A guest writer for Reuters offers a realistic and raw glimpse of mostly daunting gay life in this small country with the famous canal.Yet there are small signs of hope for easing of machistic policies and attitudes. Following this is a commentary from a recent visitor to Panama who found his own satisfying scene.
By Robin Emmott
February 20, 2002
Updated July 2007
She was beautiful. She was sassy. She was adored. As Ana Carolina passed through the crowds, high on her carriage of feathers, she waved and danced — Panama City’s Carnival queen. But Ana Carolina was Jorge, and Jorge is gay.
In Panama you can lose your job for being gay. There are no gay lobbyists, no openly gay politicians and no local gay magazines. In this unashamedly macho society, homophobic music is not uncommon on the radio. Even the gay community has no universally recognized leaders. Gay pride? Out of the question.
Still, as in other years, for a few days this year during Panama’s pre-Lenten Carnival, the country’s gay men were granted permission to run their own floats and have their own gay Carnival queen. "Perhaps it’s because the straight Carnival queens are so outrageously dressed that we can also take part — dressed in drag," says Jorge, a 23-year-old marketing student. "Whatever the reason, Carnival is the only time that we as Panama’s gays can be open about our sexuality."
Roxany, a 22-year-old transvestite who began living as a woman at 15, speaks about the discrimination she has suffered in Panama.
Following Carnival earlier this month, Panama’s gays are able to look back at the festivities as the closest they have come to full acceptance in the celebrations. "Young people cheered us on the gay parades with a real friendless," says Jorge. The gay community gained government permission for two other queens in the provinces, aside from Jorge’s appearance as Panama City’s gay queen.
Roberto, a 28-year-old hairdresser, appeared as the gay queen in the central town of Anton. "We went to Anton this year because the people there are not anti-gay as in other towns. We were surprisingly well received," says Roberto.
No fun when the party’s over
But away from the exuberance of Carnival, being gay in Panama isn’t easy. "I’ve been beaten up for being gay," says Ruben, a smartly dressed 26-year-old business student. "People insult me when I walk down the street and I’ve had problems getting part time jobs. Groups such as the Catholic Church think we are immoral and vulgar."
Gay tourists are told to steer clear of Panama. "If you are a gay traveler looking to spend time in a country that embraces people regardless of their sexual preference, Panama is not the country for you," advises the U.S-based Lonely Planet guide book. And besides the fun of dressing up as a woman at Carnival, genuine transvestites in Panama face discrimination, pushed to the edges of society.
"Transvestites know nothing of safe sex because no one wants to talk about it," says Morgan, a 50-year-old heterosexual who saw his transvestite friend Alegria die from AIDS last year. Some 4,000 people currently suffer from the disease in this country of just under 3 million inhabitants.
Roxany, a 22-year-old transvestite who began living as a woman at 15, lives from the $100 a month her boyfriend gives her and the occasional show she does in a nightclub. "My father nearly beat me to death when I first told him I was a transvestite," she says, wearing a long green summer dress. "But I was lucky. I have friends who were kicked out of home when their parents found out. And they had nowhere to go. There are no gay support groups in Panama."
Although consensual homosexual relationships between adults are legal, attempts to form legitimate gay organizations in Panama have so far been blocked. Panama’s first lesbian and gay organization, Asociacion Hombres y Mujeres Nuevos de Panama, was denied legal registration in January 2000. An effort to launch a gay political party has also foundered.
From her small, dank room in the suffocating heat of a Panama City shantytown, Roxany dreams of leaving Panama for Amsterdam. "There I could be a lady. I wouldn’t be constantly humiliated in public like in Panama," she says, staring at the television that is showing a local soap opera.
