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30 years after Stonewall, the closet door is opening
Guatemala is a country of paradoxes and contrasts where beauty and wealth is visible everywhere but cannot conceal the poverty and despair that is equally prevalent. Eleven million people, a few thousand fantastically wealthy, most incredibly poor, live side by side in this mountainous Central American country nestled between El Salvador to the south and Mexico and Belize to the north.
The gay traveler to Guatemala will also encounter paradox and contrast. Gay life has begun to emerge from its closet in Guatemala in the last few years and the scene is evolving rapidly. But thousands of gay Guatemalans still lead a miserable existence, hiding their sexual preference to survive in this Roman Catholic, machismo, and very violent society. Virtually all organized gay life in Guatemala takes place in Guatemala City a sprawling, polluted metropolis of over 3 million.
On a recent two week visit to Guatemala City, my guide was Douglas Lara, a 31-year-old AIDS educator who works for Guatemala's only openly gay/lesbian organization. For Douglas, things are not so bad. He shares a two bedroom apartment with his lover Byron, has a job where he doesn't fear discrimination and also has a comfortable support group of gay, lesbian, and even a few straight friends who accept him. He can go to the discos at night, and visit a gay-friendly restaurant for lunch and shop at commercial centers offering the latest designer products, although he won't do much buying on his $250/month salary.
On the town
Pandora's Box is a recently remodeled discotheque that was filled to capacity on a Saturday night in February when I visited. There were two dance floors, as well as a lovely rooftop patio and even a "dark room." There was a fashion show sponsored by a local boutique which was programmed for 1am which I did not stay to see. Outside of the disco, parked cars lined the streets for blocks. Almost everyone inside was under 30, and nobody in the bar seemed either worried or oppressed. You would have thought you were in New York. Incredibly, Pandora's Box has survived as a gay establishment in Guatemala for over 20 years although it was not nearly so popular in the scary days during the Guatemalan civil war.
But leaving the bar, the bone-chilling wind of the Guatemalan night quickly reminds one of the violence of Guatemalan culture and its hostility toward men and women who do not live up to the cultural stereotypes of how they are "supposed to be." Several transvestites and gay men have been killed in recent years.
"In Guatemala as in the other Central American nations, there are still serious problems for gays and lesbians," says Rubén Mayorga Director of OASIS, the gay/lesbian organization where Douglas works. "Physical violence against our community is common. Only about five percent of the gay population here even goes to the bars. Most gay Guatemalans are completely in the closet, afraid of anyone knowing about their sexual preference."
Public cruising is still a popular, if dangerous, way for gay Guatemalans to link up. In the area around the main Cathedral square it is easy to meet men, but it is not easy to know if it is safe to go with them. My guide reported that many of these young men are immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who are desperately in need of cash and are only gay for pay.
Commercial centers in Guatemala City such as Tikal Futura and Proceros are also known for late afternoon cruising.
Zone 1, close to the main square, is also the location of Eclipse, El Encuentro, and Ephebus , the other major bars.
El Encuentro is a clean and relatively quiet bar located, surprisingly, in the back of the Capitol Center, one of the most popular shopping centers in Zone 1. I visited El Encuentro with "Fred," a transplanted North American who has spent many years in Guatemala. Early on a Friday evening there were half a dozen couples seated at the various tables. Mario Andrade, the owner, came in and personally greeted each of the guests, then spent a half hour at our table. Andrade is a pioneering figure in gay life in Guatemala. Over bocas (snacks) he told us that he has run the Encuentro for 17 years, surviving numerous raids. "But things are much better now," he says, noting that last year he opened a discotheque, Ephebus, which is just a few blocks away.
AIDS... without medicine
Andrade has been witness to much of what has transpired in Guatemala's gay community during the past 30 years. But the true meaning of "Stonewall," is just beginning to filter though the barriers of hate, violence and prejudice that characterize this culture. "Gays here are learning to accept themselves, that is the first step. We have created some spaces. Now we need to continue to receive respect from the heterosexual community," he says.
Mario also Directs APAES (Asociación de Prevención y Ayuda a Enfermos de SIDA.) which supports Guatemalan people who live with AIDS, straight as well as gay. For years Mario has traveled to Miami seeking donated medications and bringing them back to APAES. Only about 15% of Guatemala's AIDS affected population has access to anti-retroviral medications. For the rest, donations provide the only hope. There are 4,000 registered cases of AIDS in Guatemala and perhaps half of them have occurred in the gay community although official figures are much lower. Says Rubén Mayorga "The machista culture in Central America forces most gays to remain underground, they are too afraid and too repressed to report their actual sexual preference to anyone, much less government health care authorities."
My guide Douglas told me that more than 20 his gay friends here have died of AIDS. "It is a shame," he says, "because in the U.S. these medications are readily available, but who in Guatemala can afford to pay $800 per month? Corporate greed and international indifference are killing the gay men of my country."
Guatemala offers some incredible opportunities, most of them outside of the capital. Douglas and I rented a car one weekend and drove to the town of Panajachel, nestled on shores of Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful inland lakes I have ever seen. During the four hour journey, the road from Guatemala City winds through scenic mountains and ancient Mayan villages turned into small cities with their colorful open markets. It then dips precipitously and one sees breathtaking views of the lake while descending into the beachside town.
The town became popular with U.S. and European hippies in the 70's, then emptied out somewhat during the long Guatemalan civil war. It has again regained its popularity, but in a more bourgeois fashion. Hotels and restaurants are everywhere, and in every price range, as are the indigenous vendors of colorful hand woven shirts and tapestries. Douglas and I paid $12 for a double room with private bath, and $7 for a spaghetti dinner for two in an Italian restaurant that seemed deliciously out of place in Panachatel.
There are no gay venues as such in Panajachel, but a European atmosphere makes the whole place relatively gay friendly. Douglas introduced me to his friends Arturo and Pablo who have a small bar and restaurant. "Nobody bothers us here. We don't need to be politically 'out.' There are so many gays working in the tourist industry here that it doesn't matter," said Pablo. Douglas told me that he had once lived for six months in Atitlán with his first lover, spending most of his time at the beach or enjoying other aspects of this extended honeymoon. "In those days, we were living on about $4 per day," he said.
Driving to the East around Atitlán, the road is passable for about 15 miles and there are two indigenous towns nestled into the steep slopes that drop towards the lake. Archaeological excavations in the area have uncovered evidence of lakeside communities dating back to 1000 B.C. And things don't seem to have changed that much. Mayan boys play soccer in thick kilt-like skirts and still speak the indigenous dialect of this region. Water is drawn from wells, and much of the food supply comes from the fish that abound in the lake.
Sights seen and unseen
The colonial city of Antigua, the first capital of Central America, dates back to the 16th century. It is less than an hour from Guatemala city. Cobblestone streets form a grid that becomes a town at the base of volcanic peaks. Antigua is a haven for U.S. and European students who come to study Spanish. There are a dozen language schools which offer a room and board with a local family and 7 hours a day of Spanish all for around $200 per week. Several of Douglas' friends from Guatemala City have moved to Antigua to teach Spanish, and they joined us for dinner one night. In spite of the obstacles that they face in Guatemalan culture, Guatemalan gays are optimistic about the future, and incredibly warm and friendly toward visitors, a pleasant seasoning for anyone's Guatemalan vacation.
I didn't have time to get to the Mayan ruins at Tikal which requires a plane flight and an overnight stay, but others I spoke to commented that this an incredible place, where a whole civilization once flourished in the midst of the Guatemalan jungle. Another "can't miss" that I did miss was the market at Chichicastengo, just an hour's drive west from Atitlan. On market days, generally Thursdays and Fridays, thousands of indigenous artisans and farmers flock to the center of the city to hawk their wares, as they have been doing for centuries.
Where to stay
There are no gay hotels, as such, in Guatemala City, but accommodations are easy to come by. In Zone 1 there are dozens of hotels in the cheap and moderate price range. For $20 a night you can easily get a clean room with private bath, and breakfast. If you go to Zone 10, the "zona viva," high priced chain hotels abound.
Check "Lonely Planet" and other guide books for up to date information about where to stay.
With Thanks to: Douglas Lara: e-mail: Douglaslara@hotmail.com
Click here for some Guatemala City listings and web links.