MEXICO CITY -- Although freshly re-painted, the sign had been posted for 10 years outside the swimming-hole spa in the conservative central Mexican state of Aguascalientes before the world took notice this past summer.
"No animals admitted," the farmers who run the Ojocalientes resort stipulated. "No homosexuals" either.
The homophobic prohibition was championed by Aguascalientes city regulation manager Jorge Alvarez, who conceded that he had authorized sprucing up the sign: "I'm against this kind of people. They offend morals and violate good customs."
Gays working for the city of Aguascalientes would be weeded out and fired, Alvarez pledged.
Both the city and the state of Aguascalientes are governed by National Action, or PAN, the party of Vicente Fox, Mexico's president-elect, who last July 2 dethroned the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Pushing agendas All over Mexico, conservatives have taken heart from the Fox victory, and in PAN-run cities and states like Aguascalientes, right-wing officials, often in cahoots with the Catholic hierarchy, have been pushing patently homophobic agendas.
One glaring example: the city of Cordoba Veracruz, where the PANista mayor has launched a "Clean Cordoba of Scum" crusade to sweep gay "sexoservidores" (prostitutes) off the streets.
The imminence of the Fox regime (he takes office December 1) has many gay and lesbian leaders nervous. As news of the offending sign in Aguascalientes spread, indignant reps from groups across Mexico descended on the central plaza of that state capital to rally and distribute questionnaires asking locals if they approved of equating homosexuals with dogs.
The PANista mayor tried to calm things down by promising not to fire gay workers and offering a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" hiring policy.
Nonetheless, for the first time, hundreds of queers marched through the streets, some in drag (among them "the Proud-To-Be-Gay Hairstylists of Aguascalientes").
The Battle of Aguascalientes seems a quaint and harmless instance of residual homophobia -- gays and dogs have always been allowed into the resort regardless of the sign, regular spa-goers assert.
But homophobia is hardly a harmless phenomenon in Mexico. A 1999 report by the United Nations special rapporteur for extra-judicial executions implores outgoing president Ernesto Zedillo to investigate the murders of Mexican homosexuals and make the protection of gays a human rights priority.
The statistics of this homophobic rampage are alarming. In the five-year period between 1995 and 2000, the independent Civil Commission on Homophobic Hate Crimes has recorded 199 murders of homosexuals (as of August), almost all of them unsolved.
Thus far in 2000, there has been one such murder a month in Mexico City, reports commission member Arturo Diaz. Even a hotline to a special city police unit has failed to put a dent in the savagery.
Diaz estimates that because of the under-reporting of killings in the countryside, where homophobia is endemic, the toll of dead gay men and women (21 listed victims have been women) is actually closer to 500 in the past five years.
Homophobic violence and police brutality against gays have driven a number of Mexican gays to seek political asylum in the United States and Canada.
Patria Jimenez, the first out lesbian to win a seat in the Mexican congress (she is now backup senator from Mexico City) and a hate-crimes commission founder, sees the flight of gays as "acts of desperation."
Despite a progressive anti-discrimination law passed by the left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)-controlled legislature in Mexico City, Jimenez reports that homophobia continues to run high. "A murder a month is not progress."
Guadalajara cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez describes homosexuals as "aberrations of nature," and Mexico City cardinal Norberto Rivera warns that "toleration of sexual diversity puts our children at risk of falling into homosexuality."
The distribution of a series of parent-directed government-issued pamphlets on sexuality in which homosexuality is characterized as "a reality" recently attracted the wrath of rank-and-file Catholic zealots like Pro Vida (Pro-Life) director Jose Serrano Limon, who accuses the secretary of public education of "spreading homosexuality."
Recently, several hundred gays and lesbians pleading the cause of sexual diversity staged a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's most hallowed shrine, to ask for the Brown Madonna's protection against the persecution of the Catholic Church.
Exorcise sins "We let them in because we encourage homosexuals to ask pardon for their behaviour," Father David Gagnon told a La Jornada reporter. The priest then sprayed the group liberally with holy water, as if to disinfect the sanctuary, and repeatedly recited his rosary to exorcise the sins of the pilgrims.
Fox's July 2 victory has emboldened the Church and its allies in the PAN on other issues. In Guanajuato, Fox's home state, the PAN-controlled local congress criminalized abortion, setting prison terms for rape victims who seek to end unwanted pregnancies.
But women's groups all over Mexico quickly organized in defence of abortion rights, and the current Guanajuato governor, Fox's substitute, vetoed the criminalization measure. Subsequently, pro-choice congresses in Morelos state and Mexico City have passed legislation expanding access to abortion.
But for Mexico's macho left, gay and lesbian rights have never been number one on its list of demands.
The notable exception is the largely Mayan Indian Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which since the earliest days of its rebellion has embraced gay and lesbian struggles, making a point of inviting its representatives to the Lacandon jungle for meetings and celebrations. "As usual, the Zapatistas are in the vanguard," muses Jimenez.
Number of murders of homosexuals 1995-2000: 199
Estimated number of homosexuals murdered: 500
Number of homosexuals murdered in Mexico City this year: one a month
Number of Mexico City gay bars listed on the gay cruisingforsex.com Web site: 10
Number of bathhouses: 5