The two attractive young women are sharing a table at Bagdad Cafe. As Latinas, they stand out among the mostly white, gay men dining in this Castro restaurant. The Latino waiter stands out, too, and not just for his race. Miguel is handsome in a rugged way; he has a pierced eyebrow and a goatee that masks a boyish grin. The women continue to flirt.
"What do you think of my friend?" one of the women asks Miguel, while the other uses the restroom.
"She's nice," Miguel says softly, trying to retrieve the dirty plates before she can ask any more questions.
"Why don't you ask her out?" she asks, twirling her long, dark hair.
Miguel freezes for a moment, flushed.
"Sorry," he says. "I'm gay."
"What do you mean?" the Latina woman asks, suddenly indignant, her question sounding more like a demand. "You're Mexican. You can't be gay."
Miguel Flores, now 26, came to San Francisco from Guadalajara three years ago. In his conservative Mexican hometown, the Catholic Church has such a strong hold on the common culture it is difficult to find a drugstore that sells condoms. Homosexuality is not even open for discussion.
"In Mexico, gay doesn't exist," says Miguel, unless someone behaves in a way that seems stereotypically gay. In that case, he says, you may exist, but "you're not considered a person."
Miguel looks masculine enough to not be pegged as one of the effeminate gay men who are outcast in Mexico. As he passed for straight, he secretly dated other closeted men -- some who were married and had children. He longed for a relationship, but the married men seemed only interested in the sex. And as long as they assumed the penetrative position, many wouldn't even acknowledge they were having gay sex. "I told them, 'If you slept with me, you're gay.' But they wouldn't hear it," Miguel says.
Steeped in such secrecy and denial, the prospect of leading a gay life in Mexico depressed Miguel. He went to the underground gay bars near his city's university, but they only reminded him of the double life. There were police raids, looking to catch gay military men. At one bar, there was a hole in the wall behind a jukebox to hide in.
When Miguel became convinced he could never be happy in Mexico, he emigrated to San Francisco. It was the gay mecca, he was told, the place where he would be accepted, as is. But moving only complicated Miguel's identity crisis: Born in Mexico, he's undeniably Latino, and, since coming out, openly gay. Culturally, those two identities don't easily mix -- even in San Francisco, where the celebrated gay Castro neighbors a sprawling Latino Mission.
In the Mission, Miguel feels at home as a Latino. But he must deal with the same religious, family, and machismo influences that he knew in Mexico, and that denounce or ignore his existence as a homosexual. The Castro excites Miguel as a place where his sexuality is accepted. But he encounters a mostly white, sometimes racist community there, and wonders if he will have to give up being Latino in order to be gay.
"It's like making a Faustian bargain," says Jorge Sanchez, a Colombian immigrant who does gay outreach in the Mission. "Latinos can discover their sexuality in this town, but at what price?"
Miguel was not disappointed when he first arrived in the Castro. He had never seen two men holding hands in public. It shocked him. "I thought, 'Wow, what is this?' Seeing that made me think it must be easier to be gay here, because people are willing to accept you for who you are," Miguel says.
But Miguel had no experience living as a racial minority. In San Francisco, that's precisely what he was, especially in the gay community he was so eager to join.
In the Castro's overwhelmingly white gay bars, Miguel can feel as invisible as the woodwork. And he is leery of the white guys who come on to him. "I hate being a fetish," Miguel says. "They don't see you as a person. Just an object -- Latin meat."
As in Mexico, Miguel doesn't face discrimination in the Mission -- as long as he hides his sexuality. At straight clubs, it is not uncommon for women to flirt with him. And more than once he's heard Latinas, upon discovering he's gay, say, "What a waste."
But venturing outside the Mission opens him up to what he views as racism from parts of the greater community -- gay and straight -- who dismiss him as a Latino gangster or migrant worker. The insults hurt most when made by other gay men.
And when Miguel tried to escape the Mission's intolerance by taking a job at a Castro restaurant, he found the restaurant's kitchen -- like so many in San Francisco -- to be staffed mostly by Latino immigrants. His peers were very macho, a flashback to Mexico. At first, he was afraid to face them without pretending to be straight.
"When I found out about this city, it seemed like a dream. But when I got here, I realized even in the gay capital of the U.S., I'm still Mexican," Miguel says. "I didn't come all this way to go through the same shit."
Late on a Sunday night, Miguel and his friends line up outside a little bar next to an alley and a taqueria on 16th Street in the Mission. A sign with a painted palm tree and the words "Dancing, Live Entertainment" hangs out front, illuminating the exterior of the dark purple building.