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Vanetine’s Gay

While studying abroad in Santiago, Chile, I went to a gay club for the first time ever.

sunny 34 °C

I would say I’ve done a halfway decent job of being gay. Other than the fact that I am currently dating a woman, I’ve got all the stereotypical stuff down: I talk with my hands, I’m a vegetarian, I know the entire discography of most Broadway musicals, etc. (I still haven’t developed the lisp but I am sure it will come eventually). But because I am nineteen, and I don’t drink, and I live in The-Middle-of-Nowhere central Indiana, I haven’t had many opportunities to join the Gay Bar/Gay Club Scene.

I have been told (over and over and over, actually) that traveling is about “having new experiences.” So at the time that I am writing this, I’m planning my trip to a gay bar in Santiago...

. . .

Valentine’s Day: It hadn’t occurred to me that people outside of the US might celebrate this day; it seemed too uniquely consumerist to be anything other than a good ol’ ‘Mercian celebration. However, Valentine’s Day seems to, in fact, be celebrated here in much the same way that it’s celebrated in the States. People use the day as an opportunity to show their love, brag to their friends, feel sorry for themselves, eat overpriced chocolates, and get laid on a Thursday.

During the metro ride home from school, I observed many hopeless romantics holding meretricious displays of love, mass-produced by factories in the interest of commodifying romance. Everywhere I looked, people walked carrying large plastic balloons on small plastic straws, boxes of chocolates, bottles of wine, and cheap white roses with petals dyed bright colors: greens, blues, yellows (the colors of love)—the same roses sold year-round at gas stations for $1.99 each.

On the train, I watched as a man and woman boarded and sat next to one another, the woman holding a fake, fabric-covered rose. The two weren’t politely holding hands, nor were they sensually licking the far sides of one another’s tongues (as is customary on Chilean subways); in fact, they were not publicly displaying their physical affection at all. Instead, the woman was repeatedly lifting the fake rose to her face with her aggressively-pink manicured fingers, as if she was trying to smell the natural perfume of the synthetic fiber, hoping that, eventually, she would smell a polleny sweetness. She sniffed with such regularity that everyone in the train car likely noticed—a fact I am quite certain would not have upset her to have known.

As we screeched to our stop at Manuel Montt, I exited the train and nearly bumped into a very short woman who surely has been nearly bumped into many times in her life. She was half-hidden behind a large balloon bouquet. Her hair was cut short and fell like a football helmet around her round head. She had a smattering of makeup on her face, and her lashes seemed to be laboring under the glitter and mascara. When I apologized, she smiled at me and said nothing. Instead, she simply walked on, continuing to hold her balloons out in front of her, preparing to board the next train. As I walked up the stairs to exit the station, I thought to myself: Why in the world would she go through the trouble of buying those here? The same balloon bouquets were being sold at every street corner in Santiago. She easily could have waited, buying them after the metro ride to avoid the hassle of bringing them with her.

However, I was missing the point. For if she had not taken them on the metro, how would anyone have seen that she had them? How would onlookers know that someone was very, very in love with her and she was very, very in love with them?

. . .

On the walk home, I grew homesick. It was the first time since getting here that I had missed the oatmealy-thick air of Indiana. Up until that point, everything about Santiago had been diametrically opposed to my previous town. The newness of the city meant I was too interested in exploring to waste my time thinking about what I had left behind. However, as I watched vendors of “romantic” products and services (ice cream shops, perfume stores, chocolatiers, wineries, restaurants offering candle-lit dinners for two) hike up their prices, I was reminded of the good, old-fashioned American Capitalism I had been missing.

I didn’t want to walk straight home, the empty apartment waiting for me was threatening to crush me with that unique, Valentine’s day, feel-bad-for-yourself loneliness. Instead, I wandered through a bookstore, a plant shop, a vegan/health food store, and eventually stumbled upon a store, the sign for which featured a muscular man in a rainbow-patterned jockstrap and “4Men” written in blocky lettering.

There was one employee in the one-car-garage-sized store. When I walked in, he was busy talking with two women about a vibrator. Trying not to be too nosy or make anyone uncomfortable, I busied myself with looking at the products on the walls. The names were all in Spanish, which made them seem less sexual and more ridiculous to my English-reading brain. A few of them had an English translation of the product name, which had clearly been the result of an employee putting the words directly into google translate:

-Erotic Bread of Life

-Hot Sex Chocolate

-Special Gel for Penis

I was debating whether or not I should ask if I could try some of the “Chocolate Covered Banana” lube when the women left the store and the sales attendant turned to me.

As is normal, I started the conversation by apologizing for my Spanish and he responded by lying to me and saying it was good. He then proceeded to ask me what I was looking for. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer the question. What was I looking for? Why had I meandered into a gay sex shop and waited for fifteen minutes?

I told him that I was just looking around. He pointed to each of the walls and told me how the products were organized. I tried not to seem as uncomfortable as I was while he spent quite a while lingering over a certain vibrating cone hanging on the “for anus” wall. At the end of the tiny tour, he held up a pair of light-blue briefs with little rainbows patterned all over them, asking me if I wanted to try them on—and assuring me he would give me a discount. I turned them down.

Looking around the store, I was starting to realize that maybe this was what I had been missing. Since arriving in Chile, I had interacted very little (that I knew of) with other LGBTQ+ people. In the states, I was used to spending time with Queer friends, going to Queer events, and hosting a weekly club meeting all about being Queer. I was suddenly feeling a hunger that only a room full of dancing gay men could satisfy.

I asked if he knew of any gay bars or clubs in Santiago that were safe for me to go to. His response tickled me: “Oh, I’m not gay.”

When he said it, his eyebrows arched in surprise, as if nobody had ever assumed that the man peddling vibrating anal cones, discounted rainbow briefs, and assorted flavored lubes might be homosexual. What would make a straight man choose to work in a gay sex shop? He was decently attractive—large, stalky, a good beard, the hands of someone who probably could hold power tools or file documents—so why work in a sex shop—especially a sex shop that had a wall of hats and tank tops with the words “Queen Bey” printed across the front in hot pink and shorts that read “Power Bottom” across the ass?

I was just about to apologize for my assumption when a man’s voice interrupted me, saying: “I’m gay” (the first English I had heard that afternoon). I turned to see him peeking his head out from a red curtain, one which I had previously thought to be dividing the “employees only” section of the store from the rest but that I now realized was a changing room. He was half-heartedly covering his lower half but it was evident that he was trying on jockstraps.

Was that all I had to do? Ask for a gay person and they would appear, like Beetlejuice or Bloody Mary? I tried to look at his face—both because I wanted to figure out if this man had some magical, godly powers and also because I was trying to look away from his rainbow-clad junk.

I asked Jockstrap if he knew of any clubs in the city that were LGBTQ+friendly, safe, and relatively tame. He offered me a few, some for “if you want somewhere sleazy” and “Soda, if you want somewhere normal”. He spelled it out for me X-o-d-a (which I later came to find out was really just spelled “Soda”). I wrote it in my school notebook, right between the page of notes about Criollismo and the literary Vanguardian movement.

After that, I thanked Jockstrap and the sales attendant, and I walked out of the shop without buying anything or tasting the lube.

. . .

February 15th: The study abroad program in which I am participating allows me to interact with a lovely group of Chilean students that have signed themselves up to be the American students’ unofficial best friends for the semester. The girl in charge of this group, Tamy, invited all of the foreign students to attend her Valentine’s Day-themed 21st birthday party.

When I arrived at the event (a tasteful two hours late), I approximate that about three gallons of vodka had already been consumed in total by the group of 20-somethings in the room. Tamy came to greet me when I arrived, and then she instructed me to go get alcohol from her father inside. Let me tell you, there is something incredibly unnerving about being a nineteen-year-old and having to deny pisco from someone’s father...twice—especially when it’s followed by me asking about where I could find ice for my glass of water. But other people seemed to be generally unaffected by the situation.

Past the makeshift, card-table bar, the room was covered in pink and red decorations: streamers, paper hearts, and shiny silver balloons that read “FELIZ CUMPLEAÑOS, TAMY!” About two dozen or more young adults were dancing to salsa music and a few were outside smoking cigarettes. Other than Tamy’s father, I doubt anyone else in the room was over 23 years old. Where the hell am I? I thought to myself.

