Latin American Gay & Lesbian History in the Making: Costa Rica Colours

 

This month, Costa Rican gays and their friends are celebrating pride with a rainbow array of public and private events. San José has more gay bars than any other location in Central America and the Pacific town ofColours beach Manuel Antonio is one of the several beach destinations with its gay-owned or friendly hotels and businesses. Although civil or marital unions are still not recognized, in 1998 the Supreme Court of Costa Rica extended civil protection for LGB persons under the Constitution and the Assembly passed legislation subjecting anyone who discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation to be jailed from 20-60 days.

What few visitors to this country of less than five million people appreciate is the dramatic change that has occurred during the past two decades. The story of James Remes, who first arrived in Costa Rica during the summer of 1989, illuminates this transformation.

James resided in Key West where he founded Colours: The Guest Mansion, formerly known as the Victorian House. He renovated this 1889 mansion upon his arrival from Colorado, in 1983. At that time, Key West had no codes for “guesthouses.” That would, of course, change—as Colours, Oasis, Big Ruby’s, Island House, Lighthouse Court, and other gay guesthouses soon became iconic to this southernmost island city of the United States.

On a fateful day in 1989, James received an offer from Eastern Airlines for a special package through its “Weekenders Club:” airfare and three nights in San José. Images of a Costa Rican with whom he had spent a Roman holiday the summer before pranced in his mind along with the José’s invitation, “Why don’t you visit my little country?”

The airline offer required a quick response and a second person to accompany him. So, it was with this dilemma in mind that James ambled toward the end of a very long pier during the weekly tea dance (“Tea by the Sea”) at Atlantic Shores. “I looked like I was going to jump,” he recalled. Although this was far from the case, a concerned lesbian friend approached him. Explaining his dilemma, Jean quickly responded, “I’ll go!” The die was cast.

The next weekend this unlikely couple arrived at the Holiday Inn in San José. The first night they checked out spots featured in the Spartacus Guide (the only gay guidebook that even mentioned Costa Rica!). As sparse as the list was, some bar descriptions appeared promising—that is until they discovered that each had closed or changed. “So, that’s all there is?” James lamented to Jean.

Two gay TicosHeading back to the hotel, they spotted a young Tico (nickname for Costa Ricans) leaning against the service entrance. The couple smiled; he offered a timid smile. “James, why don’t you work your charm with him? Maybe there’s a place in town he knows about.” Absent a working knowledge of Spanish, James, with Alberto in hand, strolled around a block of semi-decaying buildings. Rounding the last corner, they agreed to meet (along with a female friend for Jean) the next day at a nearby gay piano bar.

That evening was everything the first night was not: camaraderie with new friends, a familiar bar setting within an unfamiliar city, singing of old standbys between shots of rum and glasses of Imperial beer. One young man, Gama, talked about the beauty of his country and asked whether James and Jean would be interested in visiting a beach and the nearby national park. The following day, a troupe of slightly hung over passengers traversed the nearly six hours to Manuel Antonio (the new highway has now halved the time). The scenery was gorgeous and Gama proved to be the perfect guide (he has since become the guide for gay park visitors).

Six months later, James and Jean returned to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica where, with the help of an old Swiss real estate broker fond of rolling a half lit Cuban cigar along his lips, they bought a rambling Key West-style beach house. This would become “Colours: The Guest Lodge.”

 


The pair returned to close on the property a few weeks later. At the hotel, James and Jean heard rhapsodic Spanish chatter from the courtyard. One of the voices seemed familiar: José from Rome?  When he realized the connection, James approached José with the greeting: “I am in this country because of you!” His surprised friend, responded: “Well, I just got back from my Yale studies abroad. I wanted to reach you in Florida but didn’t know how.”

As James made plans for his sister Costa Rican beach property to complement his Key West operation, offering a new “destination” to his ever-expanding guest list, it became clear that if the beach guesthouse was to ever attract a following that “we needed a base in San José.”  He soon found a property owned by a Californian who had developed a resort on the white sands of Playa Panazucar in Guanacaste. James quicklyColours' pool made an offer, recalling the compound “had good bones, but the last occupants had been university students, so it was completely trashed.”

Three months later, Thanksgiving 1990, James opened the second Colours in the well-heeled San José neighborhood of Rohrmoser, to serve a primarily a gay clientele. While it resembled little of the sprawling resort that people frequent today, the original boutique hotel offered guests choices from among eight rooms with shared baths. (There are now between 17-23 tastefully furnished rooms—depending on configurations—all with private baths.)

When James opened “Colours: Guest Residence-San Jose” in 1990, he still spent most of his time at Colours: The Guest Mansion-Key West. Gay life closely resembled that of South Florida during the 1950s, as depicted in my book Lonely Hunters. Not only were there no legal protections for Costa Rican queers (homosexuality was technically legal with the exception of “scandalous homosexuality”), but police routinely harassed the few hole-in-the -wall gay bars in existence.

The best a gay person could hope for was living a closeted life within the suffocating love of an extended family shepherded by Catholic prelates and honeycombed with Latino values. Homosexual silence was golden in this Central American paradise. Despite occasional homosexual outings, such as Jose Angel Sanchez’s 1971 novel, La Isla de Los Hombres Solos, and the AIDS news coverage of the 1980s, homosexuality was a topic reserved for church confessionals and prison cells.

Sears-Costa_Rican_patioQueers who ventured out to bars like La Torre, La Avispa, and Los Cucharones—none of which had signs—entered at their own risk. As in South Florida decades earlier, a flashing light inside the bar warned customers to switch dancing from their same gender partners to any person of the other gender. During routine police raids, patrons were lined against crumbling walls and forced to disclose their names and addresses by police wielding automatic weapons and spitting insults: “Una Loca;” “Chupa mi huevos, maricon!” On occasion, some unlucky customers were beaten and hauled to the police station.

It was an era in which Tico gays spoke in codes—much like our ancestors. If you wanted to know whether a friend was heading to La Torre discotheque that evening, you would ask: “A dónde vas esta noche?” (Where are you going tonight?”), to which the respondent would reply “Esta noche!” (Tonight!). To those in-the-know La Torre was actually La Torre esta noche.

Violence against homosexuals was not the sole province of the police. Between 1988 and 1996, for example, 25 gay men were tortured and then murdered by the chulos (pimps) who had been taken to the men’s homes. In public places chapulines or “locusts” mugged and robbed at will. Some cacheros enjoyed anal sex and then robbed them.

Despite Tico homophobia sanctioned by the Church, institutionalized by the State, and meted out by gangs of rogues, there were outspoken individuals like Mario Lizano Cordero. He defied police violence and social approbation by hosting “gay parties” at his residence, insisting on his right to do as he chose within his home. However, even his upper class credentials did not prevent the occasional raid or police harassment.

Within this cultural context, it is not surprising that Colours faced problems during its early years even though it was not marketed as a gay hotel within the country. “We were censured, sanctioned, and harassed,” James remembers. For example, during the two-year struggle to get Colours approved as a “hotel,” his attorney told him that never had he seen the government apply to one application all of the statutes and regulations to the letter. In fact, some of Colours’ fiercest opponents were closeted homosexuals who were as scared of gay visibility as they were comfortable living their secret lives.

Nevertheless, James persisted. In the process, he opened up a bit of queer space. Early on, Colours was the host for “white parties” prior to or immediately after the infamous Miami Viscaya event. Although policeJames at Colours raids were always possible and, on at least one occasion the police appeared, for many gay foreigners this was their first introduction to Costa Rica. Eventually, some bought properties and opened businesses, becoming the first wave of openly gay Costa Rican immigrants. Together with local activists, they contributed to the transformation of Costa Rica into its iconic status as the gay Central American destination.

In 1990s gay activism picked up. Tico gays and lesbians celebrated Abril Saliendo del Silencio [“April Coming Out of the Silence”], which publicly challenged the state-sanctioned harassment and religious homophobia. In 1992, the first LGBT rights association, Triángulo Rosa, was founded (there was already a lesbian feminist group, Las Entendidas), and two years later the newsmagazine, Gente10, was launched.

As progressive gay space opened, the reactionary forces of heterosexism became more public. In 1995, a Washington, DC-based travel agency, Amphitron Holidays, distributed promotional materials for a tour package to Costa Rica. It included information about Manuel Antonio and San José, listing three gay-owned hotels (Casa Blanca, Colours, Joluva). A female reporter from La Prensa Libre, the third largest newspaper in the country, spotted this brochure. She contacted an owner of Casa Blanca, Harold Holler, who agreed to be interviewed, assuming that the coverage would be positive.

“In that interview I made clear that we, Casa Blanca, are in fact a gay/lesbian hotel and explained to her that it would be better if she would write in favor of the gay/lesbian society in Costa Rica to get more tolerance and acceptance. She promised to do so.”

On June 13, the newspaper’s front page led with the headline: “PROSTITUTION, HOMOSEXUALITY, AND LESBIANISM: Costa Rica Promoted as Homosexual Paradise.” There was a color photo of the Casa Blanca entrance replete with rainbow flags. According to the story, this gay tour would “put Costa Rica on the map for sex tourism,” and the reporter described “authorities as very serious about the international reputation of Costa Rica.”

Homophobia in Costa RicaThe next day, La Prensa headlined: “WITHOUT DEFENSES AGAINST SEX TOURISM” with a feature photo of Colours. “Costa Rica is without any defense against this wave of international promotion which describes the country as a paradise for prostitution, lesbianism and homosexuality!” Observing that “gay/lesbian tourists like to travel in packs,” the reported bemoaned that “authorities are confirming that the mentioned three hotels [Casa Blanca, Colours, Joluva) have all legal permits and are paying all necessary taxes.”

La Nacion, the nation’s most widely read newspaper, and other media outlets such as Channel 4’s Live-Talk-Show "En La Mira" and the radio show, “Monumental,” joined the homophobic cacophony.  The widely listened to news radio broadcast opined, “Unfortunately the laws from Costa Rica are protecting the homosexuals which are promoting Costa Rica for sex-tourism…. the Costa Rican Government must be forced to change laws to do something against those people..."

On June 15, two front page headline stores greeted La Prensa’s morning readers: “INDIGNATION IN GAY COMMUNITY,” and “Homosexuality is something normal in the area: IMPACT OF VALUES IN QUEPOS.” Although both articles were generally positive, each article ended negatively. The first connected the event to “sex tourism” and the second quoted a local priest about the sinful abnormality of homosexuality.

Meanwhile Harold Holler feverishly sent emails to the entire “queer planet” to drum up an international response. Decrying the “libelous” articles, he promised to buy one page ad in La Nacion “to present the letter of accusation to the public” and threatened to sue the reporter. James remembers Holler proclaiming, “This is our Stonewall!”

In Florida at the time of this controversy, James was notified that the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association Board was discussing censorship of Costa Rica (James is one of the 25 founders of IGLTA,James formed in 1983 to promote gay tourism, networking travel agents and hoteliers). Holler argued that this incident “must be made public and must be discussed internationally.” James countered: this is an “internal issue” for Costa Rica and the gay rights cause would be served best by “coming down and supporting us” rather than boycotting the country.  The Board sided with James, choosing to send a private letter to Costa Rica’s president, who eventually wrote back apologizing for the problem.

Left to die its natural homophobic death, everyday life slowly improved during the middle 1990s for gays and lesbians. However, when an activity week, known as the International Congress of Gays and Lesbians, was scheduled at Manuel Antonio, a closeted gay priest denounced it in his popular radio broadcast. The Minister of Governance and Police then ordered Costa Rican consulates not to issue visas to any female foreigners unescorted by a man. Any airline allowing a lesbian (identified as a pant-clad, cropped hair Amazon) would be required to return the deviant traveller at its expense. The event was cancelled.

James along with two other prominent gay business owners met with the head of the country’s tourism office (ICT). During their 15-minute meeting the trio emphasized the economic impact of gay tourism. To which she responded: “I am sorry. You know the position of our government and my Church. I don’t know that gay tourism even exists and, if it does, you should find something else to do!” Caught short, James replied: “You have no idea how extensively involved gay people are within the tourism industry. They will shut down tourism here.” And, in fact, tourism slowed for several years.

Costa Rican volcanoAround the same time, in October 1998, the Atlantis Group (a California-based gay tour operator) organized two back-to-back weeks of international activities at Costa Rica's Blue Bay Village Papagayo resort in the Pacific Guanacaste region in the northwest. The Most Reverend Román Arrieta Villalobos, Archbishop of San José, dispatched some of his Church’s most fervent members accompanied by Father Minor de Jesús Calvo, the parish priest who appeared frequently in the media, to protest the event as promoting “sex tourism.” Local politicians from nearby Sardinal de Carrillo joined the protest. Father Minor told the media, “I feel sorry that in Costa Rica we open the doors for the realization of a gay/lesbian tourist congress, which is debauchery."

Strategic as they were pious, these true believers chose the middle weekend to blockade the only road from the hotel to the airport with tires and wood. Three hundred mostly US gay tourists, including some IGLTA members, trying to leave the event or arriving for the second week, were stranded; they witnessed several hundred demonstrators waving sticks, brandishing clubs, and shouting homophobic epithets. It was only after the president of the country ordered the national police (Costa Rica has no military) in riot gear to clear the road of debris and demonstrators was a semblance of order was restored.

