Girl-on-World: Argentina

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.


Flavio, me, my travel partner Ally, and a Venezuelan bisexual man named Jose

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?

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Vivian has written 15 articles for us.


  1. Ah! This is so relevant to my life!
    The weird thing about Argentina is that it is so white European for a South American country, and it is both extremely progressive and yet filled with violence. I’ve been considering moving down there for awhile now, but every time I say that I am thinking about it, the part of my dad’s family that lives down there sends me all of these crime reports that scare the shit out of me.
    But it is so progressive, which is absolutely fabulous. My little cousin, who is sixteen, has been dating a trans guy, who is also sixteen, for awhile now, and I don’t think anybody’s even really batted an eyelash. They’ve been the most vocally supportive of my gayness, as well.
    I just love Argentina, but I wish it’d get it’s violence in check, so that I could run down there and never come back.

  2. “I realized then in my silence that it is much harder to be brave when you feel alone, outnumbered, uncomfortable”

    This is so very true. As a queer anthropology student working in Guatemala, I’m always wrestling with cultural relativism and wanting to be myself. Just the other week, a friend’s father went on a rant about how the US was going downhill because of gay marriage. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “Cause that’s a sin, right?” I felt so scared and alone in that moment. I just wanted to cry. So I answered, “For some people, yes.” I couldn’t agree with him, but I also wasn’t about to change the mind of the head of a rural Maya household just because I was there.

    I think for me the line of cultural relativism is violence. And leading liveable lives (ala Judith Butler). Hate and violence cannot be tolerated with cultural relativism as an excuse.

  3. Thank you for writing this!

    I recently spent about 5 months in Mendoza and it was so lovely to hear another queer perspective on the city! I too felt the who spectrum of emotions – sometimes, like in La Reserva, I was proud, mostly I was a bit uncomfortable because I don’t look like/dress like the typical Mendocina, and sometimes I was even fearful that people would find out I was gay. Where do we make compromises? I found it to be extremely difficult to both live my truth and find a community during my stay. Ultimately I never told many of the “close” friends I made down there because I prioritized not making others uncomfortable over being comfortable myself – I thought “welp, if I just jump back into the closet then there’s no issue, right?” And I never told my host family, which still eats at me a little bit.

    I have been home for about a year now (ended up spending over a year in Latin America) and I am running the same questions through my head as you are. And here is what I have come to: cultural relativism should be respected until it interferes with human rights. Gay rights are human rights, in my opinion, and so I think we have every right to speak up and live our truths. But that’s scary as hell when you feel like you are alone. So while the actual response may be determined by personality/confidence/situation, we should not feel like we HAVE TO compromise in any way – we are human and equal. The option to not compromise is always there, it’s just whether or not we are willing to see the open door AND go through it.

    I don’t if this helps/fully articulates what I am thinking/feeling. I’ve never commented here before – this really hit home. Thanks :]

    Oh, also, I’ll never forget my first supermarket security gay lady sighting. It changed everything :]

  4. It`s so weird to read here about my country!
    I read this article earlier today, and i´ve been thinking about it a lot.
    First, i would like to say that im so glad you visited!
    And second, and in relation of what comes next, that i would have loved to be your “guide” in Buenos Aires queer nigth/day life. I feel that your experience was a bit narrowed by not having some local adviser.
    I don´t know if it´s just me, but i feel like this city is the gayest of them all and I can´t escape the queer crowd even in the straight clubs.
    Also, i was going to said that we as a society are almost over homophobia, like it is old news, but of course not. I realised reading this how little i knoy about the lgtb people in places that aren´t Bs. As. I guess that my life experiences and my friends often make me feel that way, but I imagine is not entirely true everywhere.
    Anyway, i loved the article!
    Kisses from Argentina!

    (pleaaase, pardon my english)

  5. Outing yourself is such a hard decision. I’m about to move to Chile for a year and currently have no idea to what extent I can/could/should be out. Last time I was there a few years ago I wasn’t out back in the UK so it wasn’t an issue but now it’s becoming increasingly impossible to squeeze myself back into that closet.
    Any Chilean perspectives out there?

    • I am also moving to Santiago this year and have no idea how to navigate the queer scene! Lets be friends?

  6. I love how this article captures your experience in Argentina but it also speaks to the struggles of the “you do you” in a place that is not your place. I think that’s a universal truth. How do our public identities change, should they? Nice work, I really enjoyed reading this!

  7. As a Latin American I feel that it is necessary to contribute a little bit of perspective from the Southern Hemisphere. It surprises me to read comments about how Argentine society and the country itself is described as ¨progressive and yet filled with violence¨ without more critical reflection about the United States which is known worldwide as being just as was said, progressive yet shockingly violent. I don’t know what type of violence the author of this article experienced, but it seems to me that the US is not immune to extreme violence, despite recent advances in LGBT rights. Wasn’t it just in May that a gay man was shot in NYC? And what about the murder of Kyra Kruz last year in Philadelphia? Sure, Latin America is undoubtable influenced by religion which leads to a certain amount of conservatism, but I ask myself if the US is really so different in that respect. How is it possible to be so aware of the violence and conservativism in another country without being conscious of the reality lived by so many in your own country? The US is no stranger to crimes motivated by homophobia or other types of social violence, and there are many places, both urban and rural, where gay marriage is considered a sin and where LGBT people stay in the closet out of fear, and not just of physical harm: you can be fired for being gay or trans in more than half of the states. These types of perspectives are what contribute to the imperialist vision characteristic of the United States, based on fear of others and the notion of the superiority of the North American reality (less violent, and more open and progressive, supposedly). I say this as a lesbian, anthropologist and Chilean.

    Side note from her American partner: I feel much safer in Chile and Argentina than I do in most places in the U.S. I can’t even count how many times I felt threatened walking down the street by men in my own country, how many times I’ve crossed to the other side of the road, or stepped into a well-lit store to avoid trouble, just on account of being a woman. Or when I was mugged at gunpoint in Chicago as part of some ridiculous gang initiation, or how some guy shouted at an entire train platform full of people that he would kill them, for no apparent reason, in Manhattan. I have never once feared for my safety in South America. While catcalls are annoying and I get plenty of stares for being a head taller than most of the women here, there has never been even a hint of violence. I’m out to my friends, but not to my boss. And how different is that really?

    • Oh god, you’re right. Definitely didn’t mean to come off as ignorant about America. God, America is so violent and not nearly as progressive as Argentina. BUT I don’t want to move to a place that my family (who are Argentinian, not expats or anything) keep sending me horrifying violence statistics about, and I feel like with my current monetary status, I wouldn’t be able to afford safer places in Argentina. I live in the States currently just because I’m here already, ya know?
      Again: sorry it came off as any other way.

    • I don’t think we can make generalizations of this scope about whether the U.S. or Argentina are “safer” or “more progressive.” Both of these countries are ENORMOUS and socioeconomically diverse. What it’s like to live as a queer woman varies greatly in both countries, from state to state (or province to province), city to city and even neighborhood to neighborhood. I lived in Chicago for 7 years, Buenos Aires for 2 years, and felt about equally safe in both. That said, I lived and worked in fairly affluent, gay-friendly, well-lit neighborhoods in both cities. Would I go to one of the villas in Buenos Aires and make out with my girlfriend there? No. Would I go to certain parts of Chicago’s West side and do that? No.

      And how do we compare violence? I feel like I’m more at risk for getting robbed or mugged in Buenos Aires (anecdotally speaking at least, I can think of 7 friends who have been robbed in the street, 2 whose homes have been burglarized). It’s not always traumatizing or violent, but it does seem to be relatively commonplace. Even my Argentine friends treat it as a fact of life – if you live here long enough, chances are you will get robbed. Where I lived in Chicago, daytime muggings and robberies don’t seem as common, and I don’t have my guard up just walking around, going to the grocery store, etc. However, I’m more afraid of being a victim of violent crime at night (shootings, sexual assault). I feel like my *chances* of being a victim of any type are lower in Chicago, if that makes sense, although the crime might be more severe. Does that make any sense? Those are just my personal experiences in those two cities. One would have a completely different experience other cities or in rural parts of Argentina and the U.S. Basically, what I’m trying to say is I don’t think it’s accurate or fair really to compare any two countries.

      Thank you, Vivian, for writing this piece!

