(Updated October 2008)
Gay Guam: One Island, Several Cultures and a Quiet Way of Gay Life
In late November this speck of a Pacific island experienced an invasion quite different from the one it received seventy-five years ago at the hands of a brutal Japanese army. The similarities between the recent and historic landings were slight but visible in that the newer one also took place from sea and involved military personnel deployed from huge gray ships. But the mission now was peace and R&R. When the gigantic aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk cruised into port sometime around Thanksgiving it carried about 6000 troops, enough to take over every palm fringed beach and disco on this tiny tropical island.
But the Kitty Hawk was not just bringing another shipload of straight boys headed for the girlie strip-joints, massage parlors, karaoke bars, Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood. Discreetly among them were hundreds of gay and bi sailors who had also been at sea for months since the heightened alerts of the Middle East. Once upon a time these folks, on arrival in Guam, had to settle for blending into the mainstream venues with faint hope of making contact with like-minded comrades.
Not any more. In recent years there has been a mini proliferation of LGBT venues that have opened and closed and opened. The current scene is in Tumon town, Guam’s scaled-down version of Miami with beachfront high-rise hotels blended with San Diego type military folks, bars, sex joints, and restaurants. A recent visit here found a different atmosphere and mood for gay personnel. And these are not furtive hidden places thrown together with dark paint, cheap sounds and black lights. None of those old haunts are open.
My guide for ‘gay Guam’ was Martin, a thirty-ish native Chamorro resident who has lived in Guam his entire life. Chamorro are the indigenous people who arrived in Guam hundreds of years ago from various other Polynesian islands and developed their own language blended from Spanish and Philippine Tagolog. Martin was the host of a now defunct Yahoo group where I met him online
Over a couple of meals and walks we shared some of his experiences of being gay in his native island-country. His own family is mixed in their reactions to his being gay. His father doesn’t say much about it; when he was told his response was, “Martin is not gay, he’s just acted like a girl since he was a child.” Although his father won’t openly acknowledge that Marty is gay, he is aware of his ‘ways’. His mother doesn’t really care as she is not within the family circle and has gone her own way in life. Marty’s brothers, sister and cousins know that he sees other guys. However sometimes they make fun of him, but Marty is unperturbed and moves on with a dismissive retort.
The first gay venue we visited was Denial, a dance bar opened in the spring of 2003 by Frank and Ray, a bi-cultural couple; Frank is from Rhode Island and Ray is Chamorro lawyer from Guam. A couple for 12 years, they decided last year to open a gay bar based largely on the desire for a quality gay bar in the area as well as an investment since Frank has experience in business. Denial has a trendy upscale interior laid out in the usual disco/bar style with areas for a pool table, a dance floor and tables and chairs for sitting, all within reach of the long bar with its glowing back lighting.
Several oversize images of male models adorn the walls and are lighted with pin spots. Above the entry hang rainbow colored sails. You can’t miss the gay statement although Frank advertises Denial as an ‘alternative’ club open to everyone. Indeed a variety of patrons file though the front door especially on weekend nights for the theme night parties. About 20% of the crowd he estimates are straight or not ‘pure’ gay.
Denial has carefully positioned itself as a ‘crossover’ venue where anyone is welcome, gay, straight and in between. Frank said they recently hosted a bachelor-ette party which featured a (presumably straight) stripper who apparently went ‘all the way’ for the girls. Frank claims, with little conviction, that he turned away and let the party go on without much concern for an outside reaction. “A little nudity for a few minutes is not a big deal,” he concluded, and not bad for business either.
When the Kitty Hawk landed, Guam’s tourist population probably grew instantly by 10% and Denial welcomed the queers boys and girls with specific theme parties that had already been advertised on board by word of mouth among the gay and bi and bi-curious crew members.
A recent update from a GlobalGayz reader:
“I read your posting about Guam’s gay life and it was very helpful and informative before I arrive to Guam and just few updates are necessary. I’m in the military and I’ve been living in Guam for a year now. It seem like things have not changed a lot since the last time you were here. Most of your information is precise (the local people, tourist, life style etc).
“Club Denial still exists and your description is very accurate. Jax Lounge remains in the same place, but does not operate as a gay bar anymore. Since I arrived that place has had three different businesses but nothing successful. Ypao Beach is still a cruising spot and a not too popular nudist beach at the beach end away from the hotels. Also there are several book/video stores located in Hotel Road and Marine Drive known to be places were locals and tourists can hook up. Eventually there will be a dramatic change in the gay life here. In the next few years, the marines stationed in Okinawa will be relocated in Guam. According to reports, roughly 7000 marines will arrive. I think we all know what marines like!”
