May 4, 2017

Not Easy Being Poor and Gay in Columbia






This article was originally published on VICE Colombia.

"To the dance floor, please!" the soldier told Gustavo.*

It was a rather strange request—the bar was empty; the woman tending it was doing math on a notepad while biting her pen. Gustavo had arrived early to reserve a good table for his friends.

The bar was in a small village in Colombia's Antioquia Province. While the village itself is very spread out—as big as two football stadiums combined—the town center, where the bar was located, is no bigger than six blocks long and two blocks wide. The total population is less than 2,500. Gustavo tells me now that it was normal to become a regular at the only nightclub; in the main square, there are only two taverns, where old men go to play pool.

The soldier was a "manly man" merely out drinking, Gustavo says, with no gun on him and no superiors present. Encouraged by the fictitious power of his uniform, he asked Gustavo, one of the most visible and publicly known gay guys in town, to accompany him out on the dance floor.
 
At first, it seemed like a fantasy. In a small Colombian village like this, every family has a gay member, many of whom have their first escapades while still in the closet. The soldier could merely be exploring.

"Get on the dance floor," he continued. "I have to search you, faggot."

All fantasy evaporated when he used that word, with that tone. Gustavo tells me that the soldier asked him to turn around and spread his legs. He started frisking him—Gustavo, who was at the nightclub so frequently that he'd basically become part of the furniture. The woman behind the bar knew something was off, but she couldn't see clearly between the curtains that separated the tables and the dance floor. The soldier's request turned into an order after Gustavo asked why he was being searched. "This faggot!" he replied, as he began patting him down angrily.

"I became very nervous," Gustavo says. We're sipping on rum in a café in front of the village's only church, just across the street from where it all happened. "Obviously I had to let him do it, and that's the hardest part. I felt powerless. I couldn't go home and talk about it—I just had to lay low after and remain silent."

"That son of a bitch!" he continues. "When men do that, it's because…"
 

He doesn't know how to finish that sentence. If heterosexual men say they don't understand women, then we gay men really don't know what to say about straight men in Colombia—with their wanton violence, rough games, football, boxing, locker rooms, and drunken nights, often with a fondling hand under the table.

"They end up giving in," he says, as the ears of people sitting nearby perk up.

I'm in my father's hometown for Easter; the rest of the village is out commemorating Jesus's crucifixion at mass. But as a gay urbanite, I wanted to know what it was like to be gay and out in a tiny village—so I'm chatting with Gustavo.

"They have a bit of liquor and they get uninhibited," Gustavo continues. "Then they start to break, and start looking for you. At the beginning of the party they get distracted and forget, but late at night, they ask you where to go."

These "straight" men, under cover of alcohol, aren't always so straight. "And we have to sneak into the alleyways," he says. "We have to run and get muddy, and then I come home a complete mess."

Gustavo says that once, many years ago, he hooked up with the owner of the same bar where he was frisked. Gustavo is 40 now, but he was quite young when the owner started hitting on him.

"I would come [to the bar], buy something, and he would touch my hand. He was really nice to me, and I've always liked older guys," Gustavo says. "One day—I don't remember how—he dragged me [outside] and we made out. I said to myself, I need to make this happen.' Then, another day, his wife wasn't home and I went [back] with him. Afterwards, he pretended he didn't know me. Sometimes I would stay out until really late hoping it would happen again."

"Did his wife find out?" I ask.
 
"Not with me, but she did with others," he says. "I ended up befriending her, but only after he got involved with another young guy here. I got really angry, because she cried and felt really bad. She told me, if it had been a woman—but a man… and such a young guy…"

"Apparently he and the young guy were in love, and it became very public here," he says. "So they got a divorce and she left. He stayed in town, but the pressure was difficult, and eventually he also had to leave after [living] here his entire life. It's the gossip, the looks from ladies in the town, the priest… all of that matters."

Gossip is something we gay Colombian men have to carry with us throughout our entire lives. It stabs you every time someone makes a little joke or laughs in your direction. That's why, in order to fuck in peace, there's sometimes no alternative beyond going into the woods, where nobody can watch, listen or judge. There are no moral prejudices in the woods. The Colombian countryside—while at times a hostile, lonely place for a gay man—can also make for quite a nice, open field to gay it up.

When he was younger, Gustavo remembers, he and his classmates would take school field trips to swim in the river, where guys had circle jerk sessions and fondled each other underwater.

"Sometimes you don't see them as being macho, since they allow so much to happen," he says. "That happens a lot in these small towns, where all the boys play rough games like football and tease you because you don't have the skills to play or because of your mannerisms. That's when I thought— when I finish school here, I'll leave in search of a new world and other things."

When he was 19, Gustavo went to study at a technical school in Medellín, Colombia's second largest city. Heading there from the mountains of Antioquia was like moving from rural Arkansas to San Francisco. He went out to the gay dive bars downtown—"Underwear Street," as it's known to locals, for its racy window displays—and he was actually scared. Gustavo, who stuck to drinking, saw people snorting coke and smoking weed there, and felt it was a lot to handle. 

"Every weekend we would go to a new place, and I had such a small town mentality. A whole new world opened up for me in Medellín," Gustavo says. "I wouldn't drink that much because I was too busy observing. I'd never seen men kiss or dance together before. It took a long time before I could dance with another guy. I took it slow, and I was careful. But yes, what many of us want is to go wild in the city."

Gustavo has since left Medellín; he now manages businesses in other small towns, and only returns to Antioquia to visit, where he'll hang out with former girlfriends and other friends. He says some ladies in town have given him a bad reputation, accusing him of being a pervert, partying too much. He believes there issue is that he's a proud gay man, rather than some closeted sodomite who winds up married with children.

Right before we finish our last glass of rum, I ask him what it was like to be a gay man in a small town. He says it depends—it's one thing to be closeted and another to be a gay man who left, succeeded, and made money. Just like one of his friends who moved to Europe. Every time they visit, they team up and take over the town.

"The first time he came he just flaunted his money and his sexuality," Gustavo says. "Every guy who got in his car threw themselves at us. And I told him, ‘My God, I thought everyone in this town was straight—what I didn’t have was money.'" 

"If people in this town see that you have nothing, they'll just look at you like any other fag—let's be clear about that," he continues. "But if they introduce you as the mayor's cousin, the director of a company or something like that… their faces start to change, they tell you sit here, let me get you a drink. First people notice our sexuality, but when they know you're successful, they'll even ask for your number. The change is obvious."

*Gustavo’s name, as well as identifying details of the town have been changed to protect his privacy.

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