  8. I lived in Buenos Aires for 6 months and visited Mendoza while I was there. I can’t speak too much for Mendoza culture, as while I was there I pretty much just did touristy things and hung out with a bi male friend of mine, who was living there, and all of his gay friends. I didn’t get to see how locals who weren’t queer felt about queer people. However I think even in a place as progressive as BsAs there’s nowhere that’s 100% welcoming.

    While I was there I was actively involved in the queer community and even helped put together and rode in a float for LGBT Afro-Argentines. As I told my host mom about all these activities, I assumed she knew I was queer without me having to tell her directly. A week or two before I left, someone that I knew from one of my activities was on TV talking about the Ley de Identidad y Genero, the one that gave trans people the right to change their ID and that was, at this point, still just a distant goal. My host mom mentioned that her son had a trans woman friend and while describing her she kept referring to her as male and said that while she was very handsome before she transitioned, afterward she was hideous and that “(s)he didn’t look like a woman, (s)he looked like a lesbian.” I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. I just kind of nodded and walked back into my room. Later I told her I was traveling and instead just stayed in a hostel in Buenos Aires for the week.

    Additionally, I got kicked out of a straight club in Buenos Aires (Kika in Palermo Soho) for making out with a girl there. So, you know, as wonderful as Buenos Aires is, I still haven’t found that gay utopia in the world.

  9. Almost my whole family and four generations live in Argentina. As a daughter of two Argentinians living elsewhere I never really had an opinion about other than “Before it was so calm and violence-free, you could drink mate on the veranda, and now you have to be afraid that they might break into your house when you step outside.” I have a cousin who had to run away from his house because he was gay. Apparently he was beat up and his dad denied him. (He know happily lives in uber-gay Netherlands so it’s all good, I guess.) One day, I would like to come out to my family over there, I don’t even know why since I hardly talk to them on the phone, but it’s said to hear mom say “Nah, she doesn’t have a bouyfriend” when an aunt inquires. Anyways, the violence out there isn’t as bad as let’s say, Mexico, but it’s not exactly gay-related.

  10. Hey there! I’m argentinian here :) I find it really interesting that you travelled and wrote about your experience in Mendoza, instead of Buenos Aires, for the most part. It’s refreshing. (And I’m also glad you wrote about Mendoza because I haven’t visited it yet!)
    And yes, in the rest of the country that’s not Bs. As. it’s certainly harder. In fact, I am from a small town from the south and always felt like kind of an outsider; I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there and travel to the capital. And once there, surprise! I realized I was gay, met people, started constructing my own self in ways I hadn’t been able before because of the conservative culture I was surrounded by before.
    Indeed, Argentina is a country of great contrasts. We are only now starting to slowly change for the better. But it kinda feels more like people act progressive because that’s what’s “in” now. Because that’s what the government supports. There’s HELL of a machismo culture here that’s gonna take lots of work in the next generations to change. I’ve been lucky to find and surround myself with aware, kind human beings who work to be even more aware and kind, which is why it’s always a disappointment when I encounter close minded people who continue the macho, rape culture. I have to remember that sadly, that’s a high percentage of the people in the country. And then I tumblr feminist articles FURIOUSLY.
    Anyway, the way you felt was totally understandable. Don’t feel bad because you couln’t stand up against that woman. As you wrote, it wouldn’t have been smart anyway, and it doesn’t mean anything, except that we, as a country, as world, still have a lot of work to do. Thanks for writing this article!

  11. I never really explored the nightlife that much when I was in Mendoza, but when I was there (January ’13) there was graffiti all over that said “Gay/Les Power.” I didn’t really notice any strong attitude one way or the other about LGBT issues (granted, the subject was never really discussed, and I’m pretty sure they assumed I was straight), but no one gave me any grief over my masculinity, and the Argentine women that I befriended were super super nice and treated me like “one of the girls.”
    The gender divide was definitely there (at least in the city of Mendoza), but I didn’t really take any offense to it. Culture is what it is. As a white American who flew halfway around the world to climb a mountain, I’m not in any position to judge the locals’ impressions of or attitudes towards me.

  12. Wow, this article could not have come at a more relevant time in my life. I’ll be headed to Buenos Aires in about a month to spend a semester abroad! I’m from a small town and currently go to school in a less small town, but I’m hoping BA will be a nice change of pace for me. My biggest fear is that I’ll be the only queer person in the program, but I’m hoping to connect with people who aren’t international students while I’m there too.

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