Homophobia on the wane
In the face of discrimination against Panama’s gay men, there are some signs that society is beginning to open up. Last year a number of popular television soap operas introduced gay characters–something that would have been unthinkable five years ago, gays say. An openly gay television presenter has also emerged, broadcasting his weekly current affairs and celebrity gossip show. Harold, as he is known, has done a lot to help conservative Panamanians accept gays, says Marco, a gay 25-year-old part-time design student. "Harold is outwardly gay and effeminate, but he is a humorous and intelligent too. He shows people that being gay does not mean you dress like a woman," Marco says.
More gay bars and nightclubs are also opening in Panama City. For years, fearing vandalism and homophobic attacks, gay clubs remained well-kept secrets. The biggest barrier to greater acceptance for Panama’s gays is the public’s reluctance to accept that high profile politicians and businessmen may be homosexual, the gay community says.
While there are public figures widely rumored to be gay or bisexuals, none have stepped out of the closet. "Panama is not ready for a gay politician," says one gay man who requested anonymity. "It could be 10 years before that time comes."
Copyright 2002 Reuters.
A brief commentary from a gay Asian-Panamanian who went to Panama in December 2002.
I went to Panama City and some of the countryside on a visit to see my family and I had a good time. Of course my family doesn’t know how good it was for this lusty bottom.
I made it to the disco "Box" in Panama City that is pretty nice place with cool music, and some cute boys. It was recently relocated to a bigger and nicer space. People were friendly and the Techno dance music had a good sound cuz the DJ seemed to know what he was doing. I also went to another disco, smaller, on Wednesday night. called "BLG" and it also had a decent crowd with a number of cruisy guys. I never stop looking–you know how it is.
The best action was at the bathhouse. The facilities were pretty nice with several different rooms. The steam room was a maze, with showers and very little light. I have no idea why they like to have sex in such hot place, but they did. I saw several people having sex and I got lucky in there too.
The place also had a video room, a dry sauna, an eucalyptus steam room and a couple other dark mazes that were pitch black. You had to feel your way through them. Most people would not interact with you until you went into one of these dark places. There were private rooms, but most people did not get these as they cost twice as much as a locker room. They were pretty nice with cushion and mirrors on both sides.
On Thursday night, it is naked night. they only give you a washcloth. Funny thing is that most people use it to cover their crotch. I thought it was funny. You are there– might as well let it all hang out. I did. I had no problems finding willing guys. But they wanted to go to private areas such as the dark areas or even in a bathroom. Guess it must be a macho thing?
Of course, once pleasured by the ‘menu’ there I went back for dessert. But most of the nights it was pretty empty; the better nights were Thursday and Saturday. But one Saturday was pretty empty since it was just after New Year and money was probably low. They told me that Saturday nights after payday is pretty busy. Some things are the same all over the world it seems.
Funny thing, the guy at the bar (sodas only, no alcohol) was pretty nice. Turns out he was straight–married to a woman.
In general, it’s really hard for me to tell if people were homophobic or not in Panama.
You could see couples hanging out on the disco. I also met a couple at the sauna, they said they come about twice a month. I met 4 Russians at the sauna. They were leaving when I got there. They were coming from Cuba, they got bored over there and decided to check out Panama. They didn’t think it was cruisy enough at the sauna. They wanted to know where they could rent boys. They said that in the whole island of Cuba it’s easy to rent them. I did not know where to send them.
There seems to be several gay bars, at least three.
Also, I read that there are two bars in David, which is the main city in the mountain part of the country. We went that way to hike, but did not have a chance to check the scene out. Since this area is being used by Americans to retire, I would not be surprised if there were a bunch of gay retirees.
The police did not hassle me. There were some security guards outside of the disco. At one disco, they "warned" us that this was a gay club before we went in.
I did not get approached that much at the disco. Don’t know why, but people seemed to be pretty stand-offish. In comparison to Guadalajara and Mexico where they just came up to me and talked.
There were some lesbians at the disco. There were also fag hags. Hard to tell them apart sometimes. But it was mostly male–or that was all I was looking at….
So it was a good time and I think if you visit and feel a bit loney or horny you will not have a hard time finding what you want here. Ciao.