Mauricio Álvarez, better known as La Madison, takes a small mirror from his bag. As he combs his wispy bleached blonde hair, he says he realized he was gay at the age of seven, while reading a Superman comic.
“As soon as I saw Clark Kent, I just flipped,” he says, spluttering with laughter.
With a look of mock astonishment on his face, John Jairo Murillo, nicknamed La Ñaña, says this is the “gayest confession” he has heard in all his thirty-seven years.
“You're so gay,” he exclaims, clapping his hands together, “you even want to get it on with men in cartoon strips!”
Madison laughs out loud, as do the other members of Las Regias: The Queens. They're getting changed in the stands of the Misael Pastrana Borrero stadium, in the town of Riofrío, eastern Colombia, an area best known for its plentiful production of sugarcane. Made up entirely of transvestites, the team was formed in 1992 with the aim of raising funds to help Cali homosexuals suffering from AIDS or drug addiction. They raise money by playing exhibition matches in local neighborhoods and nearby towns, and receive the odd donation too. But finding sufficient funds is getting increasingly difficult. They recently had to give up on the idea of competing at the Gay World Cup, held in Buenos Aires, because they failed to raise enough money to cover the cost of flights and a hotel.
This afternoon, as has become customary, the players gossip loudly while they change into their uniforms. The most foul-mouthed of all is La Ñaña, the team's founder. He says that when La Valeria was a little baby he used to sit on top of his bottle; that La Britney was born with a pacifier up his ass; that La Natalia is as wet as water in a vase; La Canasto is a pansy in the yard next door; and La Cuto is so gay that when he sees a penis spray-painted on the ground, he rubs it out with his behind.
“And this one?” he says, referring to La Iguana, who is doubled over with laughter, “If he'd spent another fifteen seconds in his mother's womb, he'd have been born with a pussy.”
The stadium is small, with capacity for around a thousand spectators. The bare concrete stands are practically deserted. The game will kick off in an hour, by which time some five hundred people are expected to show up. The Las Regias players continue to preen themselves in a ritual that, for the moment, seems better suited to a beauty salon than a football pitch. There's still not a ball in sight, just an abundance of hair extensions, painted nails, dyed hair, lipsticks, plucked eyebrows and makeup.
“You know what, honey?” says La Ñaña. “Write down that the Las Regias players are all gay, but there are definitely no fags or fruits here, because fags are always doing favors for others, while fruits go rotten and are thrown at people.”
Everyone bursts out laughing. Diego Fernando García, better known as Melissa Williams, takes a little five-a-side ball from his bag and tells Óscar Gil, whose nickname is La Natalia, to go keep goal so that they can practice free kicks. For a moment it looks as if the first shot is going to end up in the back of the net; instead of trying to punch the ball clear, La Natalia is flapping his hands around beside his body, like a penguin trying to make sense of its useless wings. However, by chance, the ball bounces against his body and rolls away toward the touchline. La Natalia runs hysterically out of the goal, as if he's just made a World Cup-winning penalty save. Through their campness, these players transform football, a quintessentially macho sport, into a dance of turtledoves. If the spectators give them a standing ovation, it's not just out of politeness, but to reward them for having wilfully turned their transvestism into the butt of the joke. Perhaps, deep down, those watching prefer having Las Regias caged in here, like circus freaks, to seeing them out and about in the streets, mixing with the rest of society. Watching them running jubilantly after the ball while the crowd claps and shouts brings to mind an old idea: men invented humor to comfort themselves for being what they are.
Pedro Julio Pardo is a hot-tempered business administrator, and co-ordinator of the Santamaría Foundation, which safeguards the rights of the LGBT population in Cali, Colombia's third most important city. Pardo, who works closely with Las Regias, is of the opinion that, although it is discriminatory, transvestites have the right to band together to form their own football team, or to do any other activity for that matter. After all, are they really welcome in the stadiums where straight men play? “This country,” he adds, “has left them with only two career options: prostitution and hairdressing. So building their own ghetto is a defence mechanism against discrimination.”
“When we fags play football,” he says, “we're making a statement about the lack of tolerance in society: if we're not allowed to play with the men, we'll form our own team.”
Pardo sees the existence of Las Regias as an opportunity for Cali's transgender community to publicize its problems. First he cites the constant violence they endure. In just nine months, between November 2006 and August 2007, twelve transvestites were murdered and fifteen were shot or stabbed. Some have turned up naked in vacant lots, multiple signs of torture making plain the unremitting hatred of their assailants. On the weekends, groups of drunk young men leave clubs carrying air guns, and practice their aim by firing at transsexuals' silicone breasts.
My chat with Pardo takes place in the Madison hair salon, located in the Siete de Agosto neighborbood. It's a building on a corner, painted red and white. Inside, the walls bristle with mirrors and photographs of different hairstyles. There are also shelves with trophies and photos of Las Regias. There's a sense of obsessive cleanliness about the place: the makeup on the dressing table, meticulously tidy; the furniture polished to a sheen; the smell of detergent. The salon is owned by Mauricio Álvarez—forty-two years old, five foot five—known in Cali's gay scene by his nickname, La Madison. At the game yesterday, Álvarez came across as extravagantly effeminate. Today, however, he's much more restrained. He wields his razor firmly, and is even a little brusque when he reaches for his customer's head, a young man of around twenty.
At first, Álvarez concentrates on his work and pays little attention to what Pardo is saying. But as he sweeps up the hair scattered over the floor, he joins in the conversation. In his opinion, transsexuals are the most marginalized group in the entire LGBT community.
“If it's hard for society to accept a run-of-the-mill gay,” he says, “imagine how complicated things get when the gay dresses like a woman or gets himself some tits.”
Neither straight men nor women consider the transsexual as being of their gender, but rather as someone in fancy dress, a caricature. Even conventional gay men reject transsexuals, considering them ludicrous creatures who have to put on a skirt to assume their sexuality. The police who patrol the city often move transsexuals on from the same public spaces where they're allowed to work as prostitutes. Where the harassment of the outside world ends—explains La Madison—the personal conflicts begin. Initially there's the chasm between what the transsexual wants to project to society and the perception people really have of him. What's more, being obliged to live trapped in a body he does not want weighs heavily on him: he suffers each night in his bedroom at the end of the day, retracing the steps of his own metamorphosis; then he must destroy the nocturnal butterfly he's created, and allow the old beetle to reemerge. Removing makeup and rediscovering the blueish shadow of a beard hidden under the powder is a daily death only those who've experienced it can comprehend, according to La Madison. “Perhaps it's because of the depression these problems cause,” he concludes, “that transsexuals are so prone to drug addiction.”
Sometimes Álvarez gives the impression that he is more interested in talking to his own image, reflected back in the mirror, than in addressing Pardo. He goes back to being the man with the limp gestures he was during the game. You can tell a mile off that he's fond of his own image. Pardo suddenly points at a photo of Álvarez hanging on the wall, and asks where it was taken.
“A house in Alfonso López,” Álvarez says, “when I was eighteen.”
In the photo, Álvarez—his head tilted to the right, a languid look on his face— appears in a Roman tunic and sandals, with a laurel wreath on his head.
“I've got a really gay face there,” he exclaims with a smile.
I ask him to describe what a “gay face” looks like, and he hesitates before giving me a metaphorical answer:
“It's a face that looks like a biscuit about to crumble.”
The house, Álvarez adds, belonged to La Leo, the oldest homosexual in South East Cali. He died of AIDS, shut up in his room so that no one could see him, because, as he told it, he didn't want to alarm all the pretty young boys who'd once been his lovers. The curious thing about the story is that La Leo made every boy he took to bed dress up as a Roman, then took a picture of them. Thus he managed to put together a hefty photo album that became a hot topic of discussion in certain circles of the city. It was said that its pