From three Mexican cities come three different stories about gay life. Part one reveals a subdued LGBT community in the provincial capital of Morelia in the state of Michoacan, a hundred miles west of Mexico City.
Part two derives from the big city itself–Mexico City, an enormous megopolis of twenty million where, expectantly, the LGBT scene is extensive and challenging.
Part three is from the renown resort of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula, with a LGBT community that’s quite different than one might expect.
By Richard Ammon
Part One: Morelia
This is an unexpected story from an unexpected place. I had never heard of Morelia Mexico before I arrived to visit a longtime friend who bought a house just outside the historic city center. (photo right: Morelia cathedral)
On my first day he guided me into the heart of the city (of about 2 million) and immediately my heart was taken with the soul of this weathered old place. The city seems to emerge from the earth; dust-colored cantera stone has been shaped into churches capped with old bronze-bell towers. Arcaded markets line the parks and squares. Former villas and mansions front the streets with balconied windows trimmed with carved sandstone casings.
Inside the many courtyards are antique bazaars, boutique clothing stores, hardware stores, art galleries, restaurants, cafes, gift shops. What’s also striking are the primary colors that decorate the interiors of many places. We ate at a café that sported blue walls, yellow tablecloths, deep red floors and walls with brightly colored paintings. (see photo galleries)
Over the centuries many churches were built by the Roman Catholic missionaries and bishops who ran their dioceses like feudal lords. That is, until the revolution at the turn of the 20th century when the Mexican government confiscated all church properties. Since then, many of these iglesias have been turned into municipal buildings such as art galleries, offices and libraries although some of the magnificent structures still remain churches in this very catholic country.
One of the most impressive conversions is the municipal library housed in a former Jesuit monastery (photo left). With wooden bookcases thick with new and ancient volumes rising three levels toward the high arched ceiling of the nave, large glass windows at either end and heavy oak reading tables spread across the floor, the richly studious ambiance is equal to any library at Oxford or Cambridge. Another former convent is now home to one of the oldest music schools in North America with a renowned boys’ choir.
A noticeable attraction in this city is the lack of ‘gringo’ tourists, white faces from the USA or Europe are mostly absent so the city feels authentic. Morelia is one of Mexico’s ‘best kept historic secrets’ despite its UNESCO Heritage status.
A Quiet Introduction to Gay Life
Another monastery was converted into the state artisan gallery where arts and crafts from all the localities in the state of Michoacan display and sell their ceramics, wood carvings, furniture, jewelry, paintings, jewelry, weavings, dolls and more.
In this tastefully designed and laid out museum/gallery works a gentle and polite man who most visitors overlook as they study or breeze past the artwork. His name is Jorge. Unassuming and polite, his face offers a wide smile, dark eyes and a thick combed crop of black hair.
He is one of Morelia’s many ‘invisible’ gay residents who go about their lives leaving little ripple on the surface of the city’s social life. A conservative guess (at 2% of the population) suggests there are more than 20,000 lesbian, bi and gay folks who live in this broad valley 6000 feet above sea level. Yet, a casual visitor or even a searching reporter would find little to signify this population.
There are no LGBT organizations to be found, no local publications (a magazine called ‘Attractivo’ comes from Mexico City), no social support groups or festivals. Nor are there any HIV focus groups for emotional support and mutual caring–although there are visible government prevention programs.
However, there are several bars/discos that gays frequent although no one would call them a ‘gay’ places. Rather they are places where some gay people go to have a drink –usually beer since heavy alcohol is too expensive for the modest means of most LGBT folks here.
Jorge said that this is not unusual for secondary Mexican cities. Only the largest cities—Mexico City, Monterey, Guadalajara have any noticeable LGBT presence, with the exception of international holiday towns such as Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco.
I wondered why, given the seeming surge in gay pride in many emerging once-closeted cultures around the world such as eastern Europe and southeast Asia. Why was there no push or consensus for opening a dialog or making a gay presence known here? After all, a city of two million is not a small fishing village.
A big part of the answer was evident in Jorge’s own personal life: his strong devotion to his mother’s care and well-being. He lives with her and six other relatives in a modest set of rooms in the hilly suburb of Santa Maria de Guido. Bringing any emotional harm or embarrassment to his family is unthinkable. He said that when he came out to her at 14 he offered to move out of the house to avoid any difficulty for her. At 35 he still lives with her.
Her response was unwavering love for him and a wish for him not to get hurt by being open or obvious. This was not difficult for Jorge since his natural demeanor is reserved, almost servile. (This is not unusual for lower working class Mexicans who grow up in an environment lacking privilege or advantage.)
Jorge told about his youth He revealed that his father had abandoned the family when he was one year old, leaving his mother and sisters with no means of support. (not uncommon in rural Mexico.) He realized he was gay at eleven when he had an affair with an older classmate at the state boarding school. Jorge was evasive when asked how his mother supported two children, saying only it “was very difficult”. And for her care and protection he will always be grateful and committed to her.