(end of update)
But there was no such theme party for the sailors at the nearby Jax lounge, a “Gentle Man’s Lounge”. Rather, the owners of this new venue (opened in late summer ‘03) prefer a quieter profile. “Of course we welcome the sailors and we hope they find this place a nice alternative to the usual gay bar,” said owners Clark and Matt.
In truth, Jax is different. In place of the usual pool tables are three colorful sofa sitting areas called Rainbow Room, Safari Corner and World Corner. I liked the Rainbow Room with its gayly colored leather sofas grouped around a carpet that might be found in Aunt Millie’s living room. The corner tables have tchachkas such as plastic fruit in a bowl and a basket of potpourri illuminated by a bedside reading lamp. The royal blue walls of this area are adorned with framed covers from old gay novels such as ‘Navy Boys’ and ‘Cruising the Streets’ each with a stylized illustrated ‘50s figure.
The front sofa lounge is also a comfort zone with a coffee table, oriental carpet, more tchachkas on the end table and a rack of reading materials (books and magazines) that’s rare to find in a place like this. But Jax is a ‘lounge’ and the feeling is that you must do something intelligent here–like read or actually talk. The music is soft, so you can hear one another. There is a sit-down bar here as well with low chairs on a stepped-up platform where patrons sit almost eye level with the bar tender who is often owner Clark.
Both Clark and Matt are gregarious and excited by their new ‘home’ and they are enthusiastic in their plan to market to the many Japanese who come to Guam for a long weekend to let down their guard and be comfortably gay. “We’ve been in the Japanese tour guide and events business for a number of years (Clark is fluent in Japanese) and part of that was arranging visits for gays and lesbians to the few places here. Then one day we thought, why not have a place of our own to bring them and make them feel comfortable. So we bought this place and spent a couple of months decorating it ourselves and here we are,” said Matt gesturing to the cheerful room around him.
There is a small dance room as well that opens on weekends but it’s separate from the lounge areas. While we were talking, Matt got a phone call from one of the hotels for a pick up.. They advertise to Japan on their web site (in Japanese) that Jax will transport customers from and to their hotels. Fifteen minutes later Matt was back with a Japanese couple, one of whom was a pretty sandy-haired transsexual.
Tourist Holidays in Guam
Regarding Guam’s attractive holiday location in Asia, my host Marty said, “when China really starts to open up, that huge middle class will be looking for nearby sun and fun. Guam is the perfect place. We have all the services and pleasures of America that they like, almost in their back yard.”
I agreed that more China were moving up the economic ladder evidenced by numerous middle class gays I’ve met in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. Guam is remote yet accessible; it’s unhurried yet equally entertaining as a vacation city and it has countless beaches and hiking trails—although most Asians (usually from Taiwan, Japan and Korea) stay in and around Tumon for the surf and eat in the restaurants and shop for American goods in the town’s malls.
Gay Living in Guam
When asked if he had heard of gay bashing here, Matt and Marty said they had never heard of any. Why? “Because we are a small population and everyone seems to know each other. There are gay people here and they have siblings or cousins who know and all their friends, so being gay is not a big deal.” Despite the dominance of Roman Catholicism here (thanks to the conquering Spanish) there is little or no agitation or politicizing of an anti-gay agenda. Marty did not think being Chamorro made it easier or more difficult in coming out and being gay.
Not surprising, individual families react across a spectrum of responses when they discover their child is gay. But mostly they incorporate it in time within their love and go on with being a family. This integration is also softened by a certain amount of easy-to-ignore ‘drift’, a sort of forgetful denial that, once the initial reaction is over, life goes on as before. That’s partly because there are few public reminders of any gay activities or activism. There may be three gay bars, but there is no gay publication, no gay center, no gay political organization, no parade or festival to remind the straight Guam population that gay rights are a ‘combat zone’ of social and legal battles far beyond their shores.
Cable TV connects to all the local channels as well as satellite channels that broadcast reruns of Will & Grace, Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy but most people on Guam have little interest or money for such programs. As a result there is no counter-reaction, no televangelist’s decrying the imminent arrival of Satan on the sacred thresholds of hetero marriage. There is no self-righteous Bible thumping against the ‘gay agenda’.