 


With the ruling by the country’s Supreme Court that LGBT persons were protected under the Constitution and the passage of non-discrimination legislation by the Assembly, Costa Rica has turned the page on its homophobic past. But, the movement from homophobia to equality has been anything but smooth. Although the country’s first gay pride march occurred in 2003 and its president, in 2008, declared Costa Rica part of the world’s National Day Against Homophobia, LGBT citizens still face barriers to employment, civil unions are not recognized, and—most recently—the designation of a conservative leader of the Episcopalian church to head the Legislative Commission on Human Rights, has put women’s and gay issues on the backburner. Nevertheless, Costa Rica continues to be the most progressive (and democratic) country in Central America; it is a welcoming place for LGBT travelers as well as those wishing to live or invest here.Costa Rica Inside Pool

As for James, even with years of talk of retirement and a “life beyond Colours,” he continues hosting travellers and prospective expats to Hotel Colours Oasis Resort, which now boasts 23 unique rooms, including three apartments, a full bar and restaurant along with a pool and, of course, that famous Key West “family” style environment. For those thinking about a little “piece” of Costa Rica, he offers Colours VIP Preferred Equity Guest plan, which for a modest investment returns that money annually by providing a low cost vacation package along with equity ownership.  Oh, yes, James and some of his friends have an eye on their next project—a hotel on the beach—for which a dozen or so investors of modest means are needed. “If you have the guesthouse fever, simply want to share in the Costa Rican lifestyle, or have an idea for another project,” James invites you to contact him.

Living in a foreign country (if only for a few weeks each year) does not mean leaving one’s principles at home.  We have a common interest and shared responsibility in promoting human rights. Although the task of changing any country’s anti-gay laws and homophobic policies rests with its citizenry, the international community and, in particular, LGBT individuals living or investing in a foreign country do make a difference.  The pink dollar, when coupled to an indigenous based human rights movement, can impact even the most recalcitrant government. Investing ourselves in other countries is not simply a personal preference or business James T. Sears, PhDdecision; it is a social act with political consequences.

James T. Sears, PhD, the author of two dozen books on gay history and education-related issues, taught at Penn State, University of South Carolina, Trinity University, and Harvard University, before retiring. He now works as an international investment property specialist, with home bases in Granada, Nicaragua and Charleston, South Carolina, and lectures throughout the world. His firm, Sears & Partners, offers LGBT & Friends real estate tours of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. More information is at www.searspartners.com

© LGBT-Today.com

Comments  

 
0 #1 Harald Holler 2012-07-14 06:46
Dear James,

thank you for covering the history of fighting for g/l/b/t rights in Costa Rica.

Me being Harald Holler mentioned in your article let me tell you that without the international help and leaving it as an internal issue I would not be alive today and we also would never have been able to create one of the first online petitions with the help of Costarican students at the University of Indiana that draw more than 50.000 letters of protest that had been sent to the Costarican government.

There has been an special session at the European Parliament that resulted in a strong letter to the government to enforce the anti-discrimination laws and legally prosecute the newspapers.

Besides me as one of three foreigner this fight for human rights has been taken up mainly by the gay/lesbian community of Costa Rica: Gente10 Magazine with Jorge and Jose (not even mentioned in your article), Deja Vue disco, L'Avispa with Anna, Human Right lawyer Marco Castillo - to name a few!

The least support came from James/Colours who was afraid that the fight for our rights would damage his business and he was to my memory not even in Costa Rica at the times.

I had death threats, threats that my house and the hotel would be burnt down - other gay business received similar threats.

Amnesty international and Washington's Human Rights Campaign took the case after evaluating it to be not an internal affair but a case that if not fought against on an international level would set an example for other governments to ignore the rights of gay and lesbian people in Central America. All very well documented till today also at the International Gay Lesbian Human Rights commission in San Francisco.

Please refer to Gente 10 and to Lic. Marco Castillo in San Jose to receive an insiders view from local citizens.

We founded together a human rights group in which I was one of two foreigners who fought this through and brought this fight up to the Supreme Court/Constitutional Court and we won the lawsuit!

Please feel free to contact me anytime if you wish to get more detailed information about what was really going on during that time.

And yes.. what counts is the outcome... and that has been a liberation and respect towards the g/l/b/t community in Costa Rica.

All the best,

Harald Holler
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