Tales from TJ
Gay life below the border
Published Thursday, 18-May-2006 in issue 960
For more than 100 years, San Diegans – and visitors to San Diego – have been going to Tijuana to do things they couldn’t do in the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was gambling, bull fights, duty-free fineries and raunch. Now, it’s prescription drugs without a prescription, cheap liquor, tacky souvenirs and raunch.
Tijuana has always offered a certain amount of Mexican-ness, both “authentic” and touristy, and now it boasts one of the most vibrant arts scenes in Latin America. But despite Tijuana’s nearly 40-year push to become a tourist destination for families, and despite the fact that Tijuana is now larger than San Diego – now symbiotic with San Diego rather than a satellite to its northern neighbor – most Californians see TJ as a tacky tourist town where you go to get drunk, laid and mugged – and not necessarily in that order.
When you throw “gay” into this mix, the assumptions are even darker. When you tell someone that you’re going to hit some gay bars in Tijuana on a Saturday night, even the enlightened and cosmopolitan will say, “I didn’t know you paid for sex.” Or they’ll tell you that just by walking into a gay bar in Tijuana, you’ll get crabs, scabies, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis or HIV – as if you can’t get all those as easily, if not more easily, in San Diego. Or you will be warned, “Watch your wallet.” Or your friend will ask to come along, saying: “I need some Xanax. And some Cialis.” Combine racism, xenophobia, ignorance and a dash of the truth, and you end up with some deeply negative and peculiar ideas about gay Tijuana.
This article is not an attempt to reverse all of these popular assumptions about Tijuana, but rather to supplement and complicate them, and to describe our rather boisterously fun bar crawl. Tijuana deserves some of its press. It’s largely considered one of the most corrupt cities in Mexico, but at the same time, it’s one of the richest. (Of course, San Diego is one of the most corrupt cities in the U.S., as well as one of the richest.) TJ is not just the touristy border town it once was, but it’s because it’s a border town – perhaps the most border town-ish of all border towns – that has made it so exciting, liberal, raunchy and wonderfully bizarre. Partying in Tijuana, in gay Tijuana, is, well, boisterously fun, but being gay in Tijuana, living gay in Tijuana, is more complicated. According to gay men living in San Diego who were born in Tijuana, their hometown is a terrible place to be gay. At the same time, gay men living there now have a different view.
There probably wasn’t much of a gay presence in Tijuana when it was incorporated in 1889 with less than 20 residents. But when Tijuana became Sin City during the Prohibition era, when it became a city that catered to the American id, it can safely be assumed that there was a gay component to the exploding sex trade. It can also be safely assumed that it wasn’t just female prostitutes that American soldiers were looking for when they crossed the border on leave from the various American wars of the 20th century. However, it wasn’t until 1980, after Tijuana had been transformed from a vice theme park to a major industrial metropolis, that, as The Advocate wrote, “More than 100 people attended a recent dinner meeting in Tijuana to organize the city’s first gay rights coalition.”
“In Hillcrest, two persons can walk down the street hand in hand without being attacked. But if you do that in any other part of town, there is a social stigma. In Tijuana, no matter what neighborhood you go to, you can see effeminate males everywhere, including drag queens, and men can walk arm in arm and no one cares.”
Activists made enormous progress. As strict Catholic-based homophobia in Mexico loosened (attributed somewhat to such pro-gay celebrities as Christina, the Mexican Oprah), gays and lesbians became much more visible. In 1995, Tijuana’s first Pride parade made its way down Avenida Revolución. As in the U.S., the AIDS epidemic emboldened and radicalized gay activism in Mexico and Tijuana. Alejandro Garcia, who started the Pride march, also helped found the AIDS clinic Acosida. Another gay activist was Emilio Velásquez, who, among other things, founded the now-defunct paper Frontera Gay, the AIDS Organization Tijuana (OST), and ran an AIDS hospice and a gay café.
“Whenever you needed a safety net, you could go to Café Emilio,” remembers Franceska, a performer and activist who grew up in Tijuana and is now the HIV-STD coordinator/counselor for the San Diego American Indian Health Center. “The first floor was a café and the second floor served as a shelter and hospice.”
Gay activists complained loudly of police harassment at gay bars, which is now almost unheard of. “The police don’t harass gays and lesbians anymore because they are gays and lesbians,” says Ricardo Duéñez, the CEO of Acosida.
