Feelings run strong in this administration about foreign countries. During the campaign, one country – and its people – especially stood out. We had to wonder: what is Mexico really like? I decided to take a leap of faith and travel from our nation’s capital to that one to find out.
As my plane glided over the border, nothing much changed, though this was at 40,000 feet up. The dry, sun-baked landscape below did not turn into some kind of crime-infested morass, and there was certainly no wall. It remained to be seen what ground-level looks would be like, but regardless, I was on a journey to discover and explore Mexico City and its culture, nightlife, leisure activities, and yes, gay scene.
As the waning days of President Barack Obama’s term came to a close, so did my time working for that administration. I had life decisions to make. Should I stay in the capital city and become part of the opposition? Find an opportunity in the private sector and forget about politics? Leave the city entirely and live on the beach? Most importantly, where should I take my post-administration vacation?
After nixing New York (too close!), Montreal (too cold!), and London (I’m on a budget here), I decided on the biggest close city that, until recently, many had overlooked — Mexico City.
Having served the government in our capital city, I felt it only logical to visit our neighbor’s. A sprawling metropolis of 25 million people, Mexico City’s enormity is hard to fathom, even more so coming from our cozy town of less than a million residents. But landing on the New York Times list of 52 places to visit in 2017, and having friends willing to lend a couch, I decided to set off south of the border.
While the previous administration had promoted “pivot to Asia” policies, the current administration has been laser-focused on revisiting our relationship with Mexico, having called Mexicans “criminals” and vowing to separate our two countries with a wall it wouldn’t pay for. Firsthand research was the only way to dig to the bottom of what Mexico is really like.
I had assistance in my discoveries, of course. Two friends from Washington, D.C. currently call Mexico City their home, and graciously hosted me as I set out on my fact-finding mission. By day, we would explore the famed museums, pyramids, and cultural icons. In the evening, we would turn to other sights.
Our cities have much more in common than you might expect. Mexico City, much like D.C., is not a state (Mexico has 31 of those). The city was, until recently, known as DF, or Distrito Federal (Federal District), and was very much underrepresented politically on the national level.
Just last year, however, an earthquake of political autonomy arrived. Through years of activism, the city is now known as CDMX, or Ciudad de Mexico, and is treated similarly to the states of Mexico. It has achieved statehood, although by a different name, and the representation is just as sweet. Certainly something the D.C. City Council may look into.
Mexico at large, a traditionally and strongly Catholic country, is certainly more conservative than its capital city, where the legislative body has had a left-leaning majority for several sessions. To that end, CDMX has passed various and wide-ranging progressive statutes, even including more open abortion policies. It also legalized same-sex marriage.
After several years of debate in the assembly, Mexico City’s government finally passed a civil unions bill legalizing same-sex partnerships in 2006. A mere three years later, at the end of 2009, Mexico City passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. (We may also remember that the District of Columbia also passed its own gay-marriage law that same year). The law, unsurprisingly unpopular with some conservative sectors, was sent for judicial review – but was deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court.
In that political atmosphere, Mexico City’s gay culture has thrived. There has been a Pride parade for more than three decades, and openly gay politicians have served in the legislative assembly. Although mass media has been slow in its representation of non-comic-relief gay characters, this too is changing. Of course, the city itself, a fabulous and extraordinary agglomeration of baroque excess, gleaming modernism, and gritty streetscape, simply screams gay.
Given the size of Mexico City, the scope of its scene is also almost too hard to handle. It would be folly to attempt to capture all of it. Its most famous gay neighborhood, Zona Rosa, boasts dozens of bars within a tight five-block space. Cafes and restaurants in some of the hipper hipster ‘hoods attract gays as well, outside strictly gay-only establishments. This column, as did I on my visit, will focus on places within three central neighborhoods: Zona Rosa, Roma/Condesa, and Polanco.
Zona Rosa is undoubtedly the most famous (or perhaps infamous) gay neighborhood in Mexico City. It was the first gayborhood, and still lays claim to being the largest and most popular. Once pretty, now a bit gritty, it’s most certainly the destination for the young bargoer set on the weekends. It’s unpretentious and non-judgmental, and all types flock to its bars, waiting in lines that snake down the sidewalk to pay mere $3 covers. Bars with alluring names like Papi, Lollipop, and Kinky call.
Kinky’s tri-level setup offers first-floor karaoke, second-floor DJs, and third-floor gyrations: dancers with increasingly less clothing take to tiered stages for dance sets. It’s packed and hot, and drinks are easier to be had on lower levels, though the bartenders are shirtless regardless of where they stand. It also boasts a terrace to suck in a breath of air between sets. Boy Bar, across the street, has a similar setup. Other bars focus on drag performances and over-the-top cabaret, ranging from the offbeat to the semi-professional.
Zona Rosa is all encompassing. Younger partygoers, bears, and hipsters rub elbows among bingo nights and performances. The party spills out into the street, glances exchanged, pizza eaten. The bars stay open very, very late. It’s as safe of a public space as there may be, surrounded by those who also seek refuge and a comfortable atmosphere in which to express themselves in the evening. It’s also suggested that the last car on the subway train that passes through Zona Rosa is called the “happiness car,” where riders get a bit friendly. I was unable to confirm.
On the other end of the spectrum is Polanco. An upscale, leafy, tree-lined neighborhood of well-heeled businessmen and government officials with streets named for famous intellectuals, it may not be the most obvious district for gays to gather. But indeed, a couple famous clubs have found themselves here, nestled into quiet corners. As you may imagine, crushed-velvet ropes line the sidewalks out front.
The tony crowd spends its evenings here after dinner in one of the modern restaurants along the main drag of Masaryk Street nearby. Envy is one of these posh clubs, open on Fridays; Guilt is the Saturday event; and Saint is open both nights. Both require $20 covers and fill up quickly after midnight. The music is a modern mix of pop and electric, depending on the DJ. Both maintain a lounge-y vibe, with spacious booths and low lighting. Most close at 6 a.m., leaving plenty of time for dancing. Polanco is the new destination for an exclusive, swanky night out.
Perhaps right in the middle is Roma/Condesa. This bustling, developing district is attracting the hipsters and yuppies, with historic buildings, high-end dining, galleries, sidewalk art sales, and taco trucks all sharing the street. The bars here are much more relaxed, best for people watching and cocktail sipping. There’s plenty of swank to go around this neighborhood as well, given its up-and-coming nature. You can also find a couple saunas and bathhouses here. One exception is Tom’s, the most well-known leather and bear bar that sees its best business on Tuesdays.
Similarly, the downtown and historic Central neighborhood is also gaining traction as a gay destination, as the community moves away from its former stronghold in Zona Rosa to become a less isolated, more integrated community.
Vibrant and complex, Mexico City’s fascinating juxtapositions make it one of the most exciting cities to visit, especially as a gay traveler. While we have plenty in common, D.C. and its southern sister can also certainly learn from each other. The best way to do so: firsthand cultural interchange. From the D.C. gay hangouts of Northwest, it’s time to look south.