In Mexico, the fiesta de Quinceañera marks a girl's fifteenth birthday and is often celebrated with her first application of make-up, permission to dance, and an elaborate party. According to the panel of writers speaking at the King Juan Carlos Center at New York University on Sept. 21, 2011, Mexico's LGBT community is enjoying a similar transition, but any celebration marking the huge strides in legal equality should be a careful one because the safety of those who are out in Mexico is not yet guaranteed.
The subject of the evening was the recent publication of a book celebrating the contributions of gay artists and writers to Mexican culture. The title of the book, México se escribe con J (Mexico spelled with a J), was explained by one of the panelists, Michael Schuessler, Professor of Humanities, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico City, who is also the book's co-editor.
"It's a play on words that has to do with the historical argument about the spelling of the word 'Mexico.' Some reactionaries wanted the j instead of the x. The letter j or jota is also a pejorative term for gays in Mexico. Supposedly, this comes from the time of the Bal (an infamous 1901 gay party, at which half of the men were dressed as women, raided by the police of Mexico City.) When all the attendees were brought to the jail, they were imprisoned in the "J" wing. Some disagree with this explanation and say that the "jota" refers simply to the Jack in a deck of cards."
Schuessler also spoke about the gay symbology of the number "41" in Mexican culture. He said: "According to urban legend, there were 42 attendees at the Bal, but the one not arrested was discovered to be the son-in-law of the police chief. Other reports say that the one person not imprisoned was found to be a woman and therefore released. '41' became the equivalent of 'fag.' There was no 41st Division in the military, no room number 41 in a hotel, and you never turned 41 - you simply skipped it and turned 42."
Schuessler and the other speakers, author Nayar Rivera and Alejandro Varderi, CUNY Professor of Hispanic Studies, acknowledged the fact that the 1901 Bal is frequently referred to as Mexico's Stonewall, but they said that the comparison is not accurate. The 1901 Bal served to make the gay community in Mexico finally visible, but it did not usher in a liberation. Those among the arrested who could not buy their way out of prison were sent to the Yucatán (supposedly for military service), where they were forced to labor as ditch diggers.
The panel was emphatic about the purpose of the book, México se escribe con J regarding the role of gay artists and writers in Mexican culture. Professor Varderi said, "Even in the Mexican literature of the 19th century, you will find gay themes and gay characters. It's time to appreciate the contributions of gay writers fully. Progress has been made, but there is much to accomplish in terms of recognition. Look at Mexican TV. There have been many gay characters, but they are still most often depicted as inferior people." Schuessler agreed, as did Rivera, who added, "Recently, there have been more and better gay characters on Mexican TV."
The panelists also spoke of Mexico's moving beyond a time of seeing gay men only as "muxe" [men who preferred to take up the typical household roles of women] who were expected to take care of their mothers in the context of the traditional Catholic family.
The panelists agreed that there is a significant difference between Mexico City and most of the other parts of Mexico, at least with regard to LGBT rights. Same-sex marriage became legal in Mexico City in August of 2010. On the books, Mexico City has become surprisingly liberal in terms of marriage and adoption rights, the decriminalization of gay sex and marijuana, and the equalization of the age of consent. On the other hand, while there is no official prohibition of gays in the Mexican military, Mexico is not listed among the countries that permit equal service because Mexican soldiers face seriously negative consequences if they are identified as gay. Also, Mexico has the second highest rate of hate crimes - Brazil is first - in the world.
The panel acknowledged that the book México se escribe con J arrives at a time when Mexico is experiencing what Rivera called a "queer boom," but it also covers the reality that this is not the end, but rather the beginning, of the road to LGBT equality for a country steeped in the homophobic traditions of machismo and Roman Catholicism. In a phrase, "cautiously optimistic and diligently working for equality" seems to best describe the LGBT community of Mexico.
A version of this report appears in the current issue of 10ThousandCouples