“I was actually in Emilio’s office when the Tijuana police faxed over an apology for raiding [the well-known gay bar] El Ranchero,” says Sam Warren, the former publisher of Frontera Gay. Warren, an American, was the victim of homophobic police; he spent three years in a Tijuana prison on trumped-up charges. (And he still loves Mexico: “Most of my friends are more afraid of Mexico than I am. I go to Tijuana all the time.”) Transgender sex workers are still sometimes harassed, but much less so than they were before activists managed to have anti-drag laws in Tijuana and Tecate repealed several years ago. “A lot of the transgender community don’t know that [being in drag is not illegal anymore], so they succumb to the extortion,” says Duéñez.
Unfortunately, Garcia died of AIDS in 2004 and Velásquez is suffering from advanced cancer. This leadership vacuum, as well as squabbling between current leaders, is blamed for the failure of last year’s Pride march, which was advertised, sponsored by 25 businesses, and then failed to happen.
“The gay community is so divided there, and there are no role models,” complains Franceska. “There are few role models in the GLBT community, let alone the Hispanic community. And the activists we do have are always fighting amongst themselves. There’s no [constant] visible representation. No one like Emilio. He was the rock.”
After Frontera Gay folded, its editor, longtime-activist Max Mejía, started Arte de Vivir, an arts paper, more metrosexual than homosexual. Tijuana is now the largest city in North America without a gay newspaper. The slack is picked up by the Internet, claims Duéñez. “Mexicans are really into the Internet,” he says. “If they don’t have access in their homes, there are Internet cafés every two blocks. It’s really utilized. There are all kinds of Mexican gay groups on the Internet.”
However, we actually found it rather difficult to get information about gay Tijuana over the Internet, mostly because we didn’t know where to look and the search engines weren’t terribly helpful. Yahoo! and Google took us to out-of-date gay tourism sites and amateurish personal Web pages; information was conflicting and confusing, though, by triangulation, we were able to put together a list of gay bars to visit. Duéñez pointed us to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Baja_Mex_Gay/, which has a good amount of up-to-date information, and is probably the best place for information on gay Tijuana. (In addition to the bars mentioned in this article, there are over a dozen more; and this doesn’t include gay, lesbian and trans-friendly cafés and restaurants. There are also bars in Rosarito, Ensenada, Tecate and Mexicali.) But it is just a mediated news group, not the Web site of a gay community center or an edited newspaper.
After taking the last exit on I-5 before the border and paying $7 for parking, we walk a few minutes and a thousand yards to the border. The San Diego Police Department has set up a check point just before the crossing. They card anyone who looks under 30 – to stop kids under 18 from going across, getting plastered and dying in drunk-driving accidents. But we’re old, so we’re nodded through. We push past the turnstiles into Tijuana and head for Avenida Revolución.
It’s 9:30 p.m. and most of the vendors and stores are beginning to pack up their pottery, wrangle in their marionettes and leather goods or wipe down their food carts. But there are still many people on the street, American boozehounds prepping for a night of tequila shots at Señor Frog’s by taking pictures of the boney donkeys with zebra stripes painted on them.
“The gay community is so divided there, and there are no role models. There are few role models in the GLBT community, let alone the Hispanic community. And the activists we do have are always fighting amongst themselves. There’s no [constant] visible representation.”
Our first stop is El Ranchero, an enormously popular dive bar off of Avenida Revolución in Plaza St. Cecilia. El Ranchero is planted in the middle of a street surrounded by pastel-colored storefronts and apartments, buildings that resemble a movie set or façade, like the fake buildings on miniature golf courses. Across the street from El Ranchero is a restaurant called, fittingly enough, The Boy’s – with “burritos, enchiladas, huarache and more” advertised on its bright pink sign. Just a few hundred yards away is the McDonald’s-like arch welcoming tourists to Tijuana. One Web site mentions that El Ranchero is fun, but “be alert for hustlers and pickpockets,” and another states that the “clientele mainly consists of men of all ages and incomes from both sides of the border, including local hustlers.”
The bar has two levels. The first is a bit more old school, with men in cowboy hats dancing slowly to more traditional Mexican music. The room is packed, so much so that we have to squeeze our way from the front door to the narrow twisting stairwell that leads to the second floor, where the music is mixed: Latin and American pop. (The Mexicans may like Gwen Stefani more than we do.) The décor consists of flickering chandeliers and glowing red-sconce lighting, red-leather cushioned chairs, and wood-paneled ceilings and wooden archways that were once elegant but are now cracked and dusty. At the end of the long, busy bar a television is bolted to the ceiling showing Mexican game shows.
