(Updated August 2012)
Daniel and the New Night Life
Walking anonymously among the masses of Sunday-best churchgoers in downtown La Paz, Daniel is making his way in the opposite direction toward home. Sleep, not prayer, is uppermost on his mind as he heads toward the sparse but tidy apartment he shares with his sister and mother half way up the great long slopes which form the vast canyon surrounding the city. Around winding switchback corners and up several sets of stairs, still dressed in his trendy shoes and preppy leather jacket, he slowly lugs his way upward.
He’s been up all night, until three at the disco and then to an all-night cafe with other nocturnal cohorts until finally succumbing to fatigue at seven AM. At 23 he is good-looking, swarthy-skinned, lean and topped with a full shock of curly dark hair. His mother smiles and teases him as he stumbles toward his room for recovery. She understands he has been out dancing with friends but asks no questions since he is a good son and works hard during the week helping to support their family.
It is a scene not uncommon in modern La Paz as young people enjoy their weekend nights off with friends, music, drink and dancing. But what mom doesn’t know is that this also Daniel’s night to be out as a gay man.
We met originally on the Internet and when we arrived in La Paz, he and his friend Marco showed up at our hotel to invite us to the disco. We declined but talked for a while, half in English half in Spanish. They bid farewell as they hailed a taxi to the only gay disco in town called Bronx. (Note: A Global Gayz reader sent this message 12/02: Bronx is closed
down. The new one is in Miraflores district in La Paz, on Avenida Saavedra, just below a gym, near the plaza next to the stadium. Its usually lit up with a green light.) As he told me later, “here the night life not is very good but sometimes it is funny. Bronx is a small gay disco gay, it’s a little expensive, but not much and the music is terrible, I just can say it’s all that we have.”
Modest in scope, this is Daniel’s secret world, his world of truth and authenticity. Bronx is a late night haven where otherwise isolated gay-passioned men feel free for a while to laugh, touch, sing, dance and be accepted without the haunting conformity of Bolivia’s strong heterosexist culture pressing on them.
Daniel is still discovering the illusive and alluring mystery of late night prowling: “nighttime is funny because the people here especially some men are in closet yet, and that is very strange because, when I go looking for somebody, a lot of men are very undecided, so they glance to me and they return and leave and return; you know it’s very funny!”
In a later e-mail he added: “Lately I don’t like to go there, because you always go to see the same people. The drinks are a little expensive comparing with good straight discos. Bronx is a disco majority for men but sometimes you can see women especially lesbians. I know a couple of lesbians, very good persons but they’re not together a lot of time; here the people have other idea (to be married with a man) So it is not easy…” Daniel was coming to understand the weight of the straight culture on the romantic life of gay people. Loving someone and having that person were not easily achieved.
But the freedom of Bronx was not available until recently. There are reports of a 1995 raid at the La Paz gay bar Cherry in which 120 patrons were assaulted then jailed until the next afternoon. At the time, a spokesperson from the gay rights group in La Paz–the Gay Freedom Movement (MGLP)– said, “We felt fear, anxiety and rage at not being able to defend ourselves as we were subjected to the most inhuman treatment with taunts, insults, and threats to expose our sexuality publicly.”
Afterwards they paid unofficial ‘fines’ to the appropriate personnel to slip out quietly to home with no personal record of the action. The raid raised the ire of certain highly closeted and highly placed officials who made their displeasure known to the offending and overly enthusiastic gendarmeries. Since then there have been almost no similar raids except for an occasion bust prompted for suspicion of drugs or underage customers.
Getting To La Paz
We had arrived in Bolivia by wing at the La Paz airport about 12,000 feet above sea level. Beyond the barren distant hills rise the Cordillera Real Mountains intermittently wrapped in scarves of gray clouds by the fierce winds. One moment a clearing illuminates the great downside glaciers that grip the 20,000-foot peaks like white fingers, then followed shortly by a great swirl of mist as the rocky peaks disappeared again.
On the evening bus from the airport we passed through the dilapidated city of El Alto (the first six traffic lights were not operational) before we turned down onto the long winding artery that descends to the belly of the city. La Paz, the capital of landlocked Bolivia, is a startling surprise, a city constructed downward into a vast valley 1200 feet below the rim of the surrounding plateau.
