LETTER FROM MEXICO - OUT Magazine Dec/Jan 1998 pp.48-54, Issue #50

Border Crossings

Mexico has a lesbian congresswoman, rowdy gay clubs, and a spectrum of sexualities that defy vocabulary, not to mention
the Catholic Church. PAIGE BIERMA reports.

ON THE FLOOR of Mexico's house of representatives, front row center, a small rainbow flag flies where most lawmakers have the Mexican red, white, and green. Behind it, Patria Jimenez, the first-ever lesbian elected to a Latin American congress, quietly prepares to make history.
Her election last July was cause for great celebration. Even the porn magazine Boys & Toys rejoiced with a cover story, "Now We Have a Congresswoman!" Jimenez had run under the slogan "Safe Sex, Safe Vote, Make the Future Yours" and passed out condoms in gay bars and at the annual Gay Pride march in Mexico City, urging people to exercise safer sex and their voting rights all in the same breath.
The longtime activist, the ninth child of college professors, is enjoying a wave of national support for her leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) amid widespread displeasure with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which lost its 68-year domination of Congress this year. The PRI still controls the Senate and the presidency, and many of the national crises that have kept Mexi-

co-U.S. relations in the news--police corruption, drug scandals, trade issues--go unresolved. But the feeling here is that Mexico has begun a slow march away from one-party rule.
"Finally we have a space for free expression, and a space in which I hope Congress will be open to gay proposals," says Jimenez, 40. "But if I find that homophobic attitudes are keeping my proposals from getting out of committee, I'Il exercise my right to take them up directly on the house floor."

Lately the popularity and openness of Mexico's gay nightlife is worth celebrating too. In the larger cities, there is a thriving bar scene for men (back rooms included) and an entire culture of drag queens, lip-synching the tunes of RuPaul, Selena, and Spain's Monica Naranjo. For lesbians, the options are fewer and the venues more discreet, bur certain clubs
verge on the risque, with an occasional difference is that lesbian strip show or smoke machine. But as the country prepares to ring in 1998, the well-being of Mexico's gay rights movement is dubious. Says LaJornada columnist Carlos Monsivais, "There's a splendid movement of gay commerce here, but no gay politics to speak of." Nothing remotely resembles in size or strength, for example, the movement between 1978 and 1984 that is credited with helping put an end to a plague of police harassment of gay people, especially in Mexico City.
Max Mejia, now the editor of Tijuana's bi-monthly Frontera Gay, remembers a 1978 protest against the most feared police force in the capital, the transit cops. The protesters, holding pink and purple flags, were immediately surrounded by fully armed riot squads."We didn't leave until we got a meeting with the second in charge," Mejia recalls. "And this was seen as very heroic in the eyes of the people--especially because they were used to hearing that gays were chickens and wimps.
Just as Mexico's gay movement was taking off in the early 1980s, AIDS (or the "pink cancer," as it was called here at the time) hit Mexico full force, changing the political landscape and claiming the lives of top gay activists. The movement was ripped apart by disagreements over the politics surrounding the new disease as well as by tactical splits between drag queens and human rights oriented groups.
Now many of the few non-AIDS related activist groups are lesbian, although you wouldn't know it from the male-oriented, bar-centric gay publications circulating in the big cities."The

groups have an historic alliance with the feminist movement," says Jimenez. "We are more strategically located in the social movement--but it's true we are not as visible."
Jimenez, at least, has gained visibility in Congress. Even without the rainbow flag, which she sometimes alternates with the flag of the Mexican Zapatista rebel movement, the lawmakers cropped haircut and casual pants stand out among the suits and high heels.

IN BLACK SPANDEX bodysuit and pink sequined cape, a new masked hero calling himself SuperGay jumped off the pages of a comic strip by the same name and into the
streets of Mexico City last spring. His first public act was to block the offices of the conservative National Action Party (PAN)-Mexico's second most powerful party, closely linked to the Catholic Church and notoriously antigay and anti-condom. And so SuperGay became the fourth member of the Mexican League of Justice, joining SuperBarrio (defending poor neighborhoods), Ecologista Universal (environmental issues), and SuperAnimal (animalrights).
The popularity of such characters in Mexico's political landscape is owed partly to the national wrestling craze. But the emergence of this newest superhero also suggests that the subject of homosexuality as a lifestyle and political issue has begun to figure in parry politics--much like the odd story of gay congressional candidate Francisco Robles of the now defunct Cardenista Party a tiny party said to be in league with the PRI.

