While Mexican border towns are dynamic and cross-cultural, they are also often the scene of violence
against marginalised communities.
Dr Vek Lewis, lecturer in Latin American Studies at Sydney University, returns to Mexico every year to observe the situation for LGBT people. Earlier this year he travelled to Tijuana, Mexicali and Tecate.
Lewis believes the degree of acceptance of homosexuality in Tijuana is directly linked to social status.
“It depends on your class position and your degree of integration in the formal labour force. The night life in Tijuana for gays is diverse and accessible. Tijuana is known for its tolerance. Culturally if you are seen as contributing to society and hard-working, this translates to a conditional acceptance of difference,” Lewis said.
“However, if you find yourself outside the main networks of labour, and visibly on the street, as is the case for many sex workers, people of distinct ethnic groups from other states, and some gay and trans people, harassment by police and marginalisation by society can be pronounced.”
While harassment can consist of everything from extortion to sexual violence, Lewis said there are individuals prepared to defend their rights in Tijuana. Historically such people have had to seek asylum in the US, but things are changing.
“In recent years transsexuals, in cooperation with human rights defenders, have successfully organised to intervene and prevent harassment. They have met with the mayor,” he said.
“Tijuana has a prominent gay, lesbian and trans community, which helps to put the rights of sexual minorities on the map.”
“This is in contrast to other towns such as Tecate or Mexicali. Neither has much of a public presence or community. In 2002 in Tecate, under the governorship of a conservative politician, an anti-cross-dressing law was brought in, which was in contradiction to federal law. This was viewed as anachronistic by people in Tijuana and other parts of Mexico.”
Lewis believes the anti-cross-dressing law demonstrates the broader insecurities of towns in the region, which hope to maintain public order, the safety of the family unit and maintenance of middle-class lifestyles.
“Laws like these and the police persecution act as a pressure valve release, and aren’t necessarily strictly speaking about machismo or homophobia, which is how Mexican society is often stereotyped,” he said.
A solution to the harassment may lie with the involvement of broader society in planning and implementing social programs in the areas of health, labour and law reform.
“Civil groups ought to have a role in police reform and education campaigns to sensitise the police around diversity issues. It should be undertaken at an official level, in consultation with minority groups affected,” Lewis said.
In line with Lewis’ observations, filmmakers have produced documentaries exploring the challenges faced by Latino LGBT people in the Americas — some will be shown at Sydney University on Tuesday night.
To continue his Latino-based studies, Lewis will shortly investigate the nuevos ambientes or new Latino queer spaces being forged by Latin American LGBT migrants in Sydney.
“This project will be the first study that examines the transformative aspects that migration brings about in sexuality and cultural identity among Latin Americans in Australia,” he said.

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