restricted access De Ambiente : Queer Tourism and the Shifting Boundaries of Mexican Male Sexualities
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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8.1-2 (2002) 139-166

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De Ambiente
Queer Tourism and the Shifting Boundaries of Mexican Male Sexualities

Lionel Cantú


The coastal regions all around the country are noted for their sensual ambience. Perhaps it's the heat but just about anywhere there's a beach and a city there's action. Acapulco, Cancún, Vallarta, Mazatlán, and Veracruz are all hot, and so are the men.

--Eduardo David, Gay Mexico

Do you know Mexico?" coyly poses the opening page of Mexico's official tourist Web site. 1 Do you? Perhaps not. This is not a Mexico of social inequality, economic turmoil, indigenous uprisings, and mass emigration. No, this is a different Mexico--a sexy Mexico. Additional headers entice the reader to "come, feel the warmth of Mexico," where "beaches are such as moods: bays that with happy smiles, beaches that spread in straight line, as to remind its steadiness, female beaches, smooth and with cadence, frisky beaches, that open and close, decline and go up" (grammatical errors in original). The sexual imagery of the Web site leaves the (presumably heterosexual) reader with a coquettish frustration and a desire for more than a virtual tour can provide. While it may seem otherwise, Mexico's flirtation with tourists is not limited to straight travelers. In fact, the nation has become a major destination of gay and lesbian tourists, particularly Americans, in a growing global tourism industry. In turn, its ambiente [homosexual subculture] is undergoing its own transformation, intimately linked to queer tourism. 2

The purpose of this essay is to examine two sides of queer tourism "south of the border": the development of gay and lesbian tourism in Mexico and the effects of this industry on Mexican sexualities. I should state up front that I refer to "gay and lesbian tourism" as an identity-based industry and to "queer tourism" [End Page 139] as a larger market that encompasses a multitude of identities, including both native and foreign heterosexuals, bisexuals, and transgenders. I argue that in the relationship between gay and lesbian tourism and Mexican sexualities, dimensions of both sexual colonization and liberation are at work. Furthermore, I assert that to understand Mexican sexualities, we must move away from one-dimensional cultural models and examine these sexualities from a more complex and materialist perspective that recognizes that culture, social relations, and identities are embedded in global processes.

Between 1997 and 2000, in Mexico and the United States, I collected oral histories from more than thirty men and ethnographic field data for a larger research project on the relationship between sexuality and migration among Mexican men. 3 In addition, I have collected and analyzed archival data on Mexican tourism in general and on gay and lesbian Mexican tourism in particular, such as travel guides, magazines, and material posted on Web sites. In my original project I focused on the experiences of men so as to examine closely the multiple intersecting dimensions, including gender, that shaped their lives. 4 Thus in this essay I am conscious of the multiple ways in which gender shapes gay and lesbian tourism in Mexico, but my ethnographic data are limited by the design of my original project, which focused on Mexican men who have sex with men (MSM). 5 My intent is not to reproduce lesbian invisibility with this essay but to acknowledge and address the limitations of this research.

Although my original research focused on migration in a stricter sense, I soon realized that tourism was not only an important factor in the lives of the men I interviewed but a form of migration itself (in a broader sense of the word). While my ancestry is Mexican, I myself am not; I am Chicano. Thus, although my purpose in Mexico was entirely academic, I was a visitor, an outsider--in a word, a tourist. Despite the voyeuristic tendencies of both, there is a difference between my roles as ethnographer and tourist that is relevant to this essay...