Last March during the congressional campaign, Robles announced that he'd been kidnapped and beaten by assailants shouting antigay slurs. He said they'd ordered him to drop out of the race before releasing him one night on a Mexico City street corner--half- naked and painted white. This incident garnered Robles some voter sympathy and much skepticism from Jimenez's supporters, who accused Robles of fabricating the kidnapping as a publicity stunt-although Jimenez and Robles technically weren't running against each other. (Robles lost his bid for election.)
With the PRI struggling to keep some semblance of control over Congress, Jimenez can only hope that the ruling party will not get in her way. But she expects the PAN to provide the stiffest opposition to her proposals for a constitutional gay rights amendment, condom availability, and the legalization of same-sex marriages. PAN leaders have spent the last decade trying to implement a range of antigay policies around the country.
In the northern city of Monterrey a couple of years ago, a PAN mayor shut down several gay bars in town on a charge of selling alcohol after hours. When the gay community started hanging out in local parks and kissing on the town plaza instead, the mayor quickly reopened the bars. In Guadalajara in December 1996, the PAN-dominated city council passed an ordinance banning "abnormal sexual behavior" that was perceived as giving police permission to harass gay men.
In the border city of Tijuana, the PAN's local parry president, Hector Castellanos Munoz, states unabashedly that homosexuality is a deviation brought to Mexico from el otro lado, the other side of the border, i.e., the United States. "I'm not saying there haven't been gays and lesbians born here in Mexico, but it's basically the same as the dollar overtaking the peso," says Castellanos.
The PAN attitude toward gay people impacts directly on the AIDS epidemic here, which far outruns any federal resources for treating the disease. "Homosexuality is a deviation, and what better proof of that is there than that it produces this type of disease?" asks Castellanos. The Baja California state government, which has been ruled
by the PAN since 1989, has paid scant attention to AIDS despite the fact that the state has the second highest rate in the country, behind only Mexico City.
The status of AIDS care and prevention south of the border can only be described as alarming. More than 32,000 cases of AIDS had been reported in the country by August 1997--and 17,200 of those infected had died. There could be another 400,000 unreported cases.
Minimum federal funding is available for the treatment and medicines of people with HIV or AIDS only if they have formal sector jobs and are covered under the federal social security system. But federal hospitals often lack basic supplies like AZT and don't have enough beds to take care of advanced AIDS patients. And most people with AIDS don't have social security. At about $850 a month, protease inhibitor cocktails remain far out of the reach of average Mexicans (minimum wage is $80 a month).
In fact, the euphoria that protease inhibitors have created in the U.S. has had a jarring reverse effect on this side of the border. Here, activists have long depended on leftover medicines donated by the families of Americans killed by AIDS and shuttled illegally across the border. "Supplies are short now, says Fred Scholl, a San Diego pharmacologist who co-founded the tworoom Alianza Contra el SIDA clinic in downtown Tijuana nine years ago. The Americans, Scholl points out, aren't dying like they used to." Meanwhile, even the most benign prevention efforts--the dull radio and television condom ads from the Consejo Nacional Para la Prevencion y Control del SIDA, for example--set off a battle of wills with the Church and PAN, amid fierce pronouncements about promiscuity. Mexico's Archbishop Norberto Rivera said in August that condoms should carry warning labels like alcohol and cigarettes because they could be "hazardous to your health." Of course there are criticisms on the other side that the ads don't target gay men or any particular risk group. Certainly there are no campaigns directed at prostitutes or the men visiting Mexico City's bathhouses or back rooms."A campaign aimed at everyone

is a campaign aimed at no one," says Anuar Luna of the Mexico City AIDS activist group Colectivo Sol (Sun Collective).

It's LEATHER NIGHT at Luis Gonzalez Alba' exclusively male bar, El Taller (The Workshop), in Mexico City's Zona Rosa neighborhood. The place is full of men, some wearing nothing but black boots and large smiles, broken temporarily by the tequila-hazed recognition that a woman has just crossed their path.
A few blocks away at El Antro (The Cavern), Mexico City's gay upper crust is served by sculpted waiters in yellow hard hats and neon thongs. There are male strippers, a video porn room, a candlelit piano bar with a Billy Joel enthusiast at the keyboard--and a back room with couches that fits about 100 men. Condoms aren't supplied because, as employees explain very carefully, the illegality of public sex means condoms are for home use only.
Alejandro Escalante, the 26 year old editor of a small gay entertainment newspaper called The Keyhole, passionately defends the advent of back rooms as "liberating" in a society in which most unmarried people live with extended families in crowded homes. "Gay people need to become accustomed to a new way to experience their sexuality in a safe environment," Escalante says. "Most of us don't have the money to pay for a hotel, and if you go to a park or something, you run the risk of the police hassling you or demanding money."

For middle- and upper-class men, there are some 40 gay discos and bars in Mexico City. The working-class scene is something else entirely. Around the corner from Mexico City's famed Garibaldi Plaza-where wailing mariachis lament everything from the economic crisis to love affairs gone bad--an unlikely combination of revelers gathers at the Catorce (Fourteen) bar on Saturday nights.
A few hundred enlisted military men mix with prostitutes (male, female, transvestite) and a few dozen others out to dance, drink warm Tecate beer, watch soldiers have sex with dancing girls onstage, and find dates. While the scene looks ripe for a barroom brawl, generally the only violence is from military police busting cadets for being seen in disreputable establishments. (Reportedly, Catorce management has set up an elaborate system to shuffle soldiers into a hidden room in the event of a raid.) Soldiers hooking up with male partners in scenes such as this one are popularly called mayates; they are generally married men who don't consider themselves gay. While the term is used descriptively in parts of southern Mexico, it's unfriendly to the point of offense everywhere else. (The first definition of mayate in an average Mexican dictionary is "a metallic green insect which bores into feces to lay its larvae. "The second is an active homosexual man.")
"There's a ton of bisexuality in Mexico," says El Taller's Gonzalez de Alba, who published a book on the subject. "It's a lot like the Mediterranean
countries, where men have bisexual relations but not a bisexual identity.
For women, it's fairly common as well. Nayieli Fuentes, 35, who was Francisco Robles' running mate and lives with her partner Beatriz Pimentel in Mexico City, says, "There are many married women who have female lovers. While the mayate is more of a macho tradition, bisexuality among women has been more

free and expressive.
Gonzalez de Alba finds the U.S. obsession with defining sexuality--gay, straight, bi--tedious. "The U.S. is a country of separations," he says. "You guys professionalize everything, from football to surfboarding. All these categories surface and pretty soon you can't just go to the beach to have fun."
But activists hoping for a political movement based on a distinct gay identity see a downside to the so-called mayate culture. And AIDS activists worry about unsuspecting wives and girlfriends. "Here we have a saying," explains AIDS activist Luna. "The difference between a buga [straight man] and a loca [gay man] is about two beers."

In THE SOUTHERN TOWN Of Juchitan, in Oaxaca state, many tra-
ditions thought to be solidly Mexican are turned on their heads. Women dominate in the marketplace and manage household finances, homosexuals are the favorite sons, and a transvestite basketball team practices daily outside the local church. In fact, Juchitan's gay men--muxes--are treated as a sort of "third sex" here, referred to in the feminine but with their own distinct identity.
On a muggy night in August, residents-most of them of Zapotec Indian origin--have gathered in the central square to celebrate the Virgin Mary's ascension, one of many Juchitan religious festivals. Women wear the famed embroidered huipiles (blouses) and skirts of the region and dance together, while the men stand around the square drinking beers and boasting. Around midnight, a contingent of about a dozen muxes, some in huipiles and braided hair, descend on the event.
Felina, a 29-year-old local, owns a beauty salon in town. "She" lived in Mexico City for four years studying business administration, but chose to return home, where she could be herself "People are more accepting of [us] here," says the

