The waiter catches his customers giggling as he walks by their table. One woman tries to hide her grin behind a sandwich when Miguel stops to refill her iced tea, while another stares at his biceps. They sigh after he turns to leave.
The two attractive young women are sharing a table at Bagdad Cafe. As Latinas, they stand out among the mostly white, gay men dining in this Castro restaurant. The Latino waiter stands out, too, and not just for his race. Miguel is handsome in a rugged way; he has a pierced eyebrow and a goatee that masks a boyish grin. The women continue to flirt.
“What do you think of my friend?” one of the women asks Miguel, while the other uses the restroom.
“She's nice,” Miguel says softly, trying to retrieve the dirty plates before she can ask any more questions.
“Why don't you ask her out?” she asks, twirling her long, dark hair.
Miguel freezes for a moment, flushed.
“Sorry,” he says. “I'm gay.”
“What do you mean?” the Latina woman asks, suddenly indignant, her question sounding more like a demand. “You're Mexican. You can't be gay.”
Miguel Flores, now 26, came to San Francisco from Guadalajara three years ago. In his conservative Mexican hometown, the Catholic Church has such a strong hold on the common culture it is difficult to find a drugstore that sells condoms. Homosexuality is not even open for discussion.
“In Mexico, gay doesn't exist,” says Miguel, unless someone behaves in a way that seems stereotypically gay. In that case, he says, you may exist, but “you're not considered a person.”
Miguel looks masculine enough to not be pegged as one of the effeminate gay men who are outcast in Mexico. As he passed for straight, he secretly dated other closeted men — some who were married and had children. He longed for a relationship, but the married men seemed only interested in the sex. And as long as they assumed the penetrative position, many wouldn't even acknowledge they were having gay sex. “I told them, 'If you slept with me, you're gay.' But they wouldn't hear it,” Miguel says.
Steeped in such secrecy and denial, the prospect of leading a gay life in Mexico depressed Miguel. He went to the underground gay bars near his city's university, but they only reminded him of the double life. There were police raids, looking to catch gay military men. At one bar, there was a hole in the wall behind a jukebox to hide in.
When Miguel became convinced he could never be happy in Mexico, he emigrated to San Francisco. It was the gay mecca, he was told, the place where he would be accepted, as is. But moving only complicated Miguel's identity crisis: Born in Mexico, he's undeniably Latino, and, since coming out, openly gay. Culturally, those two identities don't easily mix — even in San Francisco, where the celebrated gay Castro neighbors a sprawling Latino Mission.
In the Mission, Miguel feels at home as a Latino. But he must deal with the same religious, family, and machismo influences that he knew in Mexico, and that denounce or ignore his existence as a homosexual. The Castro excites Miguel as a place where his sexuality is accepted. But he encounters a mostly white, sometimes racist community there, and wonders if he will have to give up being Latino in order to be gay.
“It's like making a Faustian bargain,” says Jorge Sanchez, a Colombian immigrant who does gay outreach in the Mission. “Latinos can discover their sexuality in this town, but at what price?”
Miguel was not disappointed when he first arrived in the Castro. He had never seen two men holding hands in public. It shocked him. “I thought, 'Wow, what is this?' Seeing that made me think it must be easier to be gay here, because people are willing to accept you for who you are,” Miguel says.
But Miguel had no experience living as a racial minority. In San Francisco, that's precisely what he was, especially in the gay community he was so eager to join.
In the Castro's overwhelmingly white gay bars, Miguel can feel as invisible as the woodwork. And he is leery of the white guys who come on to him. “I hate being a fetish,” Miguel says. “They don't see you as a person. Just an object — Latin meat.”
As in Mexico, Miguel doesn't face discrimination in the Mission — as long as he hides his sexuality. At straight clubs, it is not uncommon for women to flirt with him. And more than once he's heard Latinas, upon discovering he's gay, say, “What a waste.”
But venturing outside the Mission opens him up to what he views as racism from parts of the greater community — gay and straight — who dismiss him as a Latino gangster or migrant worker. The insults hurt most when made by other gay men.
And when Miguel tried to escape the Mission's intolerance by taking a job at a Castro restaurant, he found the restaurant's kitchen — like so many in San Francisco — to be staffed mostly by Latino immigrants. His peers were very macho, a flashback to Mexico. At first, he was afraid to face them without pretending to be straight.
“When I found out about this city, it seemed like a dream. But when I got here, I realized even in the gay capital of the U.S., I'm still Mexican,” Miguel says. “I didn't come all this way to go through the same shit.”
