I remember when I first came to The Castro – it was more than intimidating. Don’t laugh. It made me feel both like an insider and a total outsider. But twenty years later, I realize that I went there with the wrong attitude.
As a kid growing up in the rural midwest, I always felt a bit on the outside looking in. Okay, maybe just a little more than “a bit”. When I started my tour de large American urban areas as a college kid in the 90s, I had expectations of coming to a largely gay neighborhood, and immediately having a catharsis of “inness”. It was going to be like walking into an episode of “Cheers” where everyone knew my name.
When I realized that my dream gayborhood was, in fact, a clicquy, sometimes even stand-offish and “local” place, I felt cheated and even a bit angry. It’s only years later that I realized that the neighborhood wasn’t the problem. It was California, and I was a naive kid. I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock. I think I even expected it to be exactly like a gay version of the things I knew.
Instead, I accidentally landed at my first Folsom Street Fair. It was before the internet and the sheer amount of leather, whips, real sex dolls being thrown over my head (also properly attired), and watching a sea of enthusiastic BDSM enthusiasts having the time of their lives kind of freaked me out – I was a bit of a square even in my 20s. And I had so many things to learn.
People are a product of their culture – and over time, I made it a point to visit small gayborhoods wherever I went. And they’re all different. Maybe this is obvious. They all have a different story, a different history.
What makes them the same is a similar yearning for community, mentorship, safety and love. For this list, I concentrated on well-defined areas – cities like Prague or Shanghai have vibrant LGBTQ scenes – but they aren’t as centralized. I became fascinated with defined gayborhoods – like cultural islands, comparable to Chinatowns, Little Italies, or Japantowns.
Eventually, what got me feeling like a local in the Castro was actually living like a local for a bit. Getting to know the cafe owners, the bar regulars and developing a routine. This is what I try to do when I visit any place for longer than a few days.
The Castro has changed a lot – tech companies and a competitive housing market don’t take prisoners and don’t make exceptions. But I love coming back and
“La Rampa” Vedado
While most of Havana seems like a party, the gayborhood of Vedado has a little bit more bounce in its step. If you are looking for gay people in Cuba, you have to put away the Grindr and follow your eyes. Because any map you might have on your phone will be in and out, and expensive.
My internet was so spotty that I had to trusty my Lonely Planet book (!) to guide me. If you want music and entertainment stop by Cafe Cantante Mi Habana – especially if it’s late, you’re over 18 and properly dressed. (No shorts, sorry guys…) Come on Saturday to see the drag show and get ready to cantante. I’m not much of a dancer but I cantanted my legs off. Theres’s definitely something in the water.
One of the most exciting things about any gay bar or club in Havana is that you have a chance to see gay culture before the dawn of the internet since most people here don’t have a working smartphone at the tips of their fingers. (It can get a bit pricy here.) You have to hustle a bit more, think on your feet and plan ahead. Think of it as a detox, and a social experiment.
It made me think of how much social life on the scene has been mutated and changed by the internet – mostly for the better, but it definitely made me ponder the art of basic human contact.
When you sleep off the hangover, head on to the beach – about 15 minutes from Havana you can find Mi Cayito, or “The Gay Beach”. This is a perfect day trip option. The ocean is beautiful, the sand is white and perfect, and of course, there’s a party crowd, drinks and amazing food.
Le Marais, Paris
Ah, l’amour… Paris has been the capital of all things love for centuries. In fact, there’s data that says that 46% of the country’s gay men population lived in the city of Paris. City of love indeed.
When you visit Paris, be aware that although Berlin has been dubbed Europe’s gay capital, Paris is a close competitor for the title. This has been true all throughout history, from the middle ages to modern time. This is where gay culture flourished, influenced literature and visual art, and was accepted and applauded by contemporaries. In fact, gay culture in Paris was always closely associated with the mainstream art movement.
Le Marais is the largest gayborhood in Paris right now. I say “right now” because the Paris gay scene changed over the centuries. Over time, neighborhoods became gentrified and flowed from people to people. The gay scene shifted spots just like the artist scene. Montmartre and Pigalle used to hold the crown that today belongs to Le Marais.
Le Marais is posh. It’s maze of streets takes you back in history to the times the rest of Paris long forgot. This alone is a great reason to go to this part of the city. When Baron Haussmann reconfigured Paris to be the “city of light” in the 19th century, Le Marais was forgotten and kept it’s crooked medieval layout. It remains to this day an important place for the Jewish community.
Le Marais has a lot of gay cafes, restaurants and welcoming little bookstores. I rented a tiny room for a few days and explored them slowly, trying to blend with the locals, and not look too touristy. I think by day 4 I had it covered.