This important shaping influence on his life now shapes his concept of homosexual behavior and aspirations—and that of many of his peers in Morelia. Responsibility for the family comes before personal fulfillment or satisfaction. Getting serious as a committed gay couple is not seen as a viable way of life for Jorge, for now.
A boyfriend is not a ‘lover’ but rather a companion to be seen on occasion when other duties are met. He did have a steady friend for two years but never considered living together. For private moments of intimacy they sometimes rented a motel room or found a room at a friend’s house if available.
Jorge said his mother has never pressured him to marry ever since he came out to her. Most of his peers are also out to their families but that is the extent of their willingness to hear or talk about it. Such silence is the guardian of family honor.
Living together as a gay couple is also not economically possible for Isidro and his peers because of the expenses for rent, furniture, utilities and other costs of independent living. Living at home with one’s family is the most affordable and convenient arrangement Isidro expects to have at this time. For some middle class gays with more money and no family their freedom is increased and they may set up communal home with a partner, but this is more likely in the larger cities.
Jorge further realized his attraction for men as part of his aesthetic development as a young dancer with the local Ballet Foklorico in Morelia. He performed for seven years and afterwards became a dance arranger for social events such as the popular ‘coming out’ parties given to girls on their 15th birthday (fiestas de quince anos). As a young teen he was occasionally teased and called ‘maricon’ (queer) or ‘puto’ (faggot) by older boys who made fun of his artistic interests. But when he became a pro with the ballet company he was taken more seriously.
He also was not one to draw attention to himself, “I learned to blend and to be cautious,” he said of his sexuality. “I found this was the best way to live peacefully.” As a result of this circumspect pose, which most other gays assume here, gay bashing is virtually unheard of in Morelia. “If you are a bad person you will find trouble, not because you are gay but because you are bad,” said Jorge.
A common topic in the out western world is sexual identity. This is essentially an abstract political term foreign to the ears of most Morelian gays. Claiming “I am gay” here is not a primary statement about oneself. Not here where beer, cigarettes and soccer are far more present in the minds of men, whether gay or not. Isidro is a son, a co-worker, a friend, a brother and a soccer freak far more than he sees himself as a ‘gay’ person. Gay is what he sometimes does, not who he feels he is.
This is not to say that LGB folks live in dark shadows or that everyone here is oblivious to them. (Indeed, one claim states that 50% of Mexican men have homosexual experiences at least once before they marry.) There are many straight folks with open minds and hearts towards gays. Jorge’s employer is a well known administrator of the state art gallery who was easily receptive to my inquiries and was quite willing to make contact between me and Jorge.
As well, during my visit I had occasion to talk to a local woman doctor who had several HIV patients. Further, every few months in the municipal theatre of Morelia there are cross-dressing song and dance performances by actors who are gay, and the shows are quite popular.
But there is a fine line of tolerance that does not go much beyond these playfully flamboyant androgynous shows. Within the past few years two cinemas have been closed by the authorities for showing straight ‘adult’ films and where some gay night-crawlers performed their own acts in the back rows. Jorge said that usually the authorities don’t bother with such venues unless there are complaints by neighbors or customers.
Venues For LGBTs
However, resistant to such conservative/legal action are several mixed bars/discos spread in and around Morelia. Jorge showed me two of these. The first was named Boys House, on a main street two miles from the city center. This popular place offers drag shows Friday and Saturday nights with the usual fabulous flair of costumes, wigs, and make-up accompanying lip sync parodies of famous stars.
The favorite bar/disco is Con la Rojas in the heart of the historic district. A modest sign out front sports a small hand painted rainbow to signal intended customers. However, popular as it is, it’s only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday; it wouldn’t be inaccurate to presume this limited schedule is in deference to the neighborhood. There are certainly enough gay folks in Morelia to justify more opening nights.
In November 2005 an expat friend in Morelia sent this additional comment to GlobalGayz.com: “Besides Las Rosas, there are at least four other venues, one called Amsterdam, another is a creperia with a very congenial family friendly sort of atmosphere. Artist-friend Edwardo is all to eager to say that Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel recreation of Adam and God is what Edwardo so vividly recreated on the ceiling of the creperia
In addition there is Salamanders, the local trans place and Matisse another disco owned by a straight man apparently trying to capitalize on the new ‘Gay Wave’ in Morelia. Every weekend patrons meet with several other gentrified gentlemen for cervesas and guacamole at one of these places.
Another commentator, from Lonely Planet’s LGBT Thorn Tree Forum wrote, “I ended up trying out Con Las Rojas last night. Wow, was it fun. I guess, this is the place to go in Morelia. The boys are hot, the music is decent; not the best sound system…but, all in all, a great time. Open until about three and many of the boys are eager to take you out for some quick play and then head back to the club for more beer and dancing.”
As I stood with Jorge in front of Con la Rojas looking at the building and the sign, Jorge was visible nervous and commented that it was ‘scandalous’ that we should not be here and so visible in front of such a place in full daylight.
One reason for Con la Rojas’ popularity—gathering a couple of hundred customers a night—in additional to its function as a watering hole and social pub is that there are virtually no public cruising grounds in Morelia, so it serves as a pick-up spot as well.
Two other bars are further out of town and most gays are hesitant to go because of the distance and the rougher neighborhoods .Morelia is a working class provincial capital and most LGB Morelians have working class jobs that pay modestly—US$60 to 100 a week—which limits opportunity for such luxuries as cars and private homes of their own. Virtually all of Jorge’s friends and acquaintances (about fifty people) are similar to Jorge and live with their families.
Only a few entrepreneurs or upper class gay folks can claim to have their own house or business or independence from demanding family responsibilities. Often they come from families who are well off or have made good investments in commerce such as Con la Rojas or the elegant Fonda del Mercedes Restaurant in central Morelia. (The owner of Rojas drives a BMW.)
Mercedes Restaurant (photo right) deserves a special recommendation as one of the best restaurants in the city. It is eclectically furnished with fine art along the interior stone walls; diners sit among statuary, ancient columns, playful wrought iron and glass chandeliers, warmed by wood burning fireplaces.
The bar is barrel-vaulted and completely lined with small terra cotta urns cemented into place. Not to mention the fine haute cuisine that is mostly European served by well trained staff.
Although there is a distinct separation of economic classes in the Mexican culture, same-sex orientation tends to cut across this distinction at Con la Rojas on social nights. Here, for a while, drinkers, talkers and cruisers are equal. Money is the great divider and sex is the great equalizer. Beauty is one of the great mysteries in society that makes lovers or fools of us all. The ‘prince and the pauper’ is a common story when the lights are low, when liquor flows, hormones are aroused and the mystery of sexual desire scripts our lives. Money, age and sex weave an age old tale of human delight and agony, whether in Monaco or Morelia.
Lesbians in Morelia
They are here of course but virtually invisible except for a few who show up at Rojas. Jorge said they have it easier in Mexico because the culture accepts intimate expression between women in public. Walking arm in arm along the arched arcades of Morelia’s historic center women hold and caress each other with friendship affections without the slightest ripple of attention from others. It would be impossible to discern two women in amorous love from two in intimate friendship.
Women are expected to have close female companions, especially if they are married; close male friends, single or married, are suspect. An unmarried woman who is attracted to other women could live a single lifetime in the presence of other women. Although there is pressure to marry, the weight of this custom in Mexico is not heavier than the chosen will of a woman, especially in modern urban Mexico.
Unfortunately I did not directly meet known any lesbian women during my visit to Morelia, although no doubt I saw numerous lesbians as I explored the beautiful old city. Whether sitting on a bench in one of the verdant parks surrounded by arched arcades, in the numerous museums, or shopping at the market bazaar, women in pairs are everywhere. Near the university there are dormitories for men and women in their twenties pursuing studies in medicine, humanities or law. It hardly needs mentioning that a certain number of these young folks can be found visiting Con la Rojas on an open night.
Part Two: Mexico City
Something remarkable has happened here in the past ten years. LGBT life is now brassy, brave and proud. Starting in the Zona Rosa, the trendy ‘bohemian’ quarter with it chic mixed cafes and restaurants, its straight girlie-bars, gay clubs, discos, gift stores, video and Internet stores, fast food chains–many now happily hang the rainbow flag above their doors with hardly any notice from the predominantly non-gay crawlers in this district.
The first person I saw as my taxi stopped at a traffic light in the Zona Rosa was a classic butch lesbian crossing the street in front of us. Dressed in jeans, flannel shirt and head bandana, she frowned into her cell phone as she strode forward in her black boots. She was clearly one strong stepper into the brave new world that has opened in this town.
On my first walk through Zona Rosa at night I peeked into a couple of gay bar/discos V.I.P disco and Cabaret-Tito Safari disco. These were no small cozy hideaways–especially V.I.P.–with cautious boys and girls sipping sarsaparilla. These joints were thumping cauldrons of torrential rock/pop/hip/Mexi-beat music that shook my liver. But this is what the hundreds of dancers, drinkers and cruisers wanted as they gyrated arms, legs and hips to the beat. Some boys were shirtless–hard to see how many through the dark smoky air. (Thankfully body-fascism hasn’t reached here yet so there were just normal torsos without fab abs.) I managed to stay about four minutes in each of the two sizzling dance halls.
After a walk around the Zone (ZR) it was clear the gay’ community has claimed its place in the night scene here in this traditionally macho testosterone-driven part of town. (Going to, in and from Zona Rosa I was offered about a dozen ladies-of-the-night from pimps along the streets. I was also invited into several girlie go-go bars to see “muy benita senioritas—table dance for you.”)
Now, queer couples, male and female, walk hand in hand openly on the streets; the ones I saw were in their twenties so it seems a generational shift in courage is happening as well a shift in tolerance from straights.
