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August 2009 Email this to a friend

Mexico City
a fantastic juxtaposition of grandeur and squalor, often in the same block

By Michael Parker-Stainback

NOTE: This is an archive article. For an updated and expanded Mexico City article click DailyXtraTravel

“It’s Babylon, it’s the Tower of Babel ... it’s ....” So struggles Arturo, toned and well scrubbed, to find the right metaphor for Mexico City and its immense gay life. He talks about scores of places and gay identities. Macho cantinas where urban cowboys trade mole recipes, exclusive clubs whose preening eye candy boggles the mind, places to get your sleaze on, bear lairs, twink hangouts....
Gay travelers love Mexico City. They keep coming in spite of it all. By now, who hasn’t heard there’s pollution, crime, traffic, and, lately, flu scares? Yet those who love cities know their inconveniences are the cover charge you pay to dance in dynamic urban spaces. Mexico City is a fantastic juxtaposition of grandeur and squalor, high art and low hedonism, often in the same block, that gay guys just get instinctively.
Neighborhoods all over the city pique the imagination. The Centro Histórico, Mexico City’s grand, crumbling downtown, with relics from seven centuries of urban life, is my particular favorite. At a recent museum opening there, I started talking with Pepe, who works in fashion and music. He suggested we step over to Marrakech, a smallish bar on raffish República de Cuba Street that’s bringing gays downtown in droves.
“I was here before anyone cared,” boasts Pepe. “And now you need lube to get in!”
Marrakech is quite a party, presided over with love by owner Juan Carlos Batista, an artist and gay-rights pioneer. Amid décor that combines a roadhouse and your grandmother’s place, Juan Carlos presents everything from lesbian burlesque to queer poetry readings to campy old Mexican movies. The “fine arts” program brings in bohemians who are very easy on the eyes; flirting and dancing are obligatory, too. República de Cuba Street also features venerable gay cantinas from the old school and La Perla, a drag bar whose audience might even be more intriguing than the performers.
Then there’s the Zona Rosa, Mexico City’s recognizably “gay” neighborhood. What to say? Long ago the city’s hippest area, the glitter faded about 1980. Still, every gay guy finds himself there, sooner or later. There are decent hotels (The Marco Polo, The Geneve) that aren’t fussy about overnight “guests,” and if the young ones are your thing, you won’t want to miss loud, tinsel-y Cabare-Tito disco. Lipstick is a three-level club that maintains a posh reputation, complete with accusations of attitude, as well. But be forewarned — the area feels tired.
But there are plenty of other neighborhoods with a low-key gay vibe. Unlike the Zona Rosa, the adjacent neighborhoods of Roma and Condesa are impossible to resist, with verdant parks and buzzy outdoor cafés, well-preserved architecture, interesting galleries, and kicky shops. It’s swanky, but still very Mexico City: while you sip a latte with the beautiful people, low- tech pushcart vendors amble by, hawking steamed tamales and sweet potatoes.
Nick and Jim, a couple from New York who’ve been in Mexico City for 11 years, meet me for comida, the city’s late, leisurely lunch (running from about 2:30pm to 5). We toy with Covadonga, a fluorescent-lit domino parlor, now jammed with a hip young crowd.
“Naaaw...” Nick judges, in a Manhattan accent he hasn’t quite lost. “That’s for table-hopping, not food.”
He suggests Contramar, a stylishly decorated loft-like space that is reckoned to be one of the city’s finest eateries. The food is delicious — and so is the people- watching, featuring everything from hard-coiffed se–oras to willowy fashionistas to power-lunching fat cats.
“I like looking at the waiters,” Jim says playfully. We agree. We also agree that Mexico City is not about gay restaurants or cafés as such. Is that part of the wide acceptance of gay life everyone talks about here?

Family ties
Later, Arturo, an officer in Mexico’s foreign service, and his boyfriend Paco, a professional dancer, invite me to their airy Roma apartment. Their set-up is enviable: smart furniture, some costly art, an ample balcony overlooking the area’s leafy streets. They go out as often as they’d like, and run in fashionable, worldly circles. Their open displays of affection disarm you, and they seem to hide nothing about their gay life from anyone.
That said, Arturo describes a certain Mexican reticence and deference that gums up many gay men’s relationships with their families. While Arturo’s sophisticated relatives would never object to him taking Paco to family events, he still describes his relationship with them as “being in a closet with windows, more or less frosted.” He knows his parents know, but has never told them personally.
“Maybe we have it too easy; maybe it’s too comfortable not to change,” says Arturo, in reference to what he calls Mexico’s “complacency with the status quo.”
Gilberto, an office administrator, and Hugo, a hairstylist, live in Colonia Guerrero, where junked cars and peeling paint, rather than modern art and terrace views, are common. But the couple lives its dream, too. They enjoy much of what Arturo and Paco do in gay Mexico City: freedom, social and cultural offerings, no one prying into their personal lives.
With all that, family dynamics again come up. Hugo’s low-drama coming-out to his parents has morphed into a stricter “don’t ask-don’t tell” policy regarding intimacies that his straight siblings share as a matter of course.
“I know better than to take my nephews out for an ice cream alone, without grandma or some other female chaperone in place,” he admits candidly, since there’s a homophobic brother-in-law who, while supposedly cool with Hugo and Gil, is convinced gay men molest children. Most of the guys I talked to described similar relationships with family: a vague notion of injustice without much will to fight it.
This year’s gay pride march, which fell on a weekend in late June, is a good metaphor for gay Mexico City. It was fascinating, fun and diverse, yet chaotic and politically unengaged. Nevertheless, it represents tremendous gains for the city’s gay population. An event that started out 30 years ago with 350 intrepid marchers is now said to be the city’s biggest political rally. When you’re there you do feel proud, even elated. Everyone over 40 says they never thought they’d see the day when an estimated 150,000 people would advocate for gay visibility in the light of day and in the city’s most iconic public spaces. The visibility, most agree, led to officially recognized same-sex civil unions in the capital, in contrast to the rest of Mexico.
We march down the city’s grand, Champs Elysées-like central boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma, toward the ancient central square, the Zócalo, for drag shows and disco divas in front of the seat of the federal government and — gasp — the massive cathedral. But throngs of merrymakers slow down and often halt the progress of the stripper-laden floats. It’s more of a Mexican Mardi Gras than a political rally, obligatory not only for gays, but for teens and hipsters, people who like a show, and not least of all, those who have some costume and no place to wear it. Wigs, leather and rippling flesh abound, but so do “huh?” moments involving scary pirates, monster masks or straight women dressed up like Shirley Temple.
“Of course it’s great — sexy and wide-open,” Gilberto had said of the parade when we met earlier. “But are we getting anywhere?” He pointed out there is no openly gay leader in Mexico who might unite the diverse community. Indeed, no one I talked to sees the city’s gay community existing in much more than theoretical terms.