The air is heavy with the smell of cigarette smoke and cologne – the large windows are wide open, but the lack of air flow makes it seem like an optical illusion – and within minutes we are sweaty and wishing we hadn’t worn undershirts. There may be a connection to this lack of ventilation and the lusty desire for buckets of beer that are constantly being carried to tables by the numerous friendly and efficient waiters in red polo shirts.
Two heavily gelled men kiss passionately at the bar for several minutes while we order drinks from the frazzled bartender, a woman in her 50s with tired eyes and wisps of hair loosening from her ponytail. She hands us our beers and a lot of change (a Dos Equis is $1.50), and men and women laugh and dance and sing out loud to the songs.
The attitude is as festive and joyful as the music. Though it seems to be a predominantly gay crowd, with a few fag hags here and there, the body types and ages are fairly mixed: short and tall, thin and heavy, light skin, dark skin, casual dressed, nicely dressed, guys who look like they could be under 20 and then several men who are probably in their 40s and 50s. There are more than a few female couples linking arms, spooning in chairs and cutting a rug on the dance floor.
We first meet Denís, who is 25 years old but looks more like he’s 16. He’s just had a molar extracted that morning, but still he’s at the bar, smiling and smoking a cigarette. Denís tells us he is bisexual and has a 52-year-old boyfriend from the U.S., whom he met here at El Ranchero. And his girlfriend lives in Miami. Denís also says that at El Ranchero he has met many foreigners – from China to Holland.
Soon we are joined by Rodolfo, a friend of Denís, who is 36 and teaches English as a foreign language at one of the universities in Tijuana. He has a master’s in multicultural education from the University of Arizona. In our garbled Spanish we try to tell him that we are writing an article about Tijuana for the Gay & Lesbian Times. “Are you guys for real?” he asks in English, in which he’s impeccably fluent.
“Yes,” I tell him, “we are for real. Don’t we look like reporters in our jeans and button-up shirts?”
“Tijuana is a border town,” Rodolfo says, “and a border town is not completely representative of Mexico. But maybe that’s a good thing for being gay here. Everyone is here because they are running away from something or starting all over again. Border towns are so different. They cater more to American tourists than anything else – especially in the gay bars.”
Ranchero, though, also caters to Mexicans; mostly it is Spanish that is spoken. We meet a sweet, shy young man from the outskirts of Tijuana who is making his first-ever visit to a gay bar. He is 26, and, like most single people in Mexico, still living at home. His mother was out of town for the weekend, so he took the opportunity to let his gay friends take him out. On the dance floor, with Madonna’s “Hung Up” blaring, he says, “This is the first time I’ve ever danced with a man.”
“Six years ago, Extasis was really big. Everyone went there. And then, after a few years, the excitement died down. … Then, last year, they added the back rooms and again it’s become one of the most popular night spots in Tijuana.”
Another friend of ours, who grew up in Tijuana but now lives in San Diego, says of growing up gay in Mexico: “It was scary being young and going to the gay bars for the first time. I would walk to the bars but always look around to make sure no one watched me walk in.”
But it’s clear Tijuana has changed in the last 20 years.
Though El Ranchero used to (and possibly still does) have a seedy reputation, the street outside the bar is buzzing with people – gay men and women chatting, using their cell phones or smoking cigarettes. Furthermore, the click of drag queens’ heels reverberates off of the walls of the buildings as they make their way down the street. No one seems to be ducking into El Ranchero or Hawaii, the gay bar next door, to hide or run away.
Our next stop, only a few blocks away, is Bobi’s, a more upscale bar full of coifed men in trendy T-shirts and designer jeans. It’s just as cruisy as Ranchero, but the age-range is less varied – most of the guys seem to be in their late 20s or early 30s – and no one is an obvious hustler. It has three multi-colored adobe-like rooms (very Santa Fe), with a huge reproduction of Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait hanging on the wall. It’s loud and lively and much better lit than Ranchero, and all of the songs are sung in Spanish. We hear at least four tunes by Mana.
We meet a friendly 36-year-old named Gabriel, who is wearing a cow-skinned Budweiser cowboy hat, Ugg boots and pants that look something like the bottom half of a ski-bib. Gabriel, a Colombian real estate agent now living in Tijuana, swooped down on us like the angel he was named after and proceeded to dance and flirt with each one of us. And then forget our names.