You can continue the gay community tour outside of Le Marais, and catch more history:
Montmartre was a place for artists, bohemians and had a thriving gay and lesbian community in the pre-war period. Places like Le Monocle were examples of how the lesbian scene turned to fashion, art and an amazing sense of self almost a hundred years ago. In this club, you could see dapper ladies dressed in suits and cropped hair, dancing with elegant dames. Wearing a monocle was a strong cultural symbol, and there were no things left unsaid if a lady wore one in public. It was “a bit like flying the gay flag”.
If you want to see some ghosts, walk by Le Monocle at night – the round entrance is still shaped like a monocle, adorning a tired looking building. The dirty awning is askew, remembering much better days. Like most things, this club was never the same after WWII.
Germany, Frankfurt am Main
“The Bermuda Triangle”
Berlin, Berlin, Berlin, Berlin. If you’re an American that happens to be gay, this is probably the song you hear when putting together your Germany itinerary.
Frankfurt is a major airline hub, which no doubt only adds to its diversity. One-fourth of its population is compromised of immigrants. It’s also a major banking center.
Up to 50,000 LGBTQ souls inhabit this city – enough to make a large city all on their own. This makes it one of the most vibrant communities in the world. Some of the most popular spots here are Lucky’s LM27, Oscar Wilde, Zume Schweijk, STALL, or CK Studio.
This is all located in the “Bermuda Triangle” – an area of a few city blocks in between Schafergasse, Bleichstrasse and Alte Gasse.
If you’re a mature guy and in the mood for a sauna, you can spend all day at Clubsauna Amsterdam. It’s been operating here since 1969. Here you can lounge, smoke on the patio, have late-night snacks or a drink, or enjoy a enjoy the private and not-so-private areas in the steam room and upstairs.
I say mature because the crowd seems to linger around 40+ or much older on some nights. If you are intimidated by their German website, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that most people here speak English. If you’re into the younger crowd, try the Metropol-sauna.
Frankfurt is a great place for nightlife. The selection is amazing for any city. After living in San Francisco for a while, I felt… liberated. Sorry, San Francisco – Germans know how to party.
Mexico, Mexico City
I want to end this list with a place that is known for machismo. Near the center of Mexico City is the Zona Rosa. This neighborhood was developed before the Mexican Revolution and was meant for rich foreign dignitaries.
It became almost forgotten, and was later revitalized, as seems to be the story of most exciting and vibrant gay neighborhoods, by artists, intellectuals and bohemians. It became the spawning ground for avant-garde culture and trendsetting clubs and restaurants.
The “Pink Zone” lost some of its sparkle in the 1980s when the upscale moved out and the cheap and touristy moved in. Along with the touristy, came the prostitution and other unsavory marks of a fading neighborhood. Since the 90s Zona Rosa has been a target of a revitalization movement. It became being recognized as a gayborhood in the 80s.
Since then, it has hosted the Mexico City Gay Pride, or Marcha del Orgullo LGBT de la Ciudad de Mexico. Scratch that – it has hosted a pride parade since 1978. They’ve got a lot of history backing them.
Before winding through the streets of Mexico City, the pride parade usually starts off at the foot of the El Angel de la Independencia victory column – which not many people realize when driving past it, is located smack in the middle of the Zona Rosa.
Mexico City is very special to me because it symbolizes the blossoming of gay culture in a place that has a reputation for being uncomfortable with LGBTQ. It shows that in a sea of vibrant cultures and traditions, even old and conservative ones, there is room for change.
Some of the best LGBTQ bars in Mexico City include Kinky Bar, Marrakech Salon and La Purisima.
Marrakech Salon is one of my favorite ones, being an artist and a night owl. And cheap. I am also a cheap guy, and the prices here are agreeable to my often thin wallet. There are chandeliers, lots of neon lights, beautiful murals on the walls. And the party only gets started around 1 AM!
Mexico City is full of surprises for anyone who is doing LGBQT tourism. It’s amazing when you want to explore the “regular touristy stuff” and it’s fun and welcoming at night when you want to experience other aspects of the local culture.
I travel because I love discovering different aspects of myself. Humans are so different, but the same at once. Every place I go I see a completely different dimension of human possibility – what would I think like if I was born somewhere else? If I had another life? If I had a less accepting family? If I would have found love true love when I was young? What if I became a dancer? A lawyer? Would it be harder for me? Or easier?
The gay community around the world orbits around the uncanny, the artistic, the hidden and the exposed all at the same time. When I travel, I try to live like a local in any gayborhood I visit. To imagine what it would have been like, to try to experience a community’s difficulties, history, strength and pride. It helps me find my own, and appreciate it’s many faces.