Older timers say there have been gay venues in the Zona for many years. But a leap forward took place in 2000 with the defeat of the long-entrenched, long corrupt, status quo PLN political party. Former president Vincente Fox broke the stronghold by campaigning against corruption and intolerance. In 2001 new anti-discrimination and anti-corruption laws were inaugurated. Although these by no means suddenly ended discrimination or abuse, the symbolic power of these laws gave courage to many LGBT people.
Businesses opened such as the pioneering BGay-BProud café for young under-age queer youth. It was the beginning of the ‘out-proud’ social ‘boom’ in the Zona for LGBT people. Now police patrol the area for protection instead of harassment. Bribes and shakedowns are much reduced (although not eliminated, as one young gay man told of a police shakedown attempt to accuse him of possessing drugs. They actually put illicit drugs in his pocket and tried to force him to confess they were his! When his sister called the human rights organization in Mexico City, the kid was quickly released.)
Behind the Scene
Out of view from the colors and action of the LGBT Zona Roza scene is the ‘heart’ of the new gay pulse: the Centro Cultural de la Diversidad Sexual.
Located a few streets away from the Zona, at Colima 267, this Cultural Center for Sexual Diversity offers a braod range of support, counseling, education, personal awareness and safe sex workshops, classes, and programs for gays. lesbians, bi-sexuals, inquiring and trans-preferred folks. Much of the emphasis is on young people, offering a healthy atmosphere and positive attitudes as people discover their sexuality. There is a cafe and many friendly faces who volunteer time and services.
On their website, they state (in rough translation here) their clear mission in passionate terms: “We must accept a single reality: “this planet is of all and for all, with a right to a worthy life that our humanity demands and deserves.”
Brave New World
There is much more LGBT activity here than I imagined. It wasn’t until I found a copies of ‘Homopolis’, ‘Otro Guia’ and ‘Ser-Gay’ that I fully realized the extent of the rainbow’s arc in Mexico City. These free compact magazines list the LGBT venues, events, services and organizations in the city (as well as a half dozen other cities in Mexico) along with usual ads for phone sex and escorts.
I counted at least fifty venues and services listed in Homopolis. And they are not just in Zona Rosa. Across the city near the famous central square of Zocolo the enormous Metropolitan Cathedral casts a shadow (so to speak) on several new LGBT locations. What would the old saints think?!
Numerous theme parties and special events are also listed throughout the year. For Valentine’s day the clubs were pushing special ‘love’ theme events. At four PM on the same day there was a big gathering downtown advocating gay marriage–a sort of Wed-in. (See report below)
I went to see the ‘flagship’ BGay-Bproud Café, a cheerful, colorful non-alcoholic café opened in 2001 for the express purpose of offering a gathering place for LGBT youth. The faces are still youthful. As I sat sipping a hot chocolate I watched male and females couples and friends kiss and hug in greeting. One spikey-hair kid (photo left) seemed to know everyone and greeted all with kisses (on the cheeks for lesbians, on the lips for boys).
The original café has spawned two other adjacent cafés called ‘Gayta Freezing Bar’ and ‘Pussy’. Not surprising mostly women sat at the shiny aluminum chairs sipping Pussy’s coffee, smoothies or hot chocolate, but some of their guy friends were there as well. It seems gay male and female youth are very integrated socially.
Tito and his Cabarets
The other gay anchor in the area is the three-bar set known as Cabaret-Tito Neon, Cabaret-Tito V.I.P. and Cabaret-Tito Safari all within a few blocks of one another. Web site: www.cabaretito.com
They are hopping places with different themes nearly every night. I met the owner of all three places, Tito Vasconuelos, one night for a chat at his forth venue, Punto Cabaret and Restaurant, also in the ZR.
Tito (pictured below) is a gay rights veteran who acknowledges the progress that’s been achieved in the past ten years but he knows well that such progress has not been a willing gift from the newly elected PAN party or the defeated long-entrenched (70 years) PDF party.
Despite the outward celebration of gay life in ZR, Tito said both parties pandered to the gay community only for votes. Small substantial results have been produced other than a generic anti-discrimination statute in 2001. Neither party is willing to step forward to acknowledge gay rights as a legitimate part of human rights.
However, in recent years there has been progress: On 21 December 2009, Mexico City became the first Latin American jurisdiction to legalize same-sex marriage as of 4 March 2010.
Not to be put off for long, Tito said he and other activists are considering submitting a ‘civilian proposal’ to the City’s council demanding equal rights for all. Citizens have the right to bring a civilian proposal to a vote if they can collect 200,000 signatures to back it.
Tonio and Julian
At first I thought Tito’s Punto Restaurant was one of the better places to eat in the ZR. But when I arrived about ten PM on Friday night I was pleased to find it was more of a cabaret with a show about to start. The place was busy with no empty tables. In a gesture of typical Mexican hospitality a couple of men invited me to sit at their table to eat and enjoy the show. This began an evening of talk–interrupted by the comedy floor show–that continued the following evening at Tonio’s and Julian’s 10th floor condo near the Zona Rosa.
