Capital of Queer

Why LGBTQ nightlife is blossoming in Mexico City.

A partier at the Pervert event in Mexico City.
Mexico City’s Pervert is just one of hundreds of parties there making up the vibrant LGBTQ nightlife. Kimberly Mejia for Pervert

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The first thing I hear that confirms we’re not lost is the pulsing beat of music, out of place in the dark and quiet industrial wasteland where our Uber driver dropped us off. We’ve traveled 30 minutes outside of central Mexico City for a party, far from the cobblestone streets and tree-lined avenues of downtown—here, only tall chimneys reach at the night sky.

We walk through the rusted metal gates. A long line has already formed: queer hipsters, club kids, muscle boys in leather. To our left, a huge abandoned factory looms, giant concrete pillars thick as grain silos covered in graffiti, and in a space below, a mass of heaving bodies bathed in red and green light.

Once inside, I walk through the throng of sweaty revelers, past the DJ booth where a drag queen covered in ruby sequins dances on a table. Behind the booth, a man in a gimp mask is tied up in ropes. Down some crumbling stairs is another cavernous space where a bartender serves mezcal, another DJ spins darker tunes—and deep in the shadows, men fuck against the raw concrete.

Called “Pervert,” this party was just one of a hundred wild Saturday nights I’ve had in Mexico City where a combination of empty, crumbling spaces, a vibrant music scene, and a young queer public eager to dance till dawn have created an extraordinary moment for LGBTQ nightlife.

It’s a stark contrast to what’s going on elsewhere in Mexico, where machismo and religious conservatism can make a dangerous mix for queer people: 473 LGBT people were killed across the country between 2012 and 2018, according to local rights group Letra S. Meanwhile, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring project, in the 12 months prior to September 2018, 71 transgender people were murdered in Mexico, the most of anywhere in the world except Brazil.

But despite this (or maybe because of it), Mexico City has become something of a queer oasis. It’s here where LGBTQ people enjoy more rights than anywhere else in the country, and it’s here, especially recently, that we can party like nowhere else in the world.

“A refuge for faggots”

“Mexico City is like this beacon of openness,” says Juan Fortis, a DJ who plays at some of the city’s biggest clubs and parties. “It’s so much fun … I think it will be remembered as like ‘Remember Mexico in the early 2020s?’ Kinda like Paris back in the ’20s.”

Fortis, who is from El Salvador, moved to Mexico City in 2016. Wearing lavender nail polish and a crop top, he explains that he first encountered the city’s queer renaissance at an event called Traición, which was one of the first to host parties outside of mainstream gay clubs. “It was in an art gallery,” he recalls. “A drag queen did a performance: She was eating aubergines and rolling around on the floor.”

At the time, Fortis explains, a lot of established gay clubs had started closing down, and people began throwing parties in unconventional venues. “It gave more freedom,” he says. “It wasn’t in a gay space. We were in a warehouse party, an art gallery, and that started snowballing.”

Among the earliest and most successful of these parties was “Por Detroit,” named both for the American city’s famed music scene and a Mexican slang term meaning “from behind.” The club night was started by Arturo Mejia, a 33-year-old Mexico City DJ, along with a Canadian DJ and producer named Jerren Ronald. Mejia grew up going to clubs and parties, trying to find the best house and techno music the city could offer. But often he found these mostly straight clubs, like a lot of Mexico City, were highly elitist, with prohibitively high covers and a discriminatory door policy. “There were no accessible parties,” he says. “There were some queer parties, but there was still this classism and elitism.”

Gay bars, too, remained prejudiced, particularly toward trans women. “A trans person couldn’t even go into a gay club,” says Roshell Terranova, a trans activist, actress, and club owner. “They’d give you a thousand excuses.”

Mejia wanted to start something different, where anyone could enjoy world-class music and not feel excluded either by a racist bouncer, a transphobic door policy, or a steep cover charge. “We wanted to create our own space,” he says. “A refuge for faggots who didn’t have a lot of money and could still have a great time.”

As well as its strict non-discrimination door policy, trans people and drag queens are exempt from “Por Detroit’s” entry fee, which is usually only around $5-$10 anyway, and anyone who can’t afford the ticket price is welcome to write to the organizers beforehand and get in for free. A number of other queer parties in the city have similar policies.

For trans women, who are among Mexico’s most discriminated social groups, these kinds of explicitly inclusive policies can make a big difference: A 2016 study of trans people in Mexico City found that more than three-quarters of those surveyed had experienced social rejection. “It’s very important,” says Terranova. “Because it’s making us feel welcome. It means there’s inclusion. Plus, they know we have pull.”

Events like “Por Detroit” are also deliberately sex-positive, something which Mejia says they emphasize to their security team. “We explain to them that there are going to be a shitload of people fucking, we have a darkroom, respect it,” he says. “You can be on the dance floor, go and fuck, give a quick blowjob, and get back to the party.” As a result, these club nights are diverse, wonderfully queer, and totally wild.

