Argentina is awesome in many ways – it has a female President, chocolate croissants on every street corner at all hours of the day and the weirdest haircuts I have ever seen. It also has some of the most progressive and queer-friendly laws in Latin America; same-sex marriage and adoption rights were legalized in 2010, gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military, and with the passing of the “Gender Identity Law” in 2012, adults can legally change their gender and sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy are covered under public and private health care plans.
However, there is no national anti-discrimination law in place and just because the laws are revolutionarily progressive doesn’t mean society is. Depending on where you are, social disapproval can turn into violence and hate crimes. Apart from a few cities, like Buenos Aires, much of the country is simply pampa – grasslands punctuated by the occasional cow or oil well – and here, the rural population is culturally conservative. With a strong Catholic influence and a dose of machismo sexismo, rural areas are generally less accepting of queerness.
I traveled around Argentina for four months this winter with one of my close friends, Ally. She identifies as straight, but I definitely look at the world through some seriously rainbow-tinted glasses. Even so, I found myself often with one hand on the closet door, (auto)straddling the line between cultural sensitivity and gay pride. I tried not to inundate her with gay-gay-gay all the time, but I simply can’t help seeing and thinking gay things – so instead I did what I always do with thoughts I can’t express: I wrote them all down.
A substantial disclaimer to begin, though: my experience is deeply colored by my status as a white-skinned, cis-gendered, feminine-presenting U.S. citizen from a well-educated middle-class family. So I tried to be aware of the role my identity played in the experiences I had. No matter how well I spoke Spanish, I was always an outsider to varying degrees. As a traveler, I was automatically not held to the same standards as Argentine women, and I always had the option of removing myself from the situation; I could retreat to the anonymity of a hostel living room if necessary and I knew that in a few months I’d return to my comfortably queer lifestyle in Denver, CO.
Buenos Aires: I Feel Camaraderie
Buenos Aires’ dark streets glistened with youth and possibility, and most of our nights revolved around an easy camaraderie between travelers. It’s the second-largest city in South America and a popular gay tourist destination; its famous nightlife is home to a myriad of gay bars and clubs, and there is a substantial queer presence on the street.
But even so, it’s not perfect. One night, barreling down the street at five in the morning, I innocently asked a friend (Flavio, a flamboyantly gay man from Rio de Janeiro) what his experience of gayness in Argentina had been. “Oh,” he chirped brightly, “it’s fine to be gay here – somebody only gets beat up every month or so. And even if you do get attacked, they’ll probably just beat you up, not kill you.” He also mentioned that it’s worse for gay men because of the centrality of requisite “macho” male performance. I couldn’t help but shiver at how casual he seemed about the whole thing, like this was just the inescapable way of the world.
We spent most of our time with Flavio, who I mentioned above, and his best girl friend, Lydia. Even though our queer-to-straight-ratio was 1:1, we almost always went to straight clubs (the reasons behind which probably deserve some thinking about). But one evening, Flavio took my hand and led me through shadow-filled alleyways and circular taxi rides to a gay club downtown. Inside, the crowd was mostly men, all dancing somewhat awkwardly to Katy Perry and Britney Spears. I decided to be psyched on principle alone, but in truth, it wasn’t that fun: few people danced together and they spent more time furtively arching their heads to check each other out than appreciating who they were with.
The night was redeemed when Flavio and I went outside – he sensuously smoked a clove cigarette with Jose, a beautiful bisexual man from Venezuela, and we discussed how hard it is to date people who haven’t come out. Two adorable teenage girls sauntered by in ripped shirts and punk make-up and stopped to chat for a while; they were enamored with each other, but their parents didn’t want them to be together. So under the guise of going clubbing with their friends, they strolled the night streets hand in hand. Under the fluorescent club lights, feeling the muffled beat of the music under our feet, there was a lovely feeling of intimacy and understanding between all of us. I’m sure we all experience queerness differently in our own respective lives, but for half and hour, we came together and reveled in all the similarities we did share. Opulently sculptured, decaying apartment buildings loomed over us – “Just like society looms over us,” one of the young girls said emphatically, with a flicker of sadness. But then she looked at her girlfriend and added, “It doesn’t matter, I’d rather be out here with you.” They kissed, then glanced at us and giggled – and went on their sickeningly cute way.