Late on a Sunday night, Miguel and his friends line up outside a little bar next to an alley and a taqueria on 16th Street in the Mission. A sign with a painted palm tree and the words “Dancing, Live Entertainment” hangs out front, illuminating the exterior of the dark purple building. [page]
Popular among locals, Esta Noche is uniquely Mexican.
Inside, mirrored walls, year-round blinking Christmas lights, and shiny tinsel clash with the old, sturdy, oak-and-marble bar. The DJ plays a loud mix of mariachi and combia music to a packed, almost entirely Latino crowd. A small platform stage sits at the end of the long and narrow watering hole, where salsa dancers slink across the floor.
A voluptuous woman with cascading hair, dressed in a gloriously shimmering gown, wiggles her way onto the stage to start the 11 o'clock show. Even her eye shadow glitters in the spotlight as she grabs the audience's attention. Her first number is Sinatra's “My Way,” sung in Spanish, with a flamenco twist.
What's uniquely San Francisco about Esta Noche is that the beautiful singer is a man. The self-proclaimed “Queen of Combia,” who also does a mean Tina Turner, is a drag queen. She performs in the Mission's only gay bar.
It didn't take Miguel long to find Esta Noche and make it his favorite hangout. He met all of his new San Francisco friends there, and this Sunday night he kicks back with Gustavo Ramos and Marcos Calamateo — also immigrants from Mexico.
Even though Marcos is from Miguel's hometown, and just a year younger, they first met at Esta Noche. Like Miguel, Marcos left Mexico in search of a better gay life.
In Guadalajara, Marcos had a much more difficult life than Miguel. With his slight build, soft features, and curly hair, Marcos could never pass for straight. As a child, Marcos didn't like to get dirty and was delicate in his mannerisms. At 7, his aunt would yell, “Be like a man!” Then she'd hit him. By 14, Marcos was being beaten regularly by boys in the street who taunted him for his feminine looks. During his teens, he tried to kill himself several times.
Four years after leaving Guadalajara, Marcos considers San Francisco a “sanctuary.” Even the Mission, with all its Mexican immigrants.
“They might see gay people the same as in Mexico, but at least in the Mission, they'll think twice before attacking you,” Marcos says. “Here, they can get arrested for it. Not like Mexico, where the police beat you up, too.”
The third member of the trio, Gustavo, grew up in a small town, Acuna, near the Texas border and came to San Francisco five years ago. Now 22, Gustavo still has the scars from a teenage stabbing; three men jumped him outside his village. Gustavo did not look feminine or gay — he's tall and beefy — but he had a friend who did. “That's what you get for hanging out with fags in Mexico,” he says.
When Gustavo hangs at Esta Noche, his only worry is having enough money to cover his drinks — or his bets on the latest soccer match playing on the bar TV. It is a comfortable, safe place where everyone seems to know Gustavo's name. He often befriends new immigrants who shyly wander in, introducing them to the regulars. There are campy drag shows, but not all the clientele at Esta Noche consists of men in dresses. Gustavo and his friends like meeting other “regular” gay Latinos, and they love the mix of over-the-top gay and certifiably macho that coexists at Esta Noche. “To me, it's the most fascinating place in the world,” Gustavo says. “Probably the only gay-drag-sports bar around.”
Gustavo is glad he's in San Francisco now. He may not feel represented in the Castro, but for him that's a small bother compared to the alienation he'd face as a gay man in Mexico. And he prefers the Mission's Esta Noche over any Castro bar, anyway. Going there makes him feel like it is possible to retain his culture and be gay. But Gustavo knows the haven created inside Esta Noche is not exactly esteemed by the neighbors.
“Most straight Latinos are ashamed of Esta Noche. To them it's low class and dirty. They see it as a misfits bar,” Gustavo says. “They are the ones who bring to the Mission all the cultural values and attitudes of Mexico I grew up despising.”
The curly hair that once gave Marcos so much trouble in Mexico now falls well past his shoulders, and sometimes for fun, he'll go out to Esta Noche on the weekend dressed in very convincing drag. He embraces his feminine traits while living comfortably as a man.
Today, Marcos has his hair pulled back in a ponytail as he rides the bus toward the Mission after work. He notices a young, attractive Latino man staring at him from across the aisle. The man smiles. Marcos is confused. This macho-looking man certainly doesn't seem gay, and Marcos is not in drag. But then the man winks at him.
At the next stop, the man stands up and looks back at Marcos while getting off the bus. Marcos follows.
“What's your name?” the man asks when they are alone on the sidewalk.
