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Baja City Can't Skirt This Issue

Tecate's ban on male cross-dressing gets a mixed response. One result has been a surge in gay pride.

November 26, 2002|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

TECATE, Mexico — This city may be minutes from cosmopolitan San Diego and just over the Mexican border, yet life moves as slowly as a colonial village and residents hold tight to their traditions.

The town's central square fills each afternoon with young couples holding hands, old friends playing dominoes and farmers in cowboy hats lounging on park benches.

Just off the square, however, Saidi's Salon breaks with both history and tradition. Inside on a recent day, Ruben Obregon chatted with customers, his tight brown blouse fitted at the waist and his jeans laced up to the knees. Jose Alberto Villagomez -- black locks in a shoulder-length bob and red shirt coming only to his belly -- trimmed and styled a longtime customer's hair.

But now Tecate's city council has approved an ordinance that could make the way Obregon and Villagomez dress a crime. The one-sentence law, approved last month, translates: "Men dressed like women in public who are disturbing the peace can be cited for a lack of morals."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 27, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 10 inches; 369 words Type of Material: Correction
Tecate hairstylists -- In Tuesday's California section in the Ventura County edition, two photo captions accompanying a story about a law against cross-dressing in Tecate, Mexico, misidentified the subjects. A blond man identified as Jose Alberto Villagomez should have been identified as Saidi Garcia, owner of Saidi's Salon. A man with long black hair, identified as Saidi Garcia, should have been identified as Jose Alberto Villagomez.

The ordinance is designed to reassert the city's traditional values, protect children and, according to its authors, curtail the sort of promiscuous lifestyle that they worry could contribute to the spread of AIDS.

Suddenly, men who had felt a measure of acceptance and some comfort in this conservative town say they feel threatened. Under the law, they can be arrested, fined $50 and jailed for two days -- as they see it, simply for being who they are.

Activists throughout the region have attacked the ordinance as not only vague -- failing to specify what constitutes cross-dressing -- but grossly unfair in suggesting that men who dress in untraditional ways are a social and public health threat.

City officials say police officers will make the judgment calls required by the ordinance: Do painted nails, pierced ears and makeup constitute "dressing like a woman," or do only a dress or skirt justify an arrest? And what is necessary to show that peace has been disturbed?

At least one city councilman believes cross-dressers should be arrested if they are kissing in public or talking to young people "inappropriately" -- for example, standing too close to them.

Advocates for the cross-dressers -- including gay community leaders on both sides of the border -- say the law has had a silver lining, bringing attention to their issues as never before.

Twenty years ago, most cross-dressers rarely left their houses for fear of being beaten up or harassed, said Saidi Garcia, owner of the hair salon. But this month, they were able to dress in drag and march peacefully through town, even drawing vocal support for their cause.

"We are in our element now," he said. "We are not so repressed. The culture is more open and we are more united."

The controversy in Tecate started this spring, when Mayor Juan Vargas heard from a local doctor that one cross-dressing man reportedly tested positive for HIV. Vargas and the city council drafted the new ordinance, which passed, 9 to 2, with one abstention.

"We don't want AIDS in Tecate," said councilman Cosme Cazares Burgueno. "The government has an obligation to protect its people. That's the reason we have to take these measures."

Cazares said that he doesn't have anything against gays and that the ordinance could be used to cite others, including men who disguise themselves as women to commit robberies.

Councilwoman Sonia Chavez Aguilar said the ordinance should help cut down on gay street prostitution and remove a bad influence for children. "That's not what I'd like my kids to see," Chavez said. "It's immoral."

Chavez said she would also like to make gays take regular blood tests and carry health cards.

Councilman Jose Carlos Perez Perpuly tried to convince his colleagues that Mexican law does not let local governments infringe on the right of free expression. He called "absurd" the argument that the ordinance will cut the spread of AIDS.

"The resolution doesn't achieve anything," he said, shaking his head. "It doesn't solve the public health problem. We can't repress a group of citizens that is part of our town. We have the responsibility to secure the rights of all citizens."

The local chapter of the state human rights office opposes the ordinance and plans to challenge it in court as unconstitutional.

Tecate's gay activists say their community includes perhaps 30 cross-dressers, but midriff tops and brightly painted nails are a glaring contrast with the routine attire of most men: worn jeans and work boots.

Hairstylist Villagomez said city leaders are using AIDS and public health as a pretext to apply the ordinance.

"This is a homophobic law from the last century," said Villagomez, a 26-year-old man who plucks his eyebrows and wears earrings and, occasionally, women's clothes.

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