On Plaza Santa Cecilia in late May, rainbows reign supreme. In the shadow of Tijuana’s iconic arch, which marks the northern edge of downtown and the southern edge of the red-light district, a technicolored banner announces La Marcha del Orgullo, the Pride March. At the bars that line the plaza, under black lights and in the dark, men perform in drag and hold each other tenderly in narrow smoke-filled halls. Behind buckets of Tecate, they sing and sway along with Mexican love ballads from the 1980s. They have an easy way about them, their shoulders relaxed, their face muscles smooth.
Being so close to the border, Tijuana is a swirling site of transience and transformation. The population is an amalgam; while official surveys count around 1.6 million residents, the many binationals who travel back and forth daily spike the number closer to 2 million. Tijuana-based urban planner Gibram Sanchez, 29, calls his city a “melting pot” of influences; migrants from Haiti and El Salvador and China have all wound up here, at the doorstep of the United States, many of them hoping to complete the very last leg of the arduous journey to their American dream. But for many, of course, what lies on the other side of the border is far from a promised land. Many will die trying to cross, or be separated from loved ones, or be disillusioned by a lack of opportunity. Threat looms over the city: of heartbreak, of violence, of petty crime and pickpockets. Woven into gay Tijuana, on the razor’s edge of the red-light district to the north, is a wariness of that threat and others, and an entrenched desire to forget them. Shots, shots, shots!
The scene at Bigou, a new LGBT nightclub that caters to a younger millennial and Gen Z crowd.
As the rainbowcore would suggest, there are plenty of gay bars in Tijuana. But there are no explicitly lesbian bars. The city does, however, have a rich history of gay male mobilization, chronicled in a 2019 dissertation by social scientist Jesse Anguiano of Western Michigan University. The movement began in the 1970s; Plaza Santa Cecilia, today a vibrant gay destination, served as one of the earliest meeting sites for the city’s gay male liberation groups. Anguiano writes about Tijuana’s first official Pride march in 1995, after a hateful response to an unofficial march over a decade earlier: In 1983, spectators hurled eggs and insults from the sidewalks at a group of 30 gay men marching for their rights.
Laura Gonzalez, who moved to San Diego from Tijuana five years ago, says that nowadays, this slice of downtown is relatively progressive compared with the rest of Mexico. But with metro San Diego and its flourishing queer life less than a half-hour to the north—the Hillcrest neighborhood, which is the city's thriving gay district, is home to two lesbian bars—Tijuana can still feel like it’s lagging behind. She attributes this to the culture of machismo that persists throughout Mexico—orienting public life, including the queer milieu, toward men. “I feel like the culture there is maybe, like, 10 years behind what’s going on here in San Diego,” she says.
The scene today reflects gay Tijuana’s male-centric history. There are all-male bathhouses and strip clubs, some within a few blocks of the plaza. At El Ranchero, miniature cow skulls with lethal-looking horns keep watch over the bar as shy queens in pink and purple gowns lip sync to slow, syrupy hits from decades gone by. Upstairs is a stripper pole that I imagine gets put to good use on busier nights; tonight, though, a lone pair of young men pull each other around the floor to sultry bachata rhythms.
A night of black-lit revelry at one of the many clubs along downtown Tijuana's Avenida Revolución.
On the other side of the plaza, Avenida Revolución, the gay artery of downtown, pulses to life with electro beats from the dance floors of Premier Men’s Club and Rubiks. Drag performers cosplaying as Amy Winehouse and Mexican pop star Gloria Trevi own the night at Coyote Bar, home of what is likely the world’s best tequila soda (extra lime and Tajín, please). Latinos Bar across the street, meanwhile, can get downright raucous. The crowd is a mix of bachelorettes and their “bride tribes,” whole families out for a few hours of dancing, and groups of young people—queer and not—who come late to retire an evening of drinking elsewhere in the area.
Gonzalez, however, says that she and her queer female friends didn’t always feel that downtown TJ was for them. Any gay bars that they might visit were centered around cis men. Before she moved to San Diego, that lack of safe spaces gave way to a culture of DIY nightlife and “lesbian parties”—small get-togethers at one another’s houses, followed by the occasional trip to a bar like Insurgente Tap Room or Tropics. “All my queer friends [would] just hang out like that,” she explains. “It’s safer, it’s cozier and it’s easier.” In the years since, she’s noticed marginal progress, as the neighborhood embraces new spaces that are “more friendly for trans, gay, lesbian and queer people.” Enclave Caracol, a new community center and café, is one of them. The walls are dressed in punk feminist murals by Colombian street artist Erre; in the performance and gallery space, the center regularly platforms queer TJ-based artists, many of them women.
Still, Tijuana’s queer women lack a space to call their own. The only exception is Yadiras, a karaoke dive one block east of Revolución that’s evolved into an unofficial lesbian hangout. At the door, my friends and I are greeted by 65-year-old Julia, a bartender here for the past 28 years. Inside could double as a cool teen’s basement in 1988, with retro geometric carpet and cushioned, velour-lined swivel chairs. On the walls are posters of pinup-style women, plus leftover Mardi Gras decorations and a UFC match playing softly from a mounted TV. It’s calm and comfortable. Julia brings us our drinks: a Tecate with extra lime for me, a tequila soda and a Dos Equis for my friends. We clink. There are no strobe lights or drag queen ballgowns. Gonzalez, who visits this bar occasionally with female friends, describes it as “the place you feel safe. Where you can sing your lungs out and no one cares.”
From Yadiras, we drive five minutes to Taco Nazo Río, a beloved chain for fast, cheap tacos that scorch my esophagus. We cross back over the border at 1 a.m., the rainbow flags and techno beats of the plaza just 10 minutes and a world away. Avenida Revolución is already far behind us, slicing through that city of reinvention, steadily evolving, a small revolution of its own.