Finding freedom
Community or no community, the city is undeniably sexy. Whether it was Sergio, a mild-mannered art historian, or Alex, a pierced graphic designer and unapologetic party boy, everyone mentioned libertad — freedom — as a major attraction to gay life here. That freedom includes a culture of cruising, offline hook-ups, and the kinds of public venues for anonymous and group sex that are tamer, and harder to find, in New York, San Francisco and other famously “gay” cities.
Rough rent boys can be had for the price of a hamburger beneath the cottonwood trees in the city’s oldest park, the Alameda Central. Elsewhere, scruffy bathhouses like the Baños San Juan, once for real bathing, now owe their existence to working-class guys and married men, plus sundry slummers, who cram into steam rooms for hot, unabashed group gropes.
In the high-end neighborhood of Polanco there’s Sodomé, an exclusive sauna that attracts knock-out talent to its Friday-to-Sunday frolics. Private sex-parties are listed on numerous local blogs, alongside bitter objections to a recent law that shuts down bars at 2am. As for foreigner visitors, they will get as lucky as they want to; usually a smile and an hola is enough to start the ball rolling. Out-of-towners, even past the full bloom of youth, return home giggly and exhausted from all the action they get.
Is there a downside to so much apparent libertad? This is a city where commercial interests regularly trump moral ones, but where a self-censoring embarrassment called pena undergirds so many social interactions. Some say the acceptance of gays is not so much a sign of progress as it is of compartmentalization.
Take the last car on the subway trains that run in and out of the Zona Rosa, colloquially known as the vagón de la felicidad — the happiness car. Boys, mostly young and working class, cluster in the rear (pardon the pun) even when seats are available. For those with boyfriends, kissing, touching, and anything up to heavy petting is permitted. Stags in the pack enjoy the show or catch a stranger’s eye. The car’s “civilians” — older women, commuters and families within eyeshot — act as if nothing unusual is occurring. Yet there’s an unwritten rule that the randy teens never take the party to another car. They’ve carved out their space for libertad, but they’re supposed to stay there.

Meaning in the mess
I go to Tom’s, in Condesa, one of the bluest spots west of Bangkok. Along with its castle-like aesthetic, there are continuous porn videos, a dozen fully fluffed, full-monty strippers, and a roiling backroom. José Luis, nerdy-cute and in publishing, says he’s “looking for a boyfriend” but figures he’ll never find one here.
“All the quick sex works against long-term relationships,” he says. “You get discouraged, then have another beer and hit the backroom.” Maybe it’s so easy to get off that there’s less motivation to fight for a more publicly gay life. Or maybe I should just have another beer.
As in all great cities, people in Mexico City are obsessed with where they live. They know what they love about their city, but they can also tell you what’s wrong, then live with the contradictions. Perhaps that’s true sophistication — somehow finding meaning in the mess of contemporary urban life. Doing what you can to make things better while enjoying the pageant.
My friend Jorge, who runs the stylish Red Treehouse guesthouse in Condesa with his ex-pat partner, has the right idea about such things: he takes me to a nightclub called Spartacus, way out in a gritty neighborhood beyond the airport. An only-in-Mexico-City original, it unites hundreds nightly: locals, intrepid gringos, the occasional celebrity, trannies, lesbians, and gay men of every type. Table service — a classy touch — is alloyed by the waiters’ uniforms, which are a male version of Hooters.
Together, everyone does his own thing: romances live and die on the dance floor, and strippers and drag queens expose themselves for the love of their art. Players head to the upper deck for quick assignations and couples canoodle or entertain friends. You’d never mistake this for Manhattan chic or Geneva tidiness. Unmistakably, this is Mexico City: elegant yet squalid, profound and superficial, tough, loving, complacent, astounding, alarming. And never, ever boring.

Click DailyXtraTravel for our Mexico City profile listings, with addresses and links to many of the establishments mentioned above.

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