From the top the city glistens with millions of glimmering lights, reminiscent of other great downhill cityscapes such as San Francisco, Cape Town or Hong Kong. Down the central spine runs the unfortunately filthy Choqueyapu River, now more of a sewer than a river. Wisely (or not) the engineers have routed the fetid waters underneath the main boulevard for practical (and olfactory) reasons and the river is not seen in the central district.
The long winding divided highway snakes its way from the high plateau (where the more impoverished huts and shanties are located) down to the hustling colorful city center and empties out onto the wide tree-lined Prado boulevard. Unlike other world capitals, the fancier homes and neighborhoods are farthest down hill in the Southern Zone areas.
We found a hotel that looked out over the Prado from which we watched a constant parade of white Toyota taxis, lines of minibuses with boys hollering the destinations, stocky derby-clad Aymara women squatting among their weavings for sale, middle class Bolivians toting cell phones, and, on Sunday, a military band striking up a concert.
There is dense life happening in this city of a million. School kids in uniforms, soldiers and police strolling or guarding public buildings, aimless tourists deciding which church to photograph next. At most street corners impoverished children or seniors beg or shoeshine boys insist that they polish our dusty shoes, and street-smart moneychangers offering better rates (with counterfeits bills).
On our second night in La Paz, another e-mail-friend, Ignacio, and his close buddy (not lover) Francisco met us at our hotel before we headed down the noisy Prado on foot to dinner at a cozy restaurant located in the university area. We passed busy chatty students totting backpacks, books and briefcases hustling in and out of cafes, bookstores, ice cream kiosks and taxis.
After a day of touring some of Bolivia’s ancient great ruins at Tiawanaka, dating back to millennia before the Roman empire, the evening was spent verbally touring the immediate present with these two modern men living on the unfolding edge of change in Bolivia’s long tangled history. Over lamb, rice with cheese, and salad the two Bolivian gay men, in their thirties, talked about their lives in this two-mile-high city.
As we entered the restaurant Francisco had said softly “we like this place because the manager is gay” with a hint of satisfaction. Three hours later I came to appreciate how special Francisco’s comment was, living as they do in a culture that disdains homosexual love.
Hostile Social Milieu
As usual, the topic of the government’s attitude toward lesbigay people came up early. In Bolivia there is no legal prohibition against homosexuality as the constitution guarantees every citizen the right to a private life. But common practice in this quasi-democracy (the President is a former army general now suspected of foul play in the ’70’s) is influenced as much by basic need as much as legislative ideas.
The police are woefully underpaid and are prone to authoritative excess when dealing with gay people. Gays are easy targets for extracting illicit fines with little fear of bureaucratic repercussion. “Yes, you can try to take the corrupt officer to court for this behavior, but it will mean you must come out in public, and no one wants to do that. It is common to be quiet and pay the money”, explained Ignacio. Exposure would also humiliate one’s family.
Such pariah status is due in great measure from religion, the sharp-edge of Catholic propriety, which firmly grips the social manners of this country of eight million people. Thanks to the assaultive Spanish conquistadors who slashed their way through South America’s indigenous cultures in the sixteenth century, legions of passionate priests and fervent friars also invaded with their own weaponry against the native spiritual traditions of the Incas and other native tribes.
The Spanish supplanted Incan natural deities and mythologies, which could accommodate varieties of life, with Biblical ones so it’s no surprise that homosexuality is seen as one of the villains in the moral pantheon of modern Bolivia. There is no public debating room for challenging the church, Catholic and Protestant, on their encrusted views of sexual orientation. Bolivia lives inside a locked anti-gay paradigm that is not likely to be modified soon.
Combined with the church are the other immovable forces of family, machismo and military, themes we encountered throughout our travels through other southern countries: Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.
The most immediate pressing force against individual homosexual expression is the close cluster of the nuclear-hetero family which encourages boys as young as five or six to hug and kiss girls. By the age of twelve or thirteen these kids can be seen walking home from school with their arms around each other acting much like older teens; boys with their girls’ hand, snatching a kiss while waiting for the traffic light to change.
