MEXICO CITY — Bright neon lights twinkle from bars and clubs on the otherwise dimly lit streets of the Mexican capital's trendy Zona Rosa district. Same-sex couples embrace lovingly in public or hold hands without drawing so much as a raised eyebrow.
Only one word describes this place, 21-year old Antonio Flores said: freedom.
"It's really hard to be gay in the smaller, more conservative states within Mexico," said Flores, an aspiring actor and model. "I moved to Zona Rosa not just for my career but also for a chance to finally try and be accepted within my community."
For Flores and countless other gay people, the Zona Rosa's urban, chic appeal — complete with fashionable restaurants, gay bars and swank boutiques — has become a haven in a country and a culture that long have rejected homosexuality and shunned homosexuals.
Gay activists say that even though laws are improving in relatively more liberal places such as Mexico City — where legislators passed a law two years ago recognizing same-sex marriages — many are still reluctant to acknowledge their sexual orientation publicly.
"Homophobia is engrained in all different parts of our culture," said Manuel Herrera, a lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender activist leader within Amnesty International.
Thus Mexico City's Zona Rosa district has become for many what New York's Greenwich Village was in the 1950s, a destination for gays attempting to escape parts of Mexico where anti-gay violence and discrimination are still common.
Flores came to the Zona Rosa three months ago from Hidalgo, a small state on Mexico's east coast where he'd endured years of abuse in his native town, he said.
"For many years, I was afraid to come out of the closet, because this lifestyle is not condoned or accepted by any means," he said.
Yet, Flores said, even in the Zona Rosa, things are far from perfect. Many still choose the "closeted gay life" and are "playing it both ways."
"Right now, being gay is the hip thing to do, so a lot of people just dabble and try things out," he said. "But when it comes down to being honest with themselves about their feelings or preferences, they take the easy route and claim to be straight."
Herrera said that machismo and discrimination against homosexuals were difficult to escape in Mexican culture, even in areas such as La Zona.
"Yes, the laws have improved for Mexico City, but that doesn't change people's attitudes or dissolve the predominance of machismo within our culture," Herrera said.
In November 2006, Mexico City legislators approved La Ley de Sociedad de Conveniencia, a law that recognized same-sex marriages within the federal district. In the United States, four states now recognize same-sex marriages: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine and Massachusetts. It will become legal in Vermont on Sept. 1, and a measure has passed the legislature in New Hampshire.
Despite the new law in Mexico City, however, many gays are still reluctant to acknowledge their homosexuality, and as a result, a subculture of "closeted gays" persists.
Daniel Lund of The Mund Group, a public-opinion polling firm, calls Mexico City an exception, "a bastion of social liberalism" in a society where the Roman Catholic Church still shapes views on social issues.
"You have a very secular modern society in Mexico City," Lund said. "Full of Roman Catholics with fairly moderate ideas."
Jonathan Perreda, a 20-year-old computer-software specialist, said that he'd been a devout Catholic his entire life. The church, he said, generally disapproves of homosexuality, but he said he'd been accepted because he'd maintained his gender identity.
"Just because I'm gay does not mean I have to act like woman," Perreda said. "You were born a man, so you should act like one."
Herrera said that machismo remained prevalent in Mexico, even within the gay community. He said there was a difference between being classified as "gay" and being "homosexual."
"Being homosexual is just having the preference to be with the same sex," he said, "but to be gay is to be involved in it politically, which most people don't want to do."
However, Herrera added, because of the stigmas attached to both, many avoid labels altogether. This causes concern about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
"They don't consider themselves gay, but will have relations with the same sex one night and go back and have relations with someone of the opposite sex the next night," Herrera said. "Many times, these individuals are not being safe, and they aid in the spread (of) HIV and AIDS."
According to a study by The American Foundation for AIDS Research released last year at a global AIDS conference in Mexico City, gay and bisexual men in Latin America are 33 percent more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population is. In Mexico, 26 percent of men who'd sex with men had HIV, the highest rate in Latin America.
Herrera said the root of closeted homosexuality in Mexico was the ideological dichotomy in the country.
"The truth is, despite advancements, homosexuals in Mexico are not yet free," he said. "Those who maintain themselves in the same safe circle of friends may feel free, but the moment they begin to branch out, they'd begin to see the discrimination that still exists ... even in Mexico City. ... Not everyone wants to deal with that."
(Joaquin is a student at Penn State University. This story was reported from Mexico City for a class in international journalism.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009