Punto was filled to capacity with gays and lesbians about equal in number. I can’t say I saw a ‘butch’ number among the women. These were casually and fashionably dressed women, some with make-up, and nearly all with attractive hairstyles. A number of them smoked, others held hands and clearly all enjoyed the political satire of the comedy show.
The next night I sat with Tonio and Julian (photo right) in their new and chic flat decorated with ‘male’ art and modern furniture. Together for 17 years they live a considerably different lifestyle than their counterparts in conservative Morelia. They live openly as a couple.
Both of their families have long known they are gay and, after an initial period of upset, have come to embrace them as a couple. Tonio has four brothers and two sisters; Julian’s mother had two girls after Julian but never married any of the fathers so she raised her kids by herself.
Julian, now 35, disclosed he first experienced sexual play with a 14-year old family friend when he was nine. He said the experience was enjoyable and claims he has never experienced sexual force or coercion. Laughing, he said, “many times I was the one looking for sex and I wanted it from the older boys.”
He claimed it’s not unusual for sexual activity to occur between siblings, cousins or family friends in early or mid teens. Homo sex is of course very secretive yet seems to have more porous boundaries; it’s somewhat more available with familiar people or relatives since it’s often only seen as ‘fooling around’, experimenting and not ‘serious’ like intercourse with the opposite sex. To be sure, machismo also starts early. It’s a moment of pride for a father to know his son is ‘doing it’. But finding his son is doing it with another guy can be quite shameful, so no one talks about it.
Julian is far from alone in his attraction to older guys. I spoke to another native Mexican, Victor, the 30-year-old boyfriend of 50-year-old American, Stephen, who happened to be staying at my hotel in Mexico City. Over coffee, Victor said he also started young, at eleven, having enjoyable sex with a friend of his older brother. This affair went on for about three years before Victor started looking at other guys. I hesitantly asked if this early sex was just fondling and cuddling. “Oh no,” he laughed, “I liked bottom sex from the first time.’ My surprised look evoked another laugh. “I was shocked as well,” said Stephen who did not come out of his hetero marriage until he was 42.
Julian’s 44 year-old partner Tonio is a technical consultant for Ericksson International, the cell phone company. His higher-than-average salary (for Mexico) has afforded him and Julian a solid middle class life. Comfortable home, shiny car, money for vacations, clothes, gifts for families and eating out at nice restaurants. They said they have numerous gay couple friends in Mexico City who also fit this lifestyle description.
This was one of the pleasant ‘discoveries’ I had during my visit—a populous, prosperous, gay yuppie (‘guppie) middle class spread across the city but especially near the central old town and the Zona Rosa. A casual stroll around the Zona or the adjacent Condesa area reveals a gay and lesbian couple population ranging in age from twenties to sixties. They are not hard to see, as they do not make any effort to hide their attentions. They can be seen dining in any number of trendy cafes and restaurants throughout the areas, or shopping or cruising the many stores in the Roza Plaza Mall.
The younger population appears more bold about holding hands than the older ones, as mentioned before. In one Starbuck’s café, virtually all the customers were gay and lesbian as I strolled by on my way to take a photo of V.I.P. disco on lesbian-only Sunday. In Tonio’s and Julian’s building there are at least half a dozen other gay or lesbian couples.
A couple of days before I sat for a while on the comfy red sofas in the Gai Bar on Amberes Street and enjoy the rather elegant ambiance of soft lighting and decorative art. I thought, looking and listening here, I could be in Chelsea (New York), Castro (San Francisco), Nollendorfplatz (Berlin) or Marais (Paris).
As our conversation moved further into the lives of Tonio and Julian they revealed that part of their good life was a strong emotional bond and commitment that does not waver—even though they have an open relationship.
Art piece in Tonio’s
and Julian’s flat, by Jose Vargas
“You know, we are men and we understand that love in one thing and sex is another. We are not saying this is for all people but after our first three years as monogamous, we were sure about our bond together. Then we wanted to have some other fun, first with some three-ways and now whenever we choose. And we still have good sex, but it is exciting to play with another for a while and then come home to my lover,” explained Tonio.
They are quite open and honest with each other and, if asked, will tell about any outside adventure. I wondered whether their other couple friends have similar arrangements. Although they have not explicitly asked, Julian said that from general talking and dishing and kidding that he believe most of their friends also have some open activity. They laughed as they told me that sometimes they provide a room for their friends’ moments of digressive passion.
As revealed in the Morelia part of this story about gay Mexico, the influence of one’s family plays a forceful shaping role on the lives of any Mexican, gay or straight. Unmarried children, even if they are a doctor or dentist 50 years of age, can be found still living with and supporting one or both parents.
When a Mexican woman gives birth her destiny has been fulfilled. Her life will be spent in nurturing and protecting and serving him or her (or all four or six of them). Despite the outward show of machismo in this culture, the mother plays a powerful role in any child’s life. It is customary for her to meet the needs of the young until they marry and move out, usually with a great matrimonial ceremony.
