at UOSM
The next day I talked with Eric, one of the volunteers I met at UOSM, and asked him where the police were during the scandalously erotic show last night. Eric, just twenty-one, fair-haired and whose fresh young face expressed a seriousness more appropriate to a seasoned activist, explained that now police leave the clubs alone because they are private businesses.
This means they pay badly needed taxes derived in no small part from tourist dollars. Shutting down such places scares off other kinds of business and keeps tourists and locals away. In the end, the dollar reigns as the country is in a long recovery from hyperinflation and political darkness.
Also, Eric explained, it is likely the police don’t bother the clubs because many owners provide the local cops with a bit of extra cash, drinks or food. “Usually only if they see too many drunk people coming from a place or they suspect drugs, they will come in. But mostly they watch people from the outside”. (During my walk to and from Bokhara I did not see a single policeman, although one patrol car drove past.)
Eric moved to Santiago to get away from his family. When he came out at fifteen, he had been living within his educated, upper class family headed by an engineer father who had always appeared to show an attitude of tolerance. “When I told him, I was not too afraid because he always showed he was tolerant. Instead he was surprised and wanted me to go to therapy to change. So I saw that he was secretly discriminating all this time. The situation was not good. My mother tried to make him understand and after a while the family became calmer, but there was no more talk about my sexuality. I went off to the university and live here now.This is more my family now.”
A hotline phone call interrupted us. I listened a little to Eric’s end of the conversation and realized the caller was in desperate need–isolated, rejected, depressed and gay. As he spoke, Eric’s youth seemed to season before my eyes as he listened, asked questions and replied reassuringly and firmly to the bewildered person tethered to the other end of the line.
A guiding spirit had grown in him since coming out. Feeling rejected, getting hurt, wandering in confusion and finally grasping on to trusted friends had taught him the harsh and hopeful realities of being gay in modern Chile. He found purpose by helping others with their own anguish at being gay in this Catholic, macho and militaristic culture. If he succeeded, it would be a long phone conversation.
Finally: At Risk and Pushing
So modern gay Santiago is both at risk and thwarted while yet alive and well. Like so many gay communities in highly Catholic and highly military countries, the struggle is clearly uphill to gain, first, some measure of recognition beyond stereotypic caricatures in the media. Then it’s a long push for social respect and legal protections on the way to integration and acceptance within the culture.
It is doubtful Santiago will see any time soon the emergence of pro-gay political support from within the government, so it is left to the community, under the leadership of UOSM and activists like Carlos Sanchez, to push for changes in the federal statutes with active lobbying and protest events. For their part, the entrepreneurs will continue to show local officials that gay business is good business for the economy and prove that gay venues are no threat to political stability.
These efforts over the past ten years have started to show some positive results. Persistent lobbying in Congress has led to decriminalizing same-sex activity between consenting adults, although the legal age for gay sex is higher than straight sex. The Health Ministry now gives UOSM some funds for producing AIDS prevention videos.
It is long hard work to shift attitudes from scorn to acceptance, but committed activist like Carlos, Silvia, Michel, Alexander, Jasmin and young Eric have a passionate message to deliver: “We’re part of this society whether you like it or not.”
HIV in Chile
For an in-depth story about HIV in Chile, written by Tim Frasca, please go to the HIV link that appears with this story. Tim is the General Coordinator of the Chile AIDS Prevention Council in Santiago. Unfortunately, the article is not dated, but it is a thoughtful and informative report.
By Richard Ammon
Updated June 2014