Said Frank from Denial bar, “if you are just yourself and don’t throw your sexuality in others’ faces, they leave you in peace. They know we’re here. We have off-duty policemen who come to our bar with their friends and we talk and joke with them. As long as you don’t have anything illegal going on—like under age drinking or drugs—there’s no problem with our occasional theme nights. We don’t put up posters on the streets with guys in their underwear. The trendy department stores do that with their Calvin Klein ads–and what’s hilarious is that the store owners don’t really see how homoerotic the ads are. People come to our bar to mind their own business and feel good.”
HIV in Guam
There have been few incidents of HIV and AIDS among the gay population in Guam which is a bit surprising as most Chamorro guys prefer to date western guys, according to Martin. However, many of the sexually active gays on the island are in the military and prefer to mask their sexuality even though it ‘s not illegal anymore. The military regularly screens troops for sexual diseases. Perhaps reflecting this, in Jax lounge I found safer sex brochures and condoms available.
I saw the same brochures at both Denial and Jax.They are printed under the auspices of the Public Health Social Services Department of Guam and clearly show two men in contact holding a packet containing a strawberry-colored condom. Inside the brochure is information on AIDS, its cause, transmission, getting tested and proper use of condoms—including how to cut up a condom to make a dental dam. The information is taken, with credit, from HIVINFO.org in California and from McKinley Health Center at Illinois University.
Importantly, The Guahan Project–Guam’s only AIDS service organization–was established in 2003 by Guam AIDS activists. On its website it states, “it is the home for the Guam AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Pacific Resource and Training Center. It provides free and confidential OraSure HIV counseling, testing and referral services as well free educational workshops and training sessions for the community–and numerous other health services. The Guahan Project has the only LGBT resource room in the region. Magazines, newspapers, brochures, CDs, DVDs and other types of printed and electronic materials of interest to the LGBT community are featured and are free to the community.”
(no longer open)
A third gay venue in Guam is Midnight Special. It was closed when I arrived so I took my info from the very straight tourist magazine ‘Marine Drive’ (with two sexy bikini-clad Amerasian femmes on the cover). Most of the features and ads are for shopping, beer, restaurants and cars. By coincidence during my visit the magazine published a one-page story called ‘Gaydar for the Gay Bar’ which described the three gay bars in Guam.
Of Midnight Special, it said: “quaint in a mismatched sort of way, but no less lovable. There is not a single dominating theme at Midnight special; you can dance if the mind strikes you, go upstairs and have a conversation, play a game of pachinko, or even have the bartender break out the karaoke system stashed in the back and sing some tunes.” The appearance of the stand-alone building (photo right), a couple of miles from the heart of Tumon, is somewhat dowdy and unappealing . Given this appearance and the magazine’s description Midnight Special seems to be a very casual and unpretentious hangout, almost indifferent towards its ‘look’—a place for queers and their friends looking for ‘local flavor’. One local observer said that Midnight Special is primarily a lesbian venue. (?)
An additional gay event happens on the last Saturday of every month, Club Touche, which is along the lines of a LGBT rave. One veteran of these parties claims that only about 50% of the attendees are gay however. The rest are presumed ‘straight but curious’—not an unusual phenomenon since the turn of the 21st century as young hetero audiences are discovering the fashionable style and cool sounds of the gay scene.
Guam also has a considerable bi-sexual population as well as a trans community. One of the most popular events in town is the annual Ms. Pacificana contest that started out as a small fun evening several years ago and has since become so popular that the extravaganza now is held at the island’s biggest arena, the Field House at the University of Guam on the west coast of the island. (For more information about the University of Guam see their web site: http://www.uog.edu/)
Living in Guam
Guam is a miniature America. There are people here from virtually every state, many in the military or in business and some are settled residents. The island is the 51st state in all but name. The residents are US citizens; there is one Guam congresswoman in Washington DC; there is a ‘state’ assembly of senators who look after local affairs with an apparent even handedness, including a calm attitude toward gays and the business ventures they offer.
A hot topic is the drinking age in Guam. It used to be 18 but the state assembly raised it to 21 in 2010. There were fervent lobbyists on both sides of the issue. MADD ledthe forces for change with the beverage and hotel industry disagreeing; they argued that jobs and income will be seriously lost if young hotel waiters can’t serve drinks to the fun-loving Japanese.
Denial’s Frank argued the lower age is especially important because a good portion of the sailors who stop in Guam for R&R are under 21 and to lock them out of liquor-licensed venues seems unfair. “If they can serve their country they deserve to be served here,” he said.
Guam’s Americanization started in 1898 when the Spanish lost a war with Presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. Spain was forced to cede Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands. Guam was left alone as a sleepy backwater colony until the Japanese invaded in 1943 when suddenly the island was top news as a crucial and symbolic battlefront. It was the only American territory the Japanese occupied during WW II. Thousands of troops—American, Japanese and Chamorran—lost their lives defending and regaining the island. There are numerous historical monuments scattered around the island that commemorate the carnage.
Today the island resembles an offshoot of Florida. In addition to the lux hotels, it also offers a warm humid climate, jungle vegetation, low income houses (built of cement to resist the annual typhoons) scattered along well-paved roads. Many old (Japanese) cars sputter around. There are ubiquitous country stores every few miles, each splattered with signs and posters and ads selling everything from fish bait to corn flakes.
This is in contrast to the main tourist town of Tumon, as mentioned before, which is a prosperous tourist area with boutique shops, splashy restaurants, a huge K-Mart, an upscale DFS Galleria. There are the usual brand name stores, newer cars, tour buses and the high-end Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott hotels fronting the long stretch of palm-lined beach that slopes into the azure green sea.
The international airport hosts hundreds of flights weekly to and from the USA, Japan, Taiwan, Manila, Korea and numerous other Polynesian destinations. The currency is the dollar and much of the tourist industry is geared toward Japan with its comparatively high-powered economy, hence the hotel and food prices are higher than other Southeast Asia countries and Pacific islands
Before and after my visit to Guam I had correspondence with Larry, a specialist in the military stationed in Guam,. The following comments are taken from his messages and relate to various LGBT issues in Guam, from Japanese tourists to Guam natives to gays in the US military.
Larry: “I noticed that there are two types of gay Japanese tourists who make their holiday trips to Guam. The first are groups of gay Japanese that come over here together, in pairs or small groups, to get away from the cold and smog of Tokyo for a long weekend or a week. The second type are those who come here and are closeted and seek out an experience. They come with friends, girlfriends, wives and kids. It’s probably not much different than their going to the gay red light district in Tokyo except that here they are more likely to hook up with a western guy. Potato queens looking for rice queens!
“ As for gay prostitution, to my knowledge there is no hustler scene here. I guess the closest thing to that is we have Ypao Beach in Tumon. It’s a beachfront state park with a ‘sacred’ burial site. After dark it becomes a cruising spot where locals go to hook-up with random individuals to carry out whatever they agree upon. I suppose tourists can tie into this if they want. Maybe that’s where the Japanese guys go, or else to the bars. My experience is they also go into the Guam chat room of sites like Gay.com about a week prior to their visit and arrange a discreet connection.
“ The Guam natives are a Pacific Island culture known as Chamorro. The US government has classified them as an Indian Tribe. They are quite similar to Samoans or Polynesians yet they have their own unique culture. To me, the natives here seem more closeted than anywhere I have ever been. My findings are that due their cultural views on homosexuality natives have come to believe they cannot be openly gay. But I also know there are exceptions like Ray, one of the owners of Denial bar who is openly gay and Chamorran.
“ Curiously, a lot of males here are bisexual and are either married or have girlfriends. (Martin thought that 70% of the Chamorro guys in Guam are bisexual.) They go online to find their hook-ups. Most of these guys are between the ages of 25 and 40. There is a small segment of the native population that is openly gay and these individuals are predominantly between the ages of 16 and 25. Part of this young population is also transgender or at least transvestite. I only know three or four but I am sure there are others.
“ To further compound the issue, a large minority of the population here is Philippino. While the Filipino population doesn’t seem to overtly discourage homosexuality they do seem to take great pleasure in ridiculing it. For that reason most gay Philippinos are in the closet as well. Still, I think they have an easier time of being gay than the Guam natives.
“ There is a large military population on this island and I would say we make up close to 15% (just a guess) of the entire population. Most of these gays are ‘half in–half out’ of the closet because they fear it will effect their careers. There are very few like me that just don’t care anymore and are tired of living two lives. I am not openly gay but I don’t take great lengths to hide it. I’ve told those people that I want to know. Besides, I’m getting out in a few months.”
So with or without any LGBT visibility, Guam continues along its quiet and remote pace undisturbed by the political and military dramas in the violent Middle East and Africa or the nervous and labile social changes in southeast Asia. And this is not likely to change any time soon. For gays and lesbians, Guam is safe, quiet and very far out of the mainstream. The ones who choose to live here like it that way.
Related News Report from 1997
Nov 25, 1997
Newly appointed Guam supreme court justice Benjamin Cruz may be the USA’s highest-ranking gay judge.
by David Silva
Newly appointed Guam supreme court justice Benjamin Cruz may be the nation’s highest-ranking gay judge Justice Benjamin J. Cruz says he hates to turn down a request from a friend, but sometimes he can’t avoid it. “A number of gay friends are trying to get me to perform marriages for them, and I tell them I can’t do that,” he explains. “I tell them if they can get a marriage license, then I’ll do it. But until then I can’t.”
Cruz is fully acquainted with the rule of law. The 46-year-old Guam native, who outed himself as a gay man two years ago in a magazine article, is the U.S. territory’s newest supreme court justice. “There are gay judges in the country, but none I’ve spoken to had come out before being appointed,” Cruz says. “I’m probably the first and only openly gay [supreme court] justice across the country. I’m not sure how open the judiciary will be to that.”
First tapped in 1984 by then-governor Ricardo Bordallo to be a superior court judge, his sexuality was well-known among the local Republican Party and the religious right, leading to one of the most brutal confirmation hearings the island had ever witnessed. Thirteen years later Cruz is in the position of setting the rules by which he plays.
In June a different governor, Carl Gutierrez, nominated him to replace the late justice Monessa Lujan on the supreme court. On September 29, after hearings free of controversy, Cruz was unanimously confirmed to the three-member high court by Guam’s judiciary committee.
Home to two of the most vital U.S. air and naval bases in the Pacific Ocean, Guam is a 210-square-mile island about 1,500 miles east of the Philippines. Its majority ethnic group is Chamorro–islanders of Asian, European, and American descent. Cruz, a Chamorro, was born in Guam in 1951, and his family moved stateside 11 years later. As a student at Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna College) in California, Cruz in 1972 was instrumental in starting the school’s first gay and lesbian club.
That’s when the handsome young man with big political aspirations first publicly acknowledged his sexuality. ” The club had decided to appeal to all the Claremont student councils for funds in order to educate everyone that gays and lesbians weren’t these strange four-legged creatures,” Cruz recalls. “When I appeared before one council and they asked me what my interest in this was, I told them I was one of the founders, and their jaws just dropped. I’ve pretty much been out since then.”
Cruz resumed to Guam in 1975 and for four years served as counsel to the governor. His eyes on election to the governorship, Cruz decided to keep his sexuality “under wraps for a while” and date women. He says Guam’s social and political culture maintains a “benign intolerance” of homosexuality–a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy that has allowed the island’s gays and straights to coexist in peace, if not equality.
But while Cruz for years would maintain a heterosexual facade–he was even engaged to a woman from 1975 to 1980–his real identity was perhaps the worst-kept secret in Guam’s tightly knit political community. ” I was pretty open. I would be seen driving in my open BMW with my handsome boy at my side,” he laughs. “I used to speak at the high schools to the human sexuality classes, because it really bothered me that when they had speakers on homosexuality, they would inevitably invite only drag queens and hairdressers. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but I wanted the gay students to know they could be something else besides drag queens and hairdressers.”
Cruz served as executive director of the Democratic Party of Guam from 1977 to 1983. He ultimately never ran for governor but did wage three spirited bids for a seat in the Guam senate. He attributes his defeats in all three races in large part to negative publicity over his sexuality.
In 1984 Cruz received a call from Bordallo, prodding him to accept a position on the five-member superior court. “The governor understood that the electorate had problems with my being gay,” Cruz said. “Although I was his legal counsel and director of the Democratic Party, I couldn’t get elected. So it was his recommendation that I come on the bench and `rehabilitate’ my image.”
What followed was one of the most trying periods of Cruz’s career. His nomination to the bench was met with vocal opposition by the territory’s Republican Party forces and rigidly conservative religious community.
“The process was so controversial, it was mentioned in USA Today,” Cruz remembers. “Every Baptist on the island showed up to oppose it. There were letters to the editor of the local newspaper that quoted every section of the Bible. But while some religious fanatics opposed me, the majority of the community rallied behind my confirmation.”
Cruz’s appointment was narrowly confirmed by the senate, and for the next eight years he headed Guam’s juvenile court. In 1995 Cruz stunned both his supporters and detractors when he publicly proclaimed his homosexuality in an issue of Latte, a Guam periodical on local culture. While he worried he might be “putting a glass ceiling over my head by granting the interview, I decided that whatever happened, happened. I had to be true to myself and the community.”