Mendoza: I Feel Ugly
After New Year’s Eve, we’d had enough of the city life and boarded a 20-hour bus for Mendoza. The contrast between this agricultural province and the bright sophisticated lights of Buenos Aires couldn’t be any more extreme. Mendoza is a relatively big city known for good wine and food, but Argentina’s Catholic roots run much closer to the surface here than in Buenos Aires. It is known for being traditional and conservative, even though Mendoza is home to a few different universities. Here, my short hair attracted surprised comments from chatty store clerks and bus drivers: But why would you cut off your hair? Short of having donated it to charity or recently recovering from a serious illness or brain trauma, there could be no possible reason a girl would want to look so “un-pretty.”
Most women have long, long hair that they flick over their shoulders with pride and feminine gender presentation is typically ultra-feminine: high heels, jewelry and make-up are the norm. Ally is tall, with long blonde hair and big blue eyes; she fit in just fine, but I present on the androgynous side of feminine. While in the U.S. I am almost always comfortable with how I look, here I began to feel distinctly ugly. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. “You do you” doesn’t work nearly as well in a place where there are only a few acceptable “yous” to do. And for a while, I felt distinctly isolated – with my eyes peeled for Bieber hair, flannels, and V-necks, at first I disappointedly concluded that Mendoza was an Andean lesbian desert, left queerly high and dry.
But! Never fear, there are lady-loving ladies in every corner of the world. In the depths of my despair, I was surprised and delighted to stumble upon a whole cadre of lesbians: they work security at grocery stores! I saw the first one taking inventory of the fruit aisle (no joke, I swear), and then I turned in a circle and saw them everywhere. I’m sure my eyes widened two inches, and my heat-flushed cheeks darkened another few shades. Seeing them, I felt less alone and less out of place. After that, I developed an inexplicable and insatiable lust for fresh produce at all hours of the day and night. And in moments of insecurity, I tried to remind myself that there is no one standard of beauty, anywhere, any time.
La Reserva: I Feel Awkward
That very evening, I got inspired and convinced Ally to come with me to the city’s lesbian bar, La Reserva. It looked like a strip club from the outside and going in felt a bit like wandering down Alice’s rabbit hole, where you emerge on the other end in some unpredictable netherworld. Inside, one wall was covered with a floor-to-ceiling mural of female burlesque dancers in black leather – but I was puzzled that, in a lesbian bar, their lustful eyes were all pinned on two men centered in the frame. It was all lit in reds and blacks and draped with velvet and cushions, like a 1920s speakeasy. There were dark corners where couples whispered quietly and a big stage at the back. It was dark and confusing, filled with intimidatingly trendy women and murmurs of Spanish. We were a head taller than everyone else, dressed in our best stretched-out traveling clothes and hiking boots; as you can imagine, we stuck out like two sore and sun-burned thumbs.
A short girl with angular hair, heavy boots, and a belly shirt looked us up and down as we walked in the door, and I noticed myself shove my hands into my pockets to make my shoulders sharper, a thing I unconsciously do when I’m nervous. Ally’s type is big, burly, bearded mountain men, and mine is well-dressed ambiguously-gendered women – but nonetheless, I found myself opening the door for her, pulling out her chair, getting her a drink. I found myself performing some butch/femme construction that I would usually never think to do. I wasn’t entirely sure of the roles and expectations at play here, and I realized I felt the same fear I used to feel in gay spaces when I was coming out – that somehow people would see through me, weigh me in an instant, and come to the devastating and irrevocable decision that I am not actually gay enough or good enough to be included. Funny, because it’s not like the Lesbians of Mendoza are some omnipotent worldwide authority – really, I would probably never see any of these people again. But nonetheless, I went to my all-time favorite desperation maneuver: over-performing queerness. Ally, bless her heart, downed whiskey and water with aplomb – all the anxiety I felt didn’t seem to faze her in the least – while I perched (nonchalantly, I hoped) on a bar stool sipping a beer and watching the crowd.