stylist, who is responsible for many of the night's hairdos.It's not like in other areas, where all gay people do is hang out in bars or prostitute themselves." Anyone in Juchitan will tell you that parents here, especially those from the poorer side of town, look upon having muxe sons as a blessing. For one thing, they are
expected never to marry and to cake care of
their parents into old age. Asked if she wouldn't rather move in with a boyfriend than tend to her parents, Felina says she would never dream of it, "out of respect" for her folks. Also, she says,"We prefer open relationships. I mean if a heterosexual marries, she's divorced three years later." Mayor Roberto Lopez Rosado, a mustached man in his 40's with a stifling one-room office on the town square, chalks up Juchitan's renowned tolerance to the towns radical political background (the ruling party was forced out of power here in the 1970's, long before it lost power nationwide), its strong Zapotec women, and possibly "the heat." Mostly, he says,"I think it has to do with the Zapotec culture, that by nature we live in harmony with homosexuals because everyone is free to choose their own sexual preferences." Party politics is alive and well among Juchitan muxes, of course. The main AIDS-education group is friendly with Lopez's PRD, while the Intrepid Thrill-Seekers, who sponsor the annual muxe festival, is headed by an ardent PRI supporter, Oscar Cazorla The Seekers date back to 1975, when Cazorla and a group of about 15 friends used to cruise nearby towns for kicks. "The police used to chase us because we weren't allowed to have our own parties back then," Cazorla says.
Of course, not everyone is thrilled with Juchitan's flamboyance. At the San Vicente Church, Father Esau Sanchez says the church rejects homosexuality "100 percent." He suspects the matriarchal aspects of society here contribute to the town's above-average rates of alcoholism and sexual deviancy. "I don't think it's right; the man is the one who should head the family," says Father Sanchez But even Sgnchez seems resigned to the situation. His church is not actively campaigning to put women back in the home or gay men back in the closet. "It's hard to change things like this-it'll probably always be this way," the priest accedes.

PATRIA JIMENEZ says one of
her main goals as congresswoman is to equalize the roles of men and women in the gay movement. "Men tend to dominate and that's why the international reaction to my victory has been one of surprise--surprise that a lesbian and not

a gay man won.
Lesbians' invisibility is the combined result of Mexico's patriarchal tradition, the fact that men's activist groups working with AIDS tend to get all the international funding, and lesbians' much inferior earning power. Bur isolation was always the rule. (In 1992, Jimenez co-founded a lesbian activist group called Sor Juana's Closet after a 17th-century poet widely believed to have been a lesbian who entered a convent to avoid marrying and to devote her life to study.) "As lesbians, we're still very much in the closet," says Nayieli Fuenres. "We don't have the economic power to have our own spaces like the men have their bars so we tend to meet in people's houses." For some people, doing activism alongside gay men is one answer to this problem. Fuentes, for example, belongs to Guerilla Gay, a Mexico City-based co-ed group that does school workshops,letterwriting campaigns, and small demonstrations in an effort to improve the acceptance of gay people in Mexican society. "We debt run around masked like Mar-cos or anything like that," explains Fuentes,
referring to the leader of the Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico. "We have our faces out and we are fighting for acceptance and respect, not just tolerance." And then there is a range of nonpolitical, non-nightlife groups that include both lesbians and gay men. The Gay Cultural Circle, for example, a small nonprofit group based in Mexico City, has organized a Lesbian-Gay Cultural Week in the capital for 10 straight years now.
It also can�t hurt that both genders are represented by gay Mexico's two most conspicuous spokespersons--and that they seem to be counting on the future. Congresswoman Jimenez says,"I consider myself an optimist" and SuperGay speaks urgently of gay pride. "I don't have any super powers like Superman," he warns. "My strength is the strength of gay men and lesbians who defend their rights. If people are nor proud and happy to be gay, then I will not survive."·


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