“A dystopian fantasy land”

The last “Por Detroit” party I went to was in an abandoned, 17th-century mansion in downtown. A different DJ played on every floor, and in each crumbling room, a live performance or art installation took place: an androgynous naked dancer writhing in front of a TV, a drag queen putting on her makeup in slow motion, a whole room tied up in rope.

But while temporary queer utopias of great music and hot sex are easily found in Mexico City these days, they can only exist because of the capital’s sprawling urban space—which, despite housing over 21 million people, remains filled with empty, decaying buildings.

“You can find great spaces here,” says Foris, the DJ. “Abandoned hotels, abandoned prisons, abandoned warehouses, and then you can make it whatever you want.” Mexico’s culture of graft and lax regulation helps too, according to Mejia. “It’s a lot easier to corrupt the law,” he says. “These parties are itinerant, and they’re done that way because it makes it much easier not to pay taxes or permits.”

This kind of subversive, unapologetically queer, and bacchanalian nightlife often draws comparisons to Berlin in the ’90s, when a litany of abandoned industrial spaces and a strong countercultural attitude created a legendary party scene. But if you suggest the idea to many locals, you’ll probably be met with an eye-roll. “It annoys a lot of people,” says Fortis. “People that get to compare this to Berlin comes from people that have traveled, that have the privilege to do that.”

And as queer historian Michael Schuessler told me, such comparisons don’t take into account the realities of this megalopolis, which, for most people outside of the hipster bubble of neighborhoods like Roma or Condesa, remains a difficult and dangerous city to live in. “Berlin doesn’t have a majority living below the poverty line,” he says. “This is a fantasy land, a dystopian fantasy land.”

Mexico City being an epicenter of gay nightlife is also nothing new, says Schuessler. From the countercultural scene in the 1950s, to the gay rights movement in the ’70s, and the boom of gay nightlife in the Zona Rosa of the early ’90s, this has constantly been a core of queer life. What’s changed more recently is that Mexico City’s LGBTQ community has been given explicit political endorsement: In 2010, both gay marriage and adoption became legal here, the first jurisdiction in Mexico to do so. The local government has also enacted strict non-discrimination laws and in 2015, officially declared the capital an “LGBTTI Friendly City.” What was once a countercultural movement is now official government policy.

“The city became a very liberal place,” says Schuessler. “It became a mecca, as Mexico City had always been.”

“We wanted to create a temple”

The city’s pro-LGBTQ public policy has drawn gay and trans people from around the country and across Latin America, where being queer can be much more difficult, if not deadly. Here in the relatively open capital, they’ve helped build a vibrant queer scene. “Culturally, there is that feeling of freedom in the air,” says Fortis. “You see it with PDA in the streets. I remember I saw this publicity in the metro that said ‘Everybody has the right to express their love.’ The city is telling you that.”

However, despite steps forward for some queer people, Mexico City can still be an unfriendly and even dangerous environment.

“There are a lot of LGBT places, but many of them are exclusive or separatist,” says Ali Gua Gua, a DJ and activist who’s lived in the city for 25 years. “They don’t let women in or don’t let trans people in. Or they have a VIP section, which is counterproductive to inclusion or diversity.”

That’s why, a year and a half ago, Gua Gua decided to open a new bar with her wife, Diana Torres. Called La Cañita, the tiny bar serves seafood and feminism in equal measure, attracting a mixed crowd of mostly queer women, but also everyone from hipsters to new parents. “We wanted to create a temple,” says Torres. “Where people could come and feel comfortable, which wouldn’t be a place of exclusion.”

Its inclusive nature hasn’t spared the bar from problems, however. A couple of weeks ago, two neighbors in the rougher Doctores area stormed into the bar demanding free drinks. Torres at first acquiesced in a show of neighborly goodwill—she and Gua Gua had deliberately set up shop in this neighborhood to show that queer spaces could exist anywhere. But when the men grew drunk, and Torres refused to serve them more drinks, things got violent.

“He said that if I didn’t have sex with him that he was going to go to his house, get a gun, and shoot up my bar,” she says. “ ‘What would you prefer—that we fuck, or I kill everyone?’ ” The neighbors started beating up one of Torres’ trans friends. Torres and some of the other patrons stepped in, and it became an all-out brawl. “The next day, when we lifted the blinds, it was a carpet of broken glass and puddles of blood,” Torres says. Later that night, someone came and set fire to the palm awning outside the bar. “In a city like this, you’re always close to violence,” says Gua Gua. “But there’s almost always an economic motive. Here, it was really hatred that incited the punches.”

Despite the violence, Torres and Gua Gua are determined to keep the bar and its ethos of diversity going. A little over a week after the attack, La Cañita reopened for a night in an act of defiance, but also in a plea of solidarity to their loyal clientele. As the sun set into a brilliant orange ball through the Mexico City haze, the bar filled up, patrons of all types spilling out onto the street: butch women in cargo pants, femme gay boys in flowing blouses, straight girls smoking cigarettes.

“That’s what I want to see again,” said Torres, looking out at the crowd. “My gay friend dancing with that other chick. A straight married couple with their baby next to some drag queens putting on her nails and an older lady dancing with some gay boy. For me, those are the signs that we achieved exactly what we wanted.”