Why Machismo Can Be Deadly For Gay Latinos

The adulation of traditional masculinity causes many Latino men who have sex with other men to lead hidden lives.

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Machismo, that aggressive masculine pride common to a number of cultures, pressures many men who have sex with other men to refuse to identify themselves as gay. This tension between identity and reality can be incredibly detrimental to the Latino community. In fact, it can be deadly.

Roberto, 27, a former supervisor of two gay bathhouses in Chicago said that there was a very large contingent of “heterosexual” Latino customers at these establishments. “Bathhouses are used as outlets for them. Many men came to take a break from work. A lot of them were older. They were men like our dads.” During his employment at one of the bathhouses, an older Latino man died in a steam room. His wife and son arrived confused and hurt. “They didn’t know he was gay, so they took out their frustration on us.”

This contradiction, and the attendant secrecy, causes depression and isolation in closeted men. They have to compartmentalize their lives, which causes barriers within themselves as well as between them and their loved ones. “It causes confusion for their families. It also exposes them to risks,” Roberto says. “Some men may take out their frustration by abusing their families.”

Andrés Duque, 44, editor of the blog Blabbeando, gives an example from the Dominican Republic: “It's probably one of the most homophobic countries in Latin America although there are some signs that this might be changing. But, culturally, you see the figure of the ‘bugarrón,’ a guy who is straight but will sleep with men for money, emerge as an identity. And you see some Dominican men adopt that identity proudly and the masculinity that it supposedly carries with it whereas they would never call themselves gay or bisexual.”

In Latino culture, passive partners are often derisively called puto, joto and maricón (all roughly translate to “fag”) while active partners are called mayate, chichifo, chingón (“penetrator,” “male prostitute,” “fucker”), labels that are derogatory but less stigmatized. Passives are seen as having “abdicated their masculinity,” while actives often still consider themselves to be straight.

La Cueva, a popular Latino gay bar, also known as the oldest Latino drag bar in the country, is frequented by many straight-identified married men. The club is located in Little Village, a working-class Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. The bar was established in 1972, but in the early '80s, Ketty Teango began organizing drag shows because she wanted to provide that kind of entertainment for Chicago’s Latino community. In an interview with author Achy Obejas, Teango describes the La Cueva customers: “Sometimes it was a real honest-to-god exploration of their sexuality, with a certain timidity to it. They'd go in there and pick up men to perform sex acts on them--but they wouldn't perform acts [themselves], so they could tell themselves they didn't have this identity."

On a busy Saturday night, I was able to go backstage and talk to one of the performers. In the cramped, mirrored room, a few transgender women were getting dressed in their elaborate outfits and applying their final touches of makeup. Colorful fabrics were strewn on the counters and on the floor. I spoke to Vanessa Dorantes, a dark, pretty performer in a provocative red dress who has worked at La Cueva for 10 years. She said she came from a small ranch in Mexico where this kind of lifestyle was not accepted. At La Cueva, she and other transgender women are able to make a living by waiting tables and performing.

When I asked her about the effects of machismo on closeted married men, she said, “It’s a trauma for their families. It’s a trauma to live a double life, to feel different but not be able to express yourself. And some of those consequences we’re living now. The good thing is that things are changing.” She noted that there has been a decline in gay bashing outside of the club over the years. The diverse crowd that night reflected changing attitudes, with both gay and straight couples on the dance floor.  

Roberto says, “I think it’s a generational issue. This won’t be a problem 40 years from now.” He believes that programs for gay Latinos may help change attitudes, but only if participants have the option to be anonymous because so many men are afraid to be exposed. He thinks a hotline may be helpful since that would offer complete anonymity.

Ideally, a dialogue about different forms of sexuality would also be included in mandatory sex education. Since this is not yet a reality, culturally appropriate youth outreach is critical in addressing this issue. By reaching boys in their formative years, they may prevent future repressions of sexuality. The Chicago-based organization CRU (Committed, Responsible, United) serves gay, bisexual and curious Latino and African American men aged 13-24. CRU offers support groups and one-on-one counseling where men discuss sexual health, relationships, self-esteem, coming out, and the prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Programs like this literally save lives by providing the emotional support required to face a traditionally homophobic culture and teaching young men how to practice safe sex.  

Andres Duque says, “Our culture sometimes pushes them away from it by not acknowledging the full spectrum of male sexuality— or human sexuality for that matter—and painting anything that does not conform to the heterosexual norm as being evil, sinful and bad.” The insidiousness of machismo is manifested when individuals feel they must lie to themselves, their families and society. In this situation, everyone suffers.

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Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago.