Thursday, February 9, 2012

Postcard from a Queer Colonialist in PV

All photos courtesy of Courtney Harrell

The last time I was in Puerto Vallarta was the summer of 1976, just before I turned 18. If the town was gay then, I missed it, but I wasn’t looking. Mexico was the first third-world country I ever visited, and the poverty, threat of dysentery, and stern-looking federales frightened me into following around my taller and more worldly lady friends like the proverbial puppy. I was not venturing into territory that I’d only recently acknowledged.

These days Los Muertos Beach, the center of gay activity, is also known as Blue Chairs Beach. Blue Chairs is a well-known gay hotel and entertainment venue named after its distinctive blue beach chairs. Although called a hotel, the place seems more dedicated to entertainment than hostelry.

The blue chairs themselves cover a narrow stretch of beach from the hotel to the water’s edge. The food is so-so, but if you are staying up in the hills and want a place to hang out under an umbrella, they don’t bother you to buy more than an obligatory beer or soda. The waiters are often incredibly handsome, and many are fluent in English. All are friendly and some flirt.

A fellow at the next table had purchased a wood mask with a long curving tongue, and the conversation quickly focused on the sensuous protuberance. The guest joked that the waiter could come back later that day to enjoy his tongue or something to that effect. I was only half listening. In perfect English, the waiter responded that he preferred fish—he meant women. The gay guest and his buddies were a little taken aback by the frankness. That’s when I paid more attention. Someone stepped across the divide. The waiter chatted about his wife and kids, who were almost grown, and how the last little one came much later. He said the last one was a mistake, that his wife wore a diaphragm and that he must have been just too powerful. Suddenly it had turned from gay flirting to straight male locker-room talk. By accident, everybody had stepped outside what I would consider the boundaries of slightly distasteful discourse, but not in the ways I am used to. Sex talk, straight sex talk, is preferred to nothing? But the gentlemen seemed to have something of a conversation, even if it was somewhat offensive, that wasn’t the usual waiter/client banter. Interestingly, there were few Mexicans sitting on those blue beach chairs. A few internet searches (unconfirmed I might add) suggest that the establishment does not encourage Mexican citizens to pull up a blue chair and have a beer.

Earlier in the week, our writing group met for drinks at the club on the top floor of Blue Chairs. Of course, the elevator was broken, so we took the stairs. As I walked up the six flights, I thought it would be hell to stay there and have to listen to an incessant disco beat. Most of the ladies in our group ventured to the very top floor, which opens to the sky and features a cool soaking pool (a common feature in PV’s heat) and views overlooking the beach. The gents wandered down to the next level, which had curtains to provide a faint gesture of privacy for the dancing go-go boys. I found out that scantily clad smooth-skinned young men gyrating on a platform or bar are not uncommon in the town’s nightspots.

You can trace this objectification back to the young men who live at Maxine Faulk’s hotel in John Huston’s film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “Night of Iguana” shot down the coast in the early 1960s. The general idea these days is to tuck pesos into the dancer’s skimpy shorts. If you are lucky, perhaps you get a peek at what was barely left for the imagination anyway. I watched this transpire a few times at another club, La Noche, one night, didn’t care for it, thought little about it, and went back to dancing with my friends.

But at Blue Chairs, the dancers are less discreet. You get more than a peek, apparently. Truth be told, I cannot verify this, because I had to escape the pulse of the music, but I heard stories later that the dancers removed their shorts and displayed themselves. My prudish side kicked in when I heard this. No doubt this kind of paid intimacy leads to other paid intimacies. On this front, I try to remain without judgment. “Happy ending” massages are a common occurrence in the gay male community. If it’s mutual and safe, I am neutral. But what about interactions where the balance of power is so one sided? Are we (generally white) wealthy master colonialists buying favors from oppressed poor men (generally of color)?

One person I told this story to assumed the men were under age. No, that is not the draw here. There is some kind of myth, one that writers like Tennessee Williams picked up on decades ago. Hard-working strong men with smooth brown skin represent something slightly unattainable or naughty to affluent white boys. If you have traveled in Mexico and have any kind of conscience, you are aware that your tips to taxi drivers, waiters, cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, and all of the people who serve you in some way or another make an enormous difference in the working person’s income. So is liberal guilt assuaged somewhat by the realization that someone serving tourists in a place like Puerto Vallarta might make an income that might be almost enough to live on? But in this age of internet porn (and everything else), the idea of paying almost naked men 20 or 50 or 100 pesos (at thirteen pesos to the dollar right now) for a peek at their genitals seems more degrading than forbidden. Degrading to those who pay and those who work? I am not writing about this experience to criticize the people who dance or watch or even touch. But I want to understand why it bothers me. Perhaps it is my age. At 53, I am more tuned into my role as an oppressor than my role as a libertine. If I had had more confidence in 1976, I might have been lining up at the bar.