My attention was drawn to such behavior because of the contrast with American hetero traditions. There is more restraint in the USA as men, especially young teen boys, tend not to slather their girls with caresses and smooches in public. During the day and much more so around sunset, park benches fill up with entwined couples attached at the lips mumbling sweet nothings gazing less at the colorful horizon and more on various body parts.
Yet, as in all cultures, public behavior is only one layer of the cultural matrix. Despite the overwhelming hetero milieu there are plenty of variations on sex and romance off-stage. It is safe to say that most gay men and lesbian women in Bolivia are forced to play this hetero romantic game from childhood on to marriage and kids, hiding their truth.
It’s a safe strategy, and duplicitous. Hidden from view are countless secret liaisons, affairs, quickies, and long term shadow romances that, much like an underground spring, flow around and among the religious obstacles, social barriers and machismo symbology. They speak with silent voices, deep-hearted sincerity and authentic erotic desire that cannot be satisfied by usual public roles.
Homosexuality in this culture is a silent passion that is both wondrous yet wise, thrilling yet prudent, enduring yet fitful–and resourceful above all. My friend Francisco lives with a man known to others as his ‘uncle’ and there is little question from anyone about the arrangement because it apparently fits within the family album.
The privacy provided by this charade offers the two men needed freedom to express their feelings and sleep in the same bed, although they have another furnished bedroom that is part of the scheme. Also working to their favor, ironically, is that Bolivians do not talk about homosexuality; it is a denied topic and it’s very unusual for someone to mention the topic in conversation. There may be some gossip behind curtains but no one would ask Francisco anything personal about his interior life.
Even though Ignacio is out to his family, nothing is ever said directly about his feelings for his friends. His passion is a blank page in the family scrapbook. This variation in her conservative family values still angers his mother, even after four years. If Ignacio, at 28, wants to stay overnight with a friend she tries to shame him. But since his parents are footing the bills for his university studies–in addition to his highly conditioned attachment to them–he chooses to live mostly within their rules for now. He rarely dates and is content with furtive brief encounters.
His plan is to leave home after his degree is finished. Renting his own flat would cost about US$250 per month which he cannot yet afford. As another friend put it: “The economic and social advantages of being part of a family outweigh the disadvantages of concealing one’s identity and leading a double life.” For Ignacio this is currently very true and therefore acceptable.
Machismo and Sex Roles
Hector is a computer consultant, selling website software to upscale corporations in Bolivia. We met by accident at the train station while buying tickets for the journey to Argentina. As we talked it became apparent that he was gay and it turned out he was also friends with Ignacio and Francisco. His piercing hazel eyes, bright smile and tawny color make him noticeable even without gaydar. His thick black hair is also typical of this culture.
Hector’s father has no understanding of his son’s homosexuality and doesn’t want any. He has insisted numerous times that Hector can and must change. “He is like most Bolivians”, lamented Hector. As a straight man with a distinct image of masculinity, his father knows only one line of acceptable male behavior. Such roles as romantic-teen, soldier-combatant, spouse-procreator, father-protector or worker-provider are his models. In other words, the essential macho male, and within these frames of manliness, queers do not fit.
But in reality gays do serve in military service (closeted), become fathers and are responsible workers. Machismo, scorned privately by most gays, also serves as an effective disguise; it’s a way to pass and survive in an environment that offers no alternative.
In his analysis of Latin American machismo, Stephen Murray observes that the concept of homosexuality is a destabilizing threat to the rigid masculine image that most Latino studs, lovers and fathers have been conditioned into. “Loyalty to and credence in the ideal norms are considerable. There is a distinct cultural separation between things masculine and things feminine which is very internalized; it’s what creates simplistic and separate gender role images for behavior, attitude and dress.”
A strong need exists for Latinos (and indeed most, but not all, cultures) to know and adhere to such clear-cut categories. A masculine appearance validates masculine essence and social acceptance; variance has no place in this lifestyle.
Repeated ‘topping’ of other men in word and deed (i.e., bragging about or demonstrating heterosexual prowess) is one of many ways that maintains machismo power to oneself and to one’s reputation. Such strutting prevents damaging gossip that might suggest one can be or has been ‘fucked or fucked-over’.