More than half the fabric in that room was plaid, and everyone’s hair had that kind of effortless-looking perfection that tells you it’s not effortless at all, and that I am perennially falling short of. Little groups huddled around the stage, whispering excited rumors or casually lounging; a few solitary bois sauntered with studied casualness through the groups. People lingered and mingled until about 2 am, when there was a short (very short) and impromptu-seeming drag show, and then all of a sudden, in true Argentine fashion, the entire place broke out into a bumping dance club. Strobe lights and disco balls appeared out of nowhere to replace the chairs and couches that had mysteriously vanished and all the women who a second ago were reclining in such a cultured and blasé manner were all of a sudden jumping up and down, busting out dance moves, mixing sultry tango hips with fist pumping and the inevitable three- or four-drink grinding. And despite my nervous beginnings, the night turned out to be great.
Dinner: I Feel – Well, A Lot of Things
We sat at dinner with our host in Mendoza, a gracious and lovely woman who is an administrator at a local university. We were sleeping in her guest bedroom, eating her food, seeing the city on her suggestions and incredibly grateful for her generous hospitality. Without thinking, I mentioned that we had seen lots of gay people in Buenos Aires. She clucked her tongue, and responded with “qué lástima” – oh, what a shame. She told us how disappointed she had been over the past few years to see a few of her students – “beautiful young women” – come out and “become” lesbians. She said it’s been happening disturbingly frequently lately, and that really, if they had just been parented better in their teenage years – if stronger morals had been instilled at the right time – these young people wouldn’t be acting out this way. It was assumed that we agreed, and I grew increasingly uncomfortable and quiet as I took refuge in all that is lost in translation.
I am lucky enough to have grown up in an accepting family in an accepting town; my own internalized homophobia is the worst disapproval I’ve had to experience. Though I know consciously that her words were very minor on the scale of possibilities, to me they were still hurtful, unexpected, and, worst of all, I didn’t challenge them. Though I like to think of myself as brave and assertive these days, I realized then in my silence that it is much harder to be brave when you feel alone, outnumbered, uncomfortable – that is to say, in the instances that it really matters. Even as I tried to explain that where I live it’s not bad to be gay and that we have lots of lesbians, even as I tried to emphasize that being gay is often a non-issue, I still awkwardly tripped over my pronouns: “we” and “us” got converted to “they” and “them,” and “I” just disappeared – poof – altogether. When she asked us if we had boyfriends, I simply said “No, I – um, well I’m not dating anyone right now…” and silently apologized to my beloved girlfriend back home. Why was it so disturbingly easy to renounce her importance in my life just then, when in reality she ran through my head all day?
As an aside, apparently I can pass as straight, but I wonder: how would this conversation have gone if I presented as more masculine – or would it have even come up at all? This ability to “pass” is a loaded privilege, and comes with hardships of its own, and I saw its power that night.
At the time my reaction was simply based on fear and surprise, and I kicked myself for not being more honest and “brave” – I had nothing to lose other than maybe a free place to stay, and maybe I should have used that position to make some other queer Mendoza girl’s coming out just a little easier. But you could also argue that I did the right thing. As an outsider and traveler, it’s not my place to try to change anyone’s mind. I didn’t grow up here, and as a good cultural relativist, I try to respect others’ beliefs just as they are. Seeing other “beautiful young women” come out before hadn’t changed her mind, so my coming out might not have either; on the contrary, it might have invalidated anything pro-gay I did say, and made her feel deeply uncomfortable in her own home.
So where is the line between cultural sensitivity and standing up for causes you believe in, like gay rights? This situation was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but it serves as a mirror for a broader question: at what point does cultural relativism break down? What are the things that we are unwilling to be relative about – what are the things we need to stick up for regardless of the situation? And how do we act upon those ideals in a socially responsible and culturally respectful manner? I am still gnawing on this one, and probably will be for a while; I know that the answer will always be personally and situationally dependent. So I am left without a conclusion or much resolution – just a lot of questions. Any input from you all?