(Updated October 2008)
Gay Guam: One Island, Several Cultures and a Quiet Way of Gay Life
On occasion this speck of a Pacific island experiences 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 the 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 last fallit carried about 6000 troops, enough to take over every 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 gay 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 hve been a small number 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 secret old haunts are left.
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.
Marriage, Parade and Venues
Because gay marriage was made legal in Guam at the same time as it became legal in mainland USA, a sense of pride and belonging has emerged that has blossomed into a day of Pride with a parade followed by a festival with information and merchandise booths. No longer in the shadows it is an openly fun day of play and pride. The first parade happened in June 2017 and annually since. TV interviews with participants were all up beat despite anemic protests from religious fundies. The big attraction was a fifty-foot long Rainbow banner carried along by twenty volunteers. (https://guampride.org/) At the festival there were native dancers in grass skirts and native food such as Chamorro barbecue.
On a previous visit I visited two gay owned venues; Denial and Jax Lounge. Sadly neither is in business anymore.
But life goes on and today’s venues are Globe Nightclub Guam which is not strictly a gay club although they host the biggest gay pride parties in Guam and float a display in the parade. The other venue is Club Icon that hosts a weekly gay night called Gender Bender. “It’s the place to be if you’re looking for a gay bar or gay club in Guam. Club Icon is otherwise a mixed bar that draws a diverse crowd” said Martin.
Also, Guam also has a considerable bi-sexual population as well as a trans community. One of the most popular events is the 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/)
A bit of history: in 1997 an openly gay Guam native judge, Benjamin Cruz, was appointed to the bench who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. At the time one reporter said “he may be the USA’s highest-ranking gay judge.” He served as chief justice until August 2001, when he retired from the judiciary.
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 people (gay and straight) 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, Marty and his friend Matt 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 some 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 a businessman “if you are just yourself and don’t throw your sexuality in others’ faces, they leave you in peace. They know we’re here. There are off-duty policemen who go to a gay bar with their friends and to talk and joke around. As long as there is nothing illegal illegal going on—like under age drinking or drugs—there’s no problem with our occasional gay-trans nights. There are no posters on the streets with guys in their jocks. 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 their underwear ads are!”
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 one bar I found safer sex brochures and condoms available.
The brochures 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. This information comes 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.”
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.
One businessman 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 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.