“Oh, I'm sorry,” the man says. “I thought you were a woman.”
“I'm not,” Marcos replies.
“I'm very sorry — I don't have sex with men,” the man explains.
“Well, that's a shame, because you are very handsome.”
“Oh, if you saw my body you would die!”
the man announces.
“So, you like to be with men?” the man asks.
“What do you like to do?”
“Everything they want,” Marcos tells him.
The man, his eyes widening, pauses for a moment, then exhales before speaking again.
“Do you want to be with me?” he asks.
“If you do,” Marcos answers.
The man says his apartment is nearby, but tells Marcos to walk alone on the other side of the street as they go there. In secret, the Honduran man — who has a girlfriend and a baby — has sex with Marcos. [page]
This is not the first “straight” man Marcos has slept with. Like Miguel and Gustavo, he has bedded many in Mexico. And in San Francisco's Mission District, the phenomenon continues. Oddly enough, this practice is directly connected with machismo, the Latino tradition that celebrates dominance, aggression, and everything masculine. It is a tradition that also abhors homosexuality. But if machismo is by its very nature anti-gay — and it is — the tradition has allowed itself an interesting loophole: male-on-male sex that's not considered gay.
When the Honduran man had sex with Marcos, he insisted on playing the “top,” or insertion role, leaving Marcos as the “bottom,” or receiver. In that scenario, with this interpretation, the Honduran does not give up his masculinity. Though he had sex with a man, he remains dominant in the sex act, as he would with a woman. It is the passive Marcos, the one being penetrated, who is gay.
There is debate about whether straight Latinos who sleep with men are living machismo to its fullest, or using it to mask their true desires. Dominance of anyone feminine — man or woman — seems to fit the machismo model. But the notion that you can enjoy gay sex that's not gay is also a convenient excuse for homosexuals in denial. Marcos believes the “top” argument is nothing but an excuse. “They pretend to be straight, but they like to be with men,” he says.
And not just feminine-looking men. It is a myth that straight Latinos will only go for men who look like women, such as the drag queens at Esta Noche. Men in drag are in high demand, and Marcos does look feminine, but his friends Miguel and Gustavo — who have also been with many straight Latinos — have very masculine appearances and mannerisms. They disprove the notion that a gay man can't be a real man, or attract one either. “I know that I'm a man, and they know it, too,” Marcos says. “And they still end up sleeping with me.”
And, Marcos says, the top-only act is a sham.
“Let me tell you a secret, I'm not always the bottom,” he says. “Some of those 'straight' Latinos just flip right over. They want it, but they'd never admit it.”
Marcos knows how difficult it is to be openly gay in a Latino setting. So he's not surprised to see plenty of closeted husbands and fathers who live in the Mission and look for gay sex at Esta Noche. What did surprise him at first, though, were all the “cholos” — or Latino gangsters — who hang out at Esta Noche, too. They are the epitome of machismo, but Marcos has dated some of them.
One tattooed, muscular youngster Marcos secretly dated was a member of the Sureno gang, which claims the northern portion of the Mission, where Esta Noche sits.
Alone in Marcos' apartment, the cholo would braid his boyfriend's long hair. They would cook together, and after dinner, slow dance.
“Cholos are the sweetest people I've ever been with. They are so tender,” Marcos says. “Like gay people, they are not accepted by society. They lack love. So when they get the chance to be loved, they love back like you can't imagine.”
The cholo's interest was not just sex. There was lots of cuddling, Marcos says. And talking, too, about what it means to be gay. “I'd ask him how he felt about being with men, and he would say, 'I don't know. I'm confused.' ”
In addition to being Latino, gangster life made it even more difficult for the cholo to deal with his sexuality.
“He said he could never be out. He had too many enemies in his past,” Marcos says. “That makes me feel sad. I know it's not easy, but he could have a better life if he fought for it.”
Ultimately, they couldn't sustain a relationship in the confines of Marcos' apartment. The cholo would not leave the gang life, and Marcos wanted nothing to do with it.
“I hope he's OK,” Marcos says. “Besides whatever he was involved with in the gang, he was a nice guy on his own.”
Debbie Landeros is a second-generation Mexican-American who goes to gangster hangouts, handing out condoms and talking about AIDS. She works for a gay outreach group in the Mission, and all the cholos know she is a lesbian. Some privately approach her about being gay themselves. She's talked to many young cholos who were kicked out of their homes, by parents who could not handle the family embarrassment and sense of cultural violation that come with having a gay child.
And she talks from experience.
