This Mexican City Has Grown Into A Major LGBTQ Destination But It Wasn’t Always That Way
The year 1492 was a momentous year for Spanish and Latin American history. Not only is it the year that Christopher Columbus invaded Indigenous lands in the ‘New World’ but it’s also the year that the Spanish drove out Muslims and Jews from Spain.
It also happened to be a big year for homosexuality.
At the time, two Spanish monarchs were believed to have been homosexuals, and that Isabela’s own succession to the thrown had been contested by her notoriously homosexual half brother, Enrique IV, had raised the issue of homosexuality to the forefront of royal and public consciousness.
So when all of this Spanish colonial history converged on present-day Mexico, there were a wide degree of views.
After the Spanish conquest in 1519, the Spanish Inquisition was established and the Catholic Church dictated most rules regarding society and living, including capital punishment for homosexuals.
Much like the Catholic Spaniards, the Aztecs punished homosexual relationships with death. They placed great importance on masculine ‘macho’ identity and warriors and soldiers were often idolized for their machismo.
While the Mayans, Toltecs and other Indigenous groups accepted third genders and same-sex partnerships as part of their communities. It’s said that they even hosted giant orgies that allowed same-sex relations.
It wasn’t until the intellectual influence of the French Revolution and a brief occupation by the French Empire that same-sex activities were decriminalized.
But the values of strong Catholic influence would take another hundred years to give way to a real LGBT movement. During the 1970s, a new generation of politicians and intellectuals began discussing their sexual preferences openly and promoting the adoption of equality laws that ensured that LGBT Mexicans and foreigners living in the country received the same rights as their heterosexual peers.
Jump forward 500 years, and in many ways, modern Mexico is pretty tolerant of its LGBTQ community – or at least its capital, Mexico City.
Today, the bustling capital of 20 million people appears to be a LGBTQ sanctuary, with openly-gay couples kissing and holding hands in all parts of the city. The city hosted Latin America’s first Gay Pride Parade in 1979 and it remains one of the world’s largest. And the city has a thriving, internationally popular queer nightlife scene.
The city even has its own LGBTQ district in the Zona Rosa – or Pink Zone. This giant gayborhood is packed full of LGBTQ-oriented shops, support groups, health centers, bars, cafes, and clubs. And it happens to be located in the city’s most popular areas along Paseo Reforma.
Public sentiment is shifting as well. CONAPRED (National Council to Prevent Discrimination) found in 2005 that 70% of Mexican citizens rejected the idea of same-sex marriage. Nowadays, numbers have reversed, and 68% of the population doesn’t see why same-sex couples couldn’t be married.
Some of Mexico’s greatest icons were members of the LGBTQ community.
One of the first LGBT activists was Nancy Cárdenas. Cárdenas, writer, actress, and theater director, inspired by the LGBT movements in Europe and the United States, began to direct gatherings of LGBT writers. In 1973 she was the first Mexican to openly discuss her homosexuality on Mexican television and she founded Mexico’s first LGBTQ organization in 1974, the Homosexual Liberation Front (FLH).
Frida Khalo was openly bisexual and had relationships with women while being in the media and married to Diego Rivera. Today, she’s an international icon for not only the LGBTQ community but also Mexicanidad and Chicanos.
Although Juan Gabriel never spoke to the media about his sexuality, many Mexicans consider him an LGBTQ icon who kept his personal life to himself.
But today’s polished image as a gay mecca didn’t come without sacrifice.
Perhaps one of the most famous stories of anti-gay sentiment in Mexico came in 1901 on a raid of a gay bar in central Mexico City. The event today is now called El Baile de Los 41 – or the Dance of the 41. This raid predated the Stonewall Inn uprising by 68 years!
Police illegally raided a private home and arrested (officially) 41 men, 19 of whom were dressed in drag. Rumor has it that though that there was a 42nd man dressed in drag, who happened to be the son-in-law of President Porfirio Diaz.
The Dance of the 41 was such a huge scandal that to this day the number 41 remains taboo. No division, regiment, or battalion of the army is given the number 41. From 40 they progress directly to 42. No payroll has a number 41. Municipal records show no houses with the number 41. No hotel or hospital has a Room 41. Nobody celebrates their 41st birthday, going straight from 40 to 42. No vehicle is assigned a number plate with 41, and no police officer will accept a badge with that number.
At one point, police shut down every single gay bar in the city.
During World War II, Mexico City had a thriving gay nightlife scene with 10-15 gay bars operating around the city. Relative freedom from harassment continued until 1959 when Mayor Ernesto Uruchurtu closed every gay bar following a grisly triple murder.
Motivated by pressure to “clean up vice” and by the lucrativeness of bribes from queer people threatened with arrests, Mexico City’s policemen had a reputation for zeal in persecution of homosexuals.
Even today, the LGBTQ community of Mexico City faces problems that non-queer people can’t even imagine.
Translation: Mexico is one of the countries with the most murders caused by homophobia. There have been 381 members of the LGBT+ community killed in Mexico in just four years.
Widespread corruption and poverty make it difficult for LGBT people from impoverished families to gain access to the same benefits that a wealthy Mexican would. The great divide between rich and poor makes gay life greatly different between individuals of different social classes. While in most cases a wealthy Mexican can have a comfortable out life, poor youths from rural areas can face abandonment and violence after coming out.
Anti-discrimination laws in Mexico are weak at best and are rarely enforced, making it common for queer individuals to face discrimination and exclusion.
While violence against the trans community is the second worst in the world.
Mexico ranks second in homicide rates against transgender and transsexual people, with 56 murders every year. Experts agree that hate, violence, and discrimination are the main causes of such a high murder rate. Mexico is only second to Brazil, which registered 171 crimes against the trans communities, in a list of 71 countries.
Transgender women are one of the most vulnerable social groups in Mexico, next to homosexuals, and they are often subject to physical aggression due to their identity. The violence they endure ranges from death threats to physical harm, rape, sexual harassment, and murder.
Still, in a country where the Catholic Church maintains a strong influence over culture, Mexico City has fostered a welcoming place for the country’s LGBTQ community.