So it goes without saying that since a gay child is not likely to marry (although not true in previous generations) they will be expected or want to live at home to help their parents.
For the young gay person not out of the closet, dating and intimacy are difficult and sporadic. Coming out is not easy for most Mexican youth. Reactions range from hysteric rejection to physical assault to calm acceptance to loving embrace (“mom already knew”).
Tonio’s youthful efforts to be the ‘best little boy’ had worked—until his secret came out. In an instant his relationship with his father reversed. For two years Tonio did not have communication with his him, whereas before they had been very loving and close. It was a painful period for both of them.
Now after many years, their feelings are again close and his father shows his acceptance of Julian by asking him, for example, to bring him a beer from the fridge. It’s a small but symbolic gesture of inclusion, a compliment which makes Tonio’s heart sing.
Julian’s mother knew he was different at a very young age so he never really had to come out to her. He grew up liking to dance and for a while was a stage dancer; he now teaches children. He doubts she really knew how different he was since he was having oral sex with a number of his neighbors who would ‘take turns’ with him but did not know about each other. It was his secret, and will remain so, he said with a hearty yet slightly embarrassed laugh.
Tonio and Julian regularly work out together at a local gym and attend yoga classes. Although they have numerous gay and lesbian friends, they said most of their social activity is with family members for dinners, Sunday visits, birthday parties or anniversaries. Since Tonio has six siblings all married now with kids and Julian has two married brothers, there is always something going on in the family that invites their attention or attendance. Unfortunately, although I didn’t ask, Tonio and Julian had their twelfth anniversary a week before I met them and they did not mention any family attention paid to that event. (I brought them some flowers.)
I mentioned Victor and Steven before. They too are part of the broad tapestry of gay life in this huge city of 20 million (that’s between 400,000 and one million LGBT folks, plus working foreigners and ex-pats). ‘Gringo’ Steven is a former lawyer now in the construction business in Dallas (a 2 1/2 hour flight away). Married for 27 years with three kids (13-18 years old) he finally admitted his secret at the age of 42.
Native-born Victor is a dancer, although at the age of thirty he is slowly changing toward teaching. He still auditions for musicals and sometimes is successful. Not surprising he lives with his parents but not steadily since childhood. He has had four boyfriends two of whom he lived with. Victor’s most disturbing love experience was finding out his Swiss boyfriend Hans, with whom he lived in Switzerland, had another Mexican lover behind Victor’s back (Hans traveled back and forth for business.) Victor had lived with Hans for two years when he found out; the ‘other man’ actually called Victor to say that he was now Hans’ boyfriend!)
Neither Victor nor Steven knew if there were many foreign/Mexican couples in the city, but they are certainly not alone in their attractions and feeling for ‘opposites’ (Steven is big, white and handsomely older: Victor is slender, dark and adorably younger). Their relationship is one of countless Romeo and Juliet affairs that have steep obstacles to hurdle if they expect to share the same kind and quality of conjugal life that Tonio and Julian have.
Victor feels a strong need to help provide for his parents, although they have survived without his presence before. (He gives them nearly 50% of his earnings.) Further, to be sure, he still feels the sting of betrayal so he is very likely to be cautious when re-entering any relationship with a foreigner.
Then there is the problem with getting legal status in a paranoid USA that has made immigration very difficult since 9/11. If he can enter the US with a student visa, Steven has suggested Victor get his nursing license and gain legal work status since there is always a shortage of nurses in the States. This will likely be a symbolic loss to Victor (as a dancer), although one he is already considering.
So the outcome of this bi-national love affair is far from settled, Meanwhile they both enjoy occasional weekends together going to movies and gay venues in the Zona and holding hands in public, something Stephen is reluctant to do in Dallas.
Valentine’s Day Marriage Rally
It was a lovely afternoon to get married—Valentine’s Day. A lot of people did in Mexico, but no gay folks–at least then in 2010. So, as we often do, we threw a party and pretended. At four PM hundreds of LGBT Mexicans converged on the Hemiculo Juarez monument in the downtown Alameda park to stage a pro-gay marriage rally. I thought it would last a couple of hours but after four hours the energy of the crowd was so harmonious and loving that hardly anyone wanted to leave.
It was accompanied with music, dance and speeches. Tito was there to give a speech about gay marriage and the need to press on against homophobic politics and policies. After a couple more speeches, one by a gracious older woman dressed like a pastor, Tito returned to sing some love songs. He was, after all, well know as a performer and film actor.
But the main event was the signing of a “Registro de Sociedades de Conviviencia 2005” certificates by hundreds of LGBT couples witnessed by their friends and the ‘officials’ of the event, PFLAG parents dressed in academic caps and gowns (tassels included). They looked quite authoritative in their black gowns as they handed each and every couple a certificate to print their name then sign with their signatures. Then the PFLAG parent signed it and gave the certificate to the couple. (as mentioned above, on 21 December 2009, Mexico City became the first Latin American jurisdiction to legalize same-sex marriage as of 4 March 2010.)
