Mexico City: United in tolerance

One of only 15 countries with same-sex marriage laws, Mexicans have adopted a live-and-let-live attitude that embraces sexual diversity as easily as tacos and tequila.

Mexicans do not blink an eye at two guys stopping to steal a kiss along Mexico City’s broad Avenida Juárez. And the mood is always festive in adjacent Alameda Central park. Families bite into crispy churros, kids leap for airborne strands of cotton candy, taco meat sizzles on hotplates, people take photos in front of lit-up fountains and couples smooch on benches.

These are the flavours of Mexico City, where being gay is just another ingredient in the lime-and-chilli mix of the Mexican capital. And the Alameda, a park that was once overgrown with bushes where men met other men in the dark, has become a bright and grand space of landscaped paths and trees. The park’s remodelling finished in November 2012, becoming the most recent example of the live-and-let-live attitude towards sexuality that extends across Mexico City.

“Having been in Mexico City nearly two years, I still have yet to hear a gay slur uttered from a car window as vehicles zoom by,” said Dale Stein, an English teacher from Los Angeles. “It is here, ironically, not in San Francisco, where I have actually become more comfortable being gay in public and comfortable to hold my husband's hand. ”

In 2010, gay marriage became legal in Mexico City, giving important rights to same sex couples and marking the city as a flagship of tolerance in often-conservative Latin America. As of July 2013, it is one of only 15 countries with national or regional same-sex marriage laws (with New Zealand and Uruguay bringing the number to 17 by the end of 2013).

“I think that the laws have really only reinforced the tolerant nature of the Mexican people,” said Stein, who married his Mexican partner soon after the legislation came into effect. “Mexicans are really very much into creating harmony.” This acceptance is reflected in the government metro billboards that promote sexual diversity and in the thousands who join the celebratory gay and lesbian Pride march to the Zócalo (city centre plaza) in June each year. The Mexico City tourism board even promoted this openness by offering Argentina’s first same-sex married couple a free honeymoon in the Mexican capital in 2010.

This harmony is most celebrated in the colonias (suburbs) of Roma, Condesa and Zona Rosa. Roma, with its high population of hipsters and fashion-forward residents, is the place to go for eating on-trend food (Vietnamese and Japanese this year) in cafes such as Mog, a restaurant adorned with antique picture frames and wooden mannequin limbs. The easygoing artsy crowd loves Mog’s food mashups, such as minty Vietnamese summer rolls and Thai pad thai noodles washed down with refreshing cold sake.

Leafy Condesa is a popular home for expats and nice (posh) Mexicans who enjoy the mix of taquerías, health food stores and swanky bars. At the convivial green space of Parque México you can see everything from silk dancers climbing skywards to organ grinders; and just off the park, sample a no-fuss falafel tasting plate with a Mexican twist of spicy green salsa verde at Falafelito; it is an outdoor delight.

Three swift Metrobus stops away is La Zona Rosa (The Pink Zone). Its gay epicentre status is made obvious by the open glorieta (square) outside the metro station, which is dotted with gay couples whispering and playfully wrestling. The main street of Amberes proudly flies its colours – quite literally at Rainbowland gift store, which sells hundreds of rainbow-coloured items, including teddy bears, G-strings and books, as well as t-shirts, mugs and wallets plastered with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s face. Gay and lesbian Mexicans have a love stronger than their tequila for querida (dear) Frida, whose self-portraits express an image they find appealing and relatable – a struggling, but defiant woman who had love affairs with both men and women.

A visit to Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul (the Blue House) in villagey Coyoacán in the south of the city is an unmissable step into Kahlo’s world – this is where she was born, grew up, lived for many years, produced art and died. (Kahlo’s friend Leon Trotsky also hid from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin here from 1937 to 1939.) It is now a museum with walls that are indeed electric blue (and a kitchen floor in sunny yellow) and rooms filled with personal items as if Kahlo had just popped out, including notes, letters, photographs, easel, empty perfume bottles-turned-paint pots, a wheelchair, earthenware pots, papier-mâché monsters and thousands of handicraft and folk art items collected from around Mexico. One room is dedicated to paintings by contemporary artists such as Paul Klee.

But there is good reason why most visitors – gay or straight – stick closer to La Zona Rosa. “Zona Rosa treats gays and lesbians especially well,” said Paulette Landeros, a Mexican bartender at the always packed 42nd Bar. “Being gay [here] is something normal and free.”

While that may sound commonplace elsewhere in the world, the air is charged with a different energy at 42nd Bar. People are dressed in smart shirts that err on the side of looking church-ready – a Mexican gay club can be both loud and well behaved, reflecting the modern-traditional mix of Mexico City. On the street, food stands still make tacos much like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, and the patrons, despite being tipsy, politely address the women who make them as señora (madam).

In this fiercely class-conscious country, people judge you in a heartbeat by the cut of your jeans and the brand of your phone – and often how güero (white) and tall you are. Yet in the Zona Rosa clubs, even the neatly dressed are clutching messy, massive Styrofoam cups that drip red chilli sauce from the rim. These traditional, lime-spiked michelada beers are cheap, strong and addictive. Accompany them with Mexican beer-snack favourite, crunchy lime-and-chilli chapulines (dried grasshoppers).

Open-air terraces are plentiful in balmy Zona Rosa, including Lollipop, a favourite of young karaoke-lovers; and Lipstick, where blazer-and-jeans-wearing cocktail-sippers peer down from the roof gardens over the city. A simple hola (hello) will lead to open, warm chatter in varying levels of English; tourists are few but welcomed with curiosity.

Back on the dance floor, a common question is “why aren’t you dancing” – even if you are. Mexicans seem to be born with rhythm and merengue in their hips – even the shyest clubber can keep a beat. In the centre of town at El Marrakech Salón, or just “Marra” as locals affectionately call the club, the floor rumbles to the drums and trumpets of classic Mexican and Latin tunes, wedged between tracks by Die Antwoord, the Pixies and Madonna.

The party continues at late night eateries in Zona Rosa, such as La Casa de Toño where avocado-topped flautas (long crispy tortilla “flutes” filled with meat or potato) and margaritas keep coming at 5 am, accompanied by a ranchera guitarist in a cowboy hat. You may have things to do tomorrow, but you will get to that mañana.