At 16, Debbie's parents kicked her out of their Los Angeles home after they learned she was gay. Debbie tried to hide it, but her mother found a diary that detailed her crushes on girls. At first, Debbie's mother tried to handle the discovery by resorting to the family's strong Catholic faith, forcing her daughter to recite the rosary and read Bible verses that condemn homosexuality.
“I felt sad, because I thought I might go to hell,” Debbie says. “I heard it so much, I almost started believing it, and that really made me hate the church.”
Debbie rebelled, telling her parents she was indeed gay and there was nothing they or Catholicism could do about it. Her mother cried, and her father went into a rage, banishing her from the house. He called her a disgrace to the family and a bad influence on her four younger siblings.
“They didn't care where I went. I was dead as far as they were concerned,” Debbie says. “They'd rather believe I was a drug addict or a prostitute than gay. That would be easier for them to handle, because gay is the worst thing you can be.” [page]
Even though Debbie's parents were born in the United States, the cultural aversion to homosexuality was deeply rooted in her family. After her mother and father kicked her out, Debbie's immigrant grandmother took her in. But not for long. When Debbie's father found out, he scolded his own mother, telling her she was allowing her granddaughter to be gay. Debbie's aunts also pleaded with their mother not to let Debbie stay.
“I was only 16, but they'd rather have me on the street than be safe with my grandma,” Debbie says. “I thought if my family can't accept me, no one can.”
Separating from family at the age of 18 is a rite of passage among American kids; this is not generally the case for Latinos. Their culture expects that large, extended families will remain close-knit. Children often stay at home with their parents well into their 20s — even after they are married — and multiple generations live together in the same home. Many Latino kids do not have the luxury of privately discovering their sexuality at a far-away college, and then announcing it on a brief holiday visit home. Gay Latinos must live with their family's rejection, which is why so many are afraid to come out.
Debbie was depressed, even suicidal. She'd been raised with the ingrained belief that family is a sacred bond. Leaving home made her feel awful. But her family was in turmoil, and now she was causing trouble for her grandmother, and she didn't want to be a burden. So she took a backpack and headed for the bus station, where the 16-year-old got on a Greyhound to San Francisco. “That's where I figured gay people go,” she says.
Debbie didn't know anyone here and was homeless. Afraid to sleep outside at night, she stayed up and wandered the city's neighborhoods. During the day, she slept in Golden Gate Park. Her first destination was the Castro, but she didn't like it.
“I had this vision, and I was disappointed,” she says. “When I went to the Castro, I saw only white, gay men.”
Debbie often panhandled in the Castro for spare change with other homeless kids. Once she sat on the sidewalk with a white homeless boy, and the gay men who walked by would give the boy money, but not her. “I didn't feel welcome there because I was not white, and a girl,” she says.
Eventually, Debbie found a women's shelter that took her in. She also learned about Proyecto, a gay outreach group that is based in the Mission.
“It blew me away. I never heard of it. I thought being queer was not part of my culture,” Debbie says, who was scared and embarrassed when she first went to Proyecto's storefront office near the corner of 16th and Mission streets. “I never knew any queer Latinos, but once I looked, I saw the light. They were all around me — I just didn't see them before.”
Though underage, she snuck into Esta Noche and was amazed at how many older men she saw — in cowboy hats, drinking Coronas, hanging out at the bar.
” 'God, they could be my father!' ” Debbie remembers thinking. “They all looked like typical, macho Mexican men. It was so weird. I had never seen anything like it.”
Now 18, Debbie is no longer homeless. She got her high school equivalency degree and works as a youth counselor at Proyecto. She lives in a Mission flat with two roommates. Her once nearly waist-length hair is now shaved close to her scalp. A lip ring and a pierced tongue accessorize her new “butch” look. She has become an activist of sorts, proud of her sexuality and her culture. But there are times when both continue to haunt her. Just walking through the Mission turns heads.
“The Latino guys on the street give me shit,” she says. “They'll say, 'Hey, papi!' and call me a guy. Or they'll yell out, 'Jota!' which means 'dyke.' On the bus I've heard people say, 'She'd be a pretty girl, if she had her hair.' ”
There is a definite backlash to Debbie's openness, which still makes her uneasy about being out. Once, Debbie and her girlfriend sat in a Mission restaurant for an hour and were never served.
“Sometimes I find myself wanting to go back in the closet around Latinos,” she says. “It's a lot easier to be out to white people. If they reject me, it doesn't feel too bad. But if a Latino rejects me, I lose part of myself. And that feels much worse.”