Any such suggestion of weakness–a perceived feminine aspect–disturbs social relations among men. There is a constant need for repetitive stroking of one’s macho self-image with phallic references or romantic activity. Indeed, every night at sunset, as mentioned, straight couples cooing or feeling their mates occupy virtually all park benches. There is little room for ‘weakness’ in this game. Some analysts insist that a pervasive fantasy/fear of being penetrated (and secretly liking it) motivates exaggerated macho posturing.
But lack of ‘good’ women (a virgin daughter maintains her family’s honor), heated hormones and pressure of the culture to prove oneself sexually can lead to secret queer behavior behind closed doors. Here interesting varieties of homosexual behavior emerge:
(1) heterosexual activos with a masculine identity who lack opportunities with women turn to effeminate passivo men as substitutes.
(2) homosexual activos (cochones), also with a masculine identity, reject any gay identity yet prefer male partners. That is, they like to fuck men but deny any queerness in their macho image.
(3) passivos who enjoy receptive contact with other men (maricones). These can be ‘normal-looking’ men or drag queen prostitutes in it for the money or the pleasure.
(4) married gays with families who carry on secret liaisons with strangers or regular boyfriends.
(5) ‘modernos’ are gay men comfortable being active or passive and are willing to identify as gay. They prefer male partners and live mostly within a friendship network of gay friends.
All these compartments create a mixture of sexual behavior, sexual orientation and sexual identity that become a daring sociological matrix to understand. Inside this complex web of desire are very real passionate feelings that lead to brief pleasure or sometimes to heartache and disillusion, and on a few occasions, to deep emotion and enduring relationship.
Ignacio rolled his eyes and laughed as we talked about the military’s attitude toward homosexuality. “They pretend to be so macho and straight–until nighttime!” he said scornfully. Confined to quarters or assigned to a remote outpost with only men at close range, recruits and officers steer a delicate narrow course between standard military protocol and personal sexual deportment. Gays who are open are not allowed to serve but that will change in 2015.
“These guys always find someplace to get it on with other guys–but once they are done they’re gone. They can sex but never love, I think because most of them really are straight”, he explained. He was referring to ‘circumstantial homosexuality’ which happens between non-gay men whose access to women is forbidden or restricted.
But for the gay guys in the army, the course can be dangerous. “If you are straight you do it only for a minute without talking…a silent understanding that this OK because we are only getting off. But for a guy, who likes it and wants more, he has to be careful not to show it. Others will know you are queer and guys will avoid you in public. It’s crazy. You are queer but in order to play around you have to act straight”, Ignacio shrugged. He said it was easy to arrange sexual contacts but very difficult not to go too far or express pleasure.
Such duplicitous behavior is common for gays around the world, acting according to the norm while hiding their true feelings and urges. In the Bolivian military there is far less privacy since most of the soldiers are from poor families (with no home privacy) and have no other place than their barracks to find personal space.
For a gay soldier, home on the weekends doesn’t provide much privacy either as most of them live in a small house with extended family. The closer proximity of other soldiers allows for furtive sex but prohibits intimacy. “That’s what I missed most”, said Francisco about his two years in the service. “I didn’t want to get off as much as to touch and hold, but then they would have known and I would be thrown out and my family would know. So I hardly did anything.” When he did, it was “like straight queer sex”, he laughed.
Risk and Hope
So the official stance in Bolivia is macho heterosexual behavior and men caught being too queer face humiliation and rejection.
Yet there seems to be little or no gay bashing in Bolivia. Most of the disapproval is in the form of hushed gossip or the occasional scandal. Ignacio’s family will not throw him out or make any public display of their disapproval. So he lives presently on a tightrope of compromise. His mother knows that Francisco’s ‘uncle’ is gay and she tries to discourage Ignacio’s contact with him.
More common, but not frequent, are muggings as thieves know that gays are good targets since they can be picked up more easily and robbed and with little likelihood of going public with their complaints. Several years ago a journalist gay friend of Ignacio’s was murdered very likely because he picked up the wrong person in the wrong place. But his family completely covered up this aspect of the crime after his body was found under a bridge.
Gay Freedom Movement
Working against tradition and pushing for more open discussion, the Gay Freedom Movement (MGLP) has worked “to protect the rights of its members, promote gay solidarity, fight for social recognition to de-stigmatize homosexuality, and deal with the threat of abuse and discrimination.”
In a recent report to ILGA (see Link) MGLP leaders wrote, “In Bolivia homosexuals are viewed… as undesirables that are outside society’s normal moral code. For this reason, it is in the interest of most gay people to simply go along with whatever their family expects of them… The sort of social clubs, community and health centers and gay press that are so common in many countries … do not exist in Bolivia–yet.”
There are other gay groups in the Bolivian cities of Santa Cruz (UNELDYS–United in the Fight for Dignity and Health) and Cochabamba (Dignity), MGLP said. Their work seems to have yielded some measure of success in that now police raids no longer happen except for obvious legal violations.
Ignacio and Francisco both agreed that young people in Bolivia, like their counterparts in countries from Asia to Zambia, are developing more open attitudes toward homosexuality in general, quietly and without any headlines. Being gay is becoming less of a cultural shock for the gen-x’ers whose contact with western and northern cultures is closer and more informed than any previous generations in Bolivia’s history. It seems a natural groundswell of tolerance and even ‘cool-ness’ has begun to take hold.
Gay Pride in Public
“In a country in which homosexuality is legal but generally frowned upon, people from La Paz and El Alto came out in support of LGBT community members in observance of Pride Week. Last Saturday, June 26th, main thoroughfares of La Paz and El Alto were filled not with the marches and traffic jams that frequently stop city traffic, but were instead host to pride floats, supportive parents, and costumed drag-queens and kings.
“Revelers included international LGBT organizations and traditional Bolivian dances performed by transexual and cross-dressing dancers. Paceños lined El Prado to watch the parade, many waving rainbow flags (a symbol of the LGBT movement) and sporting rainbowed apparel. In the weeks leading up to Pride Week, buildings in the La Paz were also draped with large rainbow flags and workshops and events were coordinated by LGBT organizations to raise public awareness.
“For LGBT people in Bolivia acceptance has been a long and continuing struggle. Despite recent political advances, including the protection of sexual diversity in the new national constitution, homophobia and discrimination remain common problems…”
Some personal correspondence between GlobalGayz and Jason, a gay American living (mostly in La Paz) Bolivia for a year. (Printed with permission.)
Jason: My experience with gay life has been varied in La Paz, Bolivia. The younger generation is more accepting and open to a gay lifestyle, and I have met many young open gay people. The older generation (especially the country folk who work the markets, and the more rigid catholic city people) don’t respond very well to it. It’s difficult for them. The older gay generation in La Paz are quite secretive and many still uncomfortable and afraid. But hey, everyone is working out their life with the conditions they have.
I met most of my gay friends that I have now through the internet. The only gay bar, Towers, proved to be dark, smoky, uncomfortable, and I got attacked by some coked up freak on New Years Eve, and haven’t been back since. But I did make friends with the drag queen host. Life is nice in La Paz. I stroll through the markets smiling and the large squat women who tell me I need a chica (a girl) to help me with my Spanish, and help myself to brilliant mangoes and avocados.
GlobalGayz: Is there any LGBT ‘community’ in La Paz? I know there is a virtual community on the Net but it’s probably for sex mostly? Are there many gay Bolivians crusing the Net? It seems there are two different groups–the foreigners who party with other expats and the natives who go to the Tower club? What is the closest thing to a community in La Paz–the Towers club? Who mostly goes there? What’s it like? Is there class distinctions that separate gay natives?
Also, what does a ‘typical’ gay Bolivian think about his homosexuality? That’s it’s OK? In the closet at home? Do they tend to be ‘macho’ tops and deny they are gay? Any political changes in the government toward gays? Any TV shows with LGBT characters?
Jason: There is a GLB (T? kind of but not really) community in La Paz, but it is neither organized nor close knit. There is somewhat of a class distinction, but its not that different from the heterosexual group. People who don’t do drugs don’t spend time with people who do, artists hang out with specific strands and rave kids go to raves and clubs.