. . .

As the night at Tamy’s wore on, the students from my program showed the charm that only a group of wasted 21-year-olds excited to show off their bachata moves can have. The decorations seemed to drip from the walls, as they were either pulled down or had begun peeling from the humidity in the sweaty room.

A girl was very angry that a guy had stolen someone’s red hat; a different girl wanted someone to tell her how “absolutely crazy” it would be for her to eat the peaches out of the empty sangria bowl; a guy who had brought his own rum and did shots with anyone who asked was, unsurprisingly, was being force-fed chips and glasses of water; a different guy took off his shirt in the kitchen after having a drink spilled on him; people were complaining about not having someone to kiss; people were complaining about running out of alcohol; people started planning to go to a club, taking a head count; I called an Uber with my friends and we made our way to McDonald’s.

. . .

It was at the McDonald’s, about 3:00 AM, while eating fries without ketchup (because for some reason I didn’t know enough Spanish to understand, I wasn’t allowed to have sauce packets if I was staying in the restaurant) my friends and I talked about our plans for Saturday.

A few tables away, sat a group of gay men having a similar post-party snack. One of them had a shirt with the phrase “Get used to it,” printed across the back in rainbow lettering. Another seemed to still be wearing the remains of poorly-removed drag makeup.

“Have you guys ever been to a gay club?” I asked.

“No,” said one friend. “I’ve always been too young in the US...and then, when I wasn’t, I was too scared.”

“We should go,” I said, popping a fry into my mouth.

“Do you know where one is?”

“Yeah.”

“How?”

“I know a guy.”

. . .


February 16th: So I have now been to a gay bar.

I managed to enter the building with my school ID. It’s a red piece of laminated cardstock with my picture, my name, and my school’s logo on it. Nowhere does it say my age, date of birth, height, weight, hair/eye color, or anything else you would typically expect from an ID. But, nevertheless, the doorman winked at my two friends and me and ushered us into the club.

The club was dark and the bass boomed through the floor. All around me there were gay couples dancing, drinking, smoking, kissing, and standing in line for the bathroom. I imagine it was a lot like what a non-gay club might be like, but with a little less body hair.

The night was beach-themed. One of the bar attendants was shirtless and wearing an inflatable life-jacket. A drag queen who was pushing 6’6” was walking around spraying people with a water gun. The drinks were overpriced, but I bought a Sprite so that I could be holding something.

One of the two girls from my program that I went to the club with smokes cigarettes, so she had her lighter with her. I have made a mental note to bring a lighter with me everywhere I go from now on, as it seems to be the key to making friends. I met a lesbian couple from Venezuela, who wanted me to know (very aggressively) that I was “F****** adorable!” There was another man with breath that smelled like rotting fruit, who told us that he dropped his beer outside, so he had “no choice but to drink pisco.” There was a group of short, skinny gay men who were very interested in grinding with my other female friend to “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. And there was a man dressed in all yellow who danced behind me with his hands on my hips for a solid two minutes, not one second of which could’ve been considered on-beat.

By the end of the night, I had danced with at least 20 strangers; one of my friends had made out on the dance floor; we were offered choripene by some cat-callers on the street; I got the Instagram handles of the two yelling lesbians; and my friend stole one of the pool inflatables that had been hanging as a decoration on the wall.

Nothing spectacular or unforgettable happened during the course of the night. I left the bar covered in my own sweat, the sweat of others, and at least two alcohols—neither of which I had been drinking. But, nevertheless, I felt comforted. Something about seeing Queer people expressing themselves had refreshed me. I felt lighter after watching my female friends grind with men without worrying about their safety. I felt calmer knowing that the music of Lady Gaga transcends borders. I felt sense of camaraderie, of friendship, of validation, and of love.

I left the club without any souvenirs. The only thing we took with us was the pool inflatable my friend stole from the wall. It wasn’t a heart-shaped balloon on a straw, or a bouquet of flowers, or a box of chocolates but it was the best Chilean Valentine’s Day present a Queer kid could’ve gotten.

Posted by Tad Kaufman 04:48 Tagged club santiago lgbt gilman usac lgbtq+ vantine’s_day Comments (0)

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