The effect was electric and magnifying. Reactions could not have been more official and married: kissing and embracing, some prolonged to the cheers of friends and strangers alike; rice and confetti were thrown. Media cameras were present and reporters interviewed some couples. More than a few tears were shed among partners as they got carried along by the upsurge of renewed love for one another powered by the added force of public ceremony and cheers, whistles, hugs and howls. A moment few of these couples had ever known.
Many were there dressed for the occasion. One young male couple came in wedding drag—a white gown with veil and a bouquet and his groom in dark suit and tie. Another guy couple wore identical white shirts, dark ties and dark pants looking very much together. Most lesbians of course shunned dreaded gowns and came in jeans and dressy blouses, some with vests. Standing immediately in front of my camera, one young guy had carefully torn his jeans in the back to expose one of his cheeks—no underwear of course. (See photo gallery!)
A wide spectrum of hairstyles was on display. From gelled spikes, to Don Juan thick slicks; from buzz to bouffant; there was red, blue, green, bleached blonde and streaked; lengths were long, short and none. It was definitely a unisex show.
Among the mostly young couples there were a number of middle-age gay and lesbian couples who proudly signed up and kissed and hugged. Some lesbian couples held babies; there were age-discrepant couples of daddies and twinks; there were butch-fem lesbians hand in hand. Some of the couples could not have been over seventeen, looking so fresh and cherubic and bright-eyed at the festival atmosphere. I wished their parents could have seen them in this moment of happiness and public display of affection.
Recent update comment (2010) from a reader: “I’m happy to inform you that past month (December 2009) gay marriage became legal as well did adoption in Mexico City. Church and conservative political parties were extremely against it, although their concerns were focused on adoption. Their theory was that it should be a poll among Mexican citizens to know how the majority think about homosexuality. They were sure that it would be in their favor, but statistics were very different because results turned out to be that more than 50% Mexicans believe in gay rights, such as marriage and adoption, against 30% who didn’t. The other percent was unsure.
Part Three: Cancun
From Mexico City I flew to Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula. I went to see the ancient Mayan pyramids, the Great Barrier Reef and inspect the three surviving gay venues in downtown (Centro) Cancun.
Over the past dozen years about the same number of gay joints have come and gone, mostly in the downtown (Centro) area. A recent one, Sebastian’s, opened last year in the Zona Hoteleria along the expensive beachfront high rise hotels where the vast majority of tourists arrive for their annual dose of Mexican sun. Sebastian’s lasted two months. Closed due to inept management and lack of forethought about its customer demographics and the practicality of its location.
The three remaining clubs survive because they understand who their customers are: mostly locals who live in the Centro (much less affluent) area of Cancun—a fifteen minute ride by car at best, and more than a twenty-five minute ride on the tedious local bus that stops frequently. Few local gays own cars and hardly any live in the hotel zone even though most of them work there. So it’s obvious that Sebastian’s was fated to failure by ignoring its local customer base.
The real ‘gay Cancun’ is a small conservative population of mostly working class local men and women, with a scattering of ex-pats living in the ‘old’ Centro–so it appears compared to the shiny marble hotel places across the lagoon on the beach.
Cancun town exists only because of the hotels that cater to vast numbers of straight Europeans and Americans who visit on ten to fourteen day vacation package tours. During college breaks, ten of thousands of students also swarm the beaches and beer halls to blitz out for a week–and maybe and get laid.
Still, Cancun is not essentially a gay destination. ‘Cancun Beach’ is about the white beaches and azure clear waters. It is not about cruising, partying or hooking up with other queers. The community is not, as many outsiders imagine, a trendy, jet-setting, international cadre of northern white folks who congregate at poolside palapas for margaritas and tea dances and cruise the bikini guys and lesbians along the white sands. That’s Puerto Vallarta, a much smaller, much gayer ‘village’ on the west coast of Mexico.
Juan Ortiz and Glow
My host for an evening of dining and talking was Juan Ortiz, the handsome co-owner of the new gay club ‘Glow’ that opened in January 2005. It’s well designed with a high-tech industrial look of smooth gray metal walls and a balcony that runs around the perimeter overlooking the huge dance floor.
Upstairs outside is an open air lounge that overlooks the pedestrian walkway called Calle 9. You see the difference the moment you want in: a niche with a large bouquet of brightly colored ‘designer’ flowers exudes style from the start. Further inside is a sort of curtain made of heavy chain link just before the space opens up to the cavernous three-story dance hall.
Its appearance is as impressive as its state of the art sound system. There is a live DJ, not just CD’s in a machine—the only one in town. It takes ‘gay Cancun’ to new levels of taste and entertainment.
Within two years Juan expects to open a restaurant/café on the street level front of Glow. He described his dream as we sat in the cozy Roots Restaurant three doors away from Glow, amid other trendy and unpretentious cafes, bars in the old town. This Centro is a part of town that many but not most tourists see. It’s a working class part of the city, with a Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Sears and a huge St. Francis of Assisi supermarket, as well as countless mom and pop shops selling everything from baby bottles to Internet services. For those who live here, this is the real Cancun. Where families live and work 9-5 jobs, many at the big beach hotels.
Nevertheless, with an eye toward the future of Glow Juan is preparing to market his new showcase club to the beachfront hotels by hosting at least one evening for the concierges of those hotels. Clearly more than a few LGB tourists are among the hetero hoards who invade the beaches and Juan wants to be sure they know where to find a good place to dance and mingle. Recently, Juan said proudly, the main Cancun tourist magazine solicited an ad from Juan, something he said has not happened before.
The author and Juan Ortiz in Centro area Roots restaurant
Another sign of change occurred several years ago when a mayoral candidate (who later won) visited Centro and Karamba bar stating she felt all people deserved equal respect.
Here is where the gay community of Cancun lives. Some with their families and many here on their own for hotel work. This separation from their families–regretful as it may be since Mexican families have strong bonds–also serves as a welcome liberation from the constrictions of conservative hetero/machismo society at home. Many gays feel freer to express themselves here, at least in the clubs. And some really go for it by dancing and drinking till 6 AM on Friday and Saturday nights. The bars stay open well past three AM most nights.
Karamba and Picante
The other two clubs in Centro are Karamba bar and Picante bar. Karamba is a block away from Glow and is older by about ten years. (www.karambabar.com) There’s little to set it off from countless dark dance bars around the world. There are drag shows during the week and weekends starting about one in the morning. Karamba is actually owned by an older straight woman but it’s managed by—and owes it ongoing success to—Juan C., the former lover of Juan O. from Glow. (Together they co-own Glow.) Karamba is unpretentious, local and friendly with a good size dance floor.
Juan O. explained that most of the staff at Glow and Karamba are not gay, that gay staff are not reliable (some are of course) since they can get distracted by customers who cruise them or offer drugs. As well, a lot of the young kids who work as waiters often not well educated and not well disciplined to carry out responsibilities night after night. Juan spends a lot of time training new staff on appropriate manners, attitudes and behavior.
Interestingly, he has noticed over time that straight workers who come from the Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz have an easier time with sexual matters than workers from more conservative states. “They seem more friendly and comfortable with sex and it’s not unusual for them to be bisexual. I don’t know why this is but I’ve seen it and these guys make better waiters. They’re not really into the gay scene, but they’re okay with it.”
The third survivor on the scene is the oldest and smallest—Picante, about three blocks from Karamba. Picante is even less pretentious. It feels like a throwback with a look that it’s been ‘used’ for all of it 12 years of life. The dance floor is barely big enough for half a dozen couples. But you can hear the sound system half a block away.
An incident occurred last year at Picante in which some drag queens were being harassed by the police for their alleged prostitution activities. To avoid the police several drag queens ran into Picante where a minor confrontation happened between the queens’ defenders and the authorities.
Juan O. said some gays and lesbians don’t like the drag queens because they perpetuate the cultural stereotype of homosexuals as effeminate cross dressers.
Juan said there is a gay beach area in the hotel zone, the only such place, at the Delfines beach near the old Mayan ruin. But it’s only gay at certain times.
Stepping Forward and Back
All in all the gay scene in Cancun is pleasantly subdued and non-confrontational. Despite the lack of any LGBT organization here LGBT people know each other owing to the small size of the community. There seems little need for any activist work. Making a decent wage tends to keep people satisfied and unperturbed. Centro serves the hotels and the hotels serve the gods of Prosperity and Public Relations.
The last thing Cancun wants to remind sun worshipers and big spenders of is the reality of the outside world—including homosexuality and HIV. If there is a downside of gay life here it’s that there is virtually no awareness or education program for HIV and AIDS, subtly instilling indifference and a false sense of security, according to Juan: “Money is more important here so the authorities don’t show a public face for HIV.”
He said there is medical care available for HIV infected people, but it’s up to the gay bar owners and gay-friendly business community to remind the local government about this lack of education–for all people–and to push for a more open attitude toward LGBT citizens.
A recent incident regarding how much or how little openness can be tolerated happened a year ago when an ex-pat from San Diego advertised a ‘gay festival’ in Centro Cancun. Prior to this there had been quiet gay celebrations with parties, presentations, displays and a subdued walk along the main Tulum Avenue. Juan said that occasionally gay cruise ships had docked in Cancun with no negative reaction.
But conservatives grabbed hold of the label ‘festival’ and began rousing opposition and raised a petition against any such an event. Finally Juan stood up and countered back at the bigotry, writing strongly worded letters to the newspapers and speaking out publicly. Stating that gays had rights of expression that did not harm anyone, He also reminded them that gay bars and gay customers were good for local business, including employing non-gay workers.
With his strong opposition to the conservatives forcefully stated, they appeared to back off their smear campaign and the 2004 celebration went ahead including another pride walk along a section of Tulum Avenue. About 200 people marched.
The gay community in Cancun is not loudly demanding major changes in the laws or advocating gay marriage but they are adamant they be allowed to live and celebrate in peace.