(photo: Bolivian contestant at international contest)
A group gathers around a man named ‘Nicholas’ (works at one of the embassies here), is a diverse and small group, with club goers, students, professionals, volunteers, sometimes travelers; the group changes, people come and go. Nicholas stays. I think he’s just happy to have other gays around without having to go to the bar! Many gays know others from the chat, but don’t stay much in contact; it’s the typical quick-sex see-you-later-or-never fashion. But it’s all the same group of people. You have two or three gays that are good friends, and then keep borderline associate relationships with all the other gays. It’s a community, sort of, but not organized.
GG: What’s your experience with getting comfortable with the gay locals? Are they curious and receptive to your being a foreigner? Or are they stand-offish and hesitant to accept you socially and sexually?
Jason: The way that I relate to partners sexually, romantically, or socially is fairly different in comparison to the mainstream society in America, to say nothing of a culture that I didn’t know much about when I arrived. South American gay men operate in an environment less open and more religious than in North America or Europe, which results in a greater fear and more tension in relating to others.
They think you might be gay, but will go through a whole series of subtle questions and tests before getting close to revealing their own homosexuality, even if you reveal your own in the beginning. I’ve met some macho ‘top’ South American men; this attitude doesn’t impress me as it’s usually something apart from a true and sincere sexual impulse. The culture here, gay and straight, has a different behavioral pattern toward love and relations, and its usually different than the ways I’m used to. It takes much energy to figure out what they’re doing, where they’re coming from, what they want, and how I can harmonize with them. Difficult!
It takes immersion in daily life of the everyday Bolivian to understand the undertows, and some knowledge of history. I feel that South Americans are a little more extroverted in a rather passionate and energetic way that for me would be unnecessary and point to insecurities. But, hey there are plenty of people who behave this way in every part of the world.
Still sometimes it’s nice, but usually I prefer other ways of being. In the end it has been frustrating, and I have felt somewhat alone, and just recently finished feeling what I felt from my previous boyfriend in the USA, which probably shadowed my ability to find someone new. But La Paz is difficult in every gay foreigner’s experience as far as I have heard.
GG: I can appreciate the emotional and sexual hunger you experience in that country. I have been in numerous foreign places where it feels like so much extra effort to make easy social contact (because of cultural and language differences) let alone find a comfortable sexual situation that ‘fits’. And because of the native-foreigner dynamic it’s very difficult to tell where the other person is coming from psycho-sexually and what expectations, positions and continuity they have in mind; it feels like an invisible but real barrier even with no clothes on. Have you been to any of the gay clubs and other contact places?
Jason: The club Towers, I found out, closed last week, and is now a strip joint for straights. The new gay bar in La Paz is on Avenida Busch 1010, and is called the Magic Star. I haven’t been yet, but will write you about it when I go. It was a dance floor with couches in the dark and a bar. Tra La La is a politically slanted comedy show that includes gay actors (not publicy announced that they’re gay, but its fairly obvious) who dress up as girls, or femmy guys who pretend to hit on girls. It included a rendition of two Beatles songs put on a Brasilian music background (que hermosa yellow submarine! – Morena! Hey tu…no sentia mal… Chistosa…)
I don´t watch TV, so I don´t know anything about gay influence in the TV media. In Dalnet, I believe, you have www.gaybolivia chat room, where many gays go on Friday and Saturday night to find sex. I don´t know anyone who discovered a nurturing relationship on Gaybolivia chat room, but I believe it could be possible.
I haven´t checked out the actual gay Bolivia websites much, but I did meet a good friend on Solodecontactos who introduced me to the embassy circle. The problem is that most Bolivians live with their parents until they´re married, inhibiting sex at their own house, and sex at their partners house because they don’t dare tell their parents and so must find a cheap hotel, bathroom, or porn cinema.
This is a problem also because in their own house (they also don´t dare move out, for financial and family reasons) because they can´t express their own real selves (decor, flowers, posters of guys, books, CDs) lest their family catch a whiff of something different. Many of them are open among themselves, but uncomfortable and fearful due to their environment, and they’re not sure what to do about it.
I would like to check out Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, before I leave, but I´m not sure I´ll have the time, and I´ve never been there.
I hope to come back within a year or so. I´m currently practicing bodywork and massage in a spa in the south part of La Paz, doing Craniosacral bone manipulation and visceral work. I´m also studying plant medicine with a shaman, and exposing myself to different meditation practices. It´s a nice life! I´m having a great time and meeting interesting people.