At 1:00 a.m., or maybe it was 2:00 a.m., we made it to Extasis, which is Tijuana’s version of Rich’s. Extasis is a multi-level dance club complete with flashing lights, a stripper floor show that plays two times a night and that fog that is released on the dance floor. (What do they call that fog anyway? Disco fog?) Oh, and you may have heard there is a sizeable and quite busy back room. The back room is actually several dark, maze-like rooms and even includes about two dozen tiny cubicles with doors on them for privacy.
Antonio Muñoz, who works at Bienestar, one of San Diego’s resources for the Latino GLBT community, explains the brief history of Extasis’s popularity: “Six years ago, Extasis was really big. Everyone went there. And then, after a few years, the excitement died down. … Then, last year, they added the back rooms and again it’s become one of the most popular night spots in Tijuana.”
The supposedly famous strip show was clearly not the main attraction, as the back rooms were much more crowded than the area surrounding the stage. While the strippers serve their purpose by stripping, and thus titillating, the back room serves its purpose by drawing legions of gay men from the U.S., where back rooms are now things of the past. HIV, however, has not faded into history, and we are surprised not to find safe-sex pamphlets or information, bowls of condoms at or near the back room. Part of that is cultural, says Duéñez. In the U.S., bar patrons pick up pamphlets sitting in stacks by the doors. Those stacks are ignored at Mexican bars. “You have to hand it to them, and they stick in their pockets and look at them later,” he says. Nevertheless, pamphleteers were nowhere to be seen the night we were in Tijuana.
Amazingly, though Tijuana is the third largest city in Mexico, with at least 1.2 million people, the only resources are the few underfunded AIDS organizations and HIV clinics, including Clinica Acosida and Las Memorias Hospice. There is not a GLBT community center in Tijuana.
All of this is practically criminal. According to a UCSD Medical Center February 2006 report, HIV and AIDS rates in Tijuana are increasing at an alarming rate – much higher than had previously been estimated. The number of men and women aged 15 to 49 years who are infected with HIV in Tijuana may be as high as one in 125 persons. And the UCSD study also notes that the dramatic rise in HIV infection is probably linked to lower awareness of HIV/AIDS.
“Our first stop is El Ranchero, an enormously popular dive bar off of Avenida Revolución in Plaza St. Cecilia. El Ranchero is planted in the middle of a street surrounded by pastel-colored storefronts and apartments, buildings that resemble a movie set or façade, like the fake buildings on miniature golf courses.”
“[Mexico’s] National Board of Health is not willing to give money to improve the health conditions of Tijuana’s GLBT community because, according to them, Mexico doesn’t have a problem with STDs and HIV. But we know that’s not true,” says Victor Tereda of Bienestar.
Bienestar Human Services, Inc. is a grassroots, nonprofit community service organization established in 1989. The organization originated as a direct result of lacking and/or nonexistent HIV/AIDS services for the Latino community. Now, they are a multi-service, multi-center agency with branches throughout Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Clients often come from Tijuana to San Diego for information and support, and especially medical assistance, but San Diego’s Bienestar is funded to help the people in San Diego only. “We do fairs and conventions in Tijuana,” says Muñoz, Beinestar’s health educator, “and occasionally we are able to go into their bars and pass out condoms or pamphlets, but we’re funded by San Diego County, and so we can’t do much down there.”
Yes, there are not enough HIV services in Tijuana, but that alone doesn’t make Tijuana the living hell that some would have you believe it to be. “Tijuana is a very cosmopolitan city, for the most part,” says Denise Peña, another educator at Bienestar, “especially when compared to the tiny towns where many of the people in TJ’s GLBT community come from. And maybe it’s somewhat easier now to be gay there.”
Somewhat is an understatement, according to Duéñez. “There have been a few cases where Mexican immigrants have applied for political asylum in the U.S. because they were being persecuted in their small town, and they got asylum. And I always wondered why the immigration judge didn’t say, ‘Why don’t you move to a city where you won’t face persecution? Like Tijuana.’”
Duéñez actually thinks it’s easier to be gay in Tijuana than it is in San Diego. “In Hillcrest, two persons can walk down the street hand in hand without being attacked. But if you do that in any other part of town, there is a social stigma. In Tijuana, no matter what neighborhood you go to, you can see effeminate males everywhere, including drag queens, and men can walk arm in arm and no one cares.”
Clearly, gay Tijuana is much more complicated than either the glossy ads for Extasis or the negative popular imagination would lead you to believe.
If you won’t take the word of two gringos, take a look for yourself. The border is just a 15-minute drive from Hillcrest.