Creating a gay Latino identity in the midst of a macho Mission and a white Castro is not an easy task, especially when there are divisions among gay Latinos on how it should be done. Immigrants just want to fit in; American-born Latinos are more activist in claiming a stake in the Castro.
“There's this judgmental rampage going on: Who's more Mexican? Who's been whitewashed?” says Gustavo, who was disillusioned by the identity politics he encountered when trying to join a gay Latino group at San Francisco State University. Gustavo felt shunned; he had a white boyfriend.
“To them, it's like being colonized again if you go out with a white guy,” Gustavo says. “They detest the idea that some Latinos only date white guys in hopes of marrying up. But I just want to date whoever I find interesting.”
Part of the split on gay Latino identity boils down to a difference of interests. Immigrant and U.S.-born gay Latinos do not often mix socially. Gustavo and his friends like Esta Noche because it is as Mexican as it is gay. Americanized Latinos consider the bar tacky, and prefer special Latino nights hosted by mainstream gay clubs in SOMA and Oakland, where there is more dance music and less mariachi.
Taste in dates or music isn't the only difference. There are politics, too.
When the usually white gay bar the Stud advertised a special Latino drag show as “Wetback Night” in February, the name drew the ire and picketing of gay Latino groups. Some argued that a predominantly white bar should not use the term, that it would be different if the slur were used by the all-Latino Esta Noche. Gustavo says the show was performed by and marketed to Latinos, so the play on “wetback” shouldn't matter. [page]
“It's about disempowering words,” Gustavo says. “Don't we have the right to make fun of the very stereotypes and prejudices used against us — especially in Mexico? Isn't that why we're here?”
Gustavo and many of his immigrant friends often find themselves disagreeing with the prevailing gay politics of their American-born counterparts. “You can't be playing the victim all the time,” he says. “If you don't feel welcome in the Castro, make yourself welcome. Do something so they see you beyond being Mexican or Latino.”
The move to San Francisco has toughened the immigrants. They certainly didn't come this far to let a little culture get in the way of finding a new identity. But they do miss home.
“I wish I had a gay life in Mexico,” Gustavo says. “I probably wouldn't even be in the U.S. if I did.”
For now, Gustavo is where he needs to be. He is a film student at San Francisco State University and dreams of first becoming an accomplished director in the U.S., and then going back home to influence social change through his films. “I want to be part of the sexual revolution in Mexico that hasn't happened yet,” he says.
Marcos says it will be awhile before the climate in Mexico is accepting enough for him to safely return. “I never want to give up my roots,” Marcos says. “But if I went back now, I'd be dead for sure — because this time, I'd stand up to anyone who tried to attack me.”
This newfound boldness in asserting their sexuality has reached their homes in Mexico, where all three immigrants are now out to their parents. But it hasn't been easy. Miguel's mother still won't acknowledge that her son is gay, though she has stopped asking when he is getting married. Gustavo's father didn't speak to his son for more than a year. “It has cost me a lot of trouble to come out,” Marcos says. “It has always been a fight to be who I am. I used to be afraid, but not anymore.”
Miguel no longer hides his sexuality from anyone — not even from the straight Latino immigrants he works with at the Bagdad Cafe. “The guys in the kitchen might not always want to see it, but gay Latinos do exist,” he says. “We always have.”
With his camera rolling, Gustavo pans from the decrepit New Mission Theater marquee to the sidewalk below and cues a drag queen to walk into the shot. Gustavo is directing a 15-minute student film, using the Mission Street location to make his statement. By having the queen walk under the “New Mission” sign — on a busy sidewalk in bright daylight — the filmmaker is trying to create a symbol of a new attitude among gay Latinos. Like the old sign, homosexuality has been around a long time. But being openly gay is still a new concept, and a daring one.
“If two women walked through the Mission holding hands, there would be a lot of stares,” says Debbie. “If it were two men, they'd get beat up.”
Gustavo certainly would like to change the taboo — and the physical risk — that goes with gay life in a Latino setting. But he knows that will take awhile, and until that change comes, Gustavo remains a player in an old and dangerous game.
In the Mission, there is still subtlety, and a mystique, that Gustavo has learned to enjoy. He finds that being gay in a Latino culture does offer one seldom-mentioned consolation: the thrill.
“It keeps you guessing and on your toes. You make eye contact with a cute boy on the street, and you don't know if he's gay. You have to be clever, and figure out if it's worth getting robbed or killed to come on to this guy.
“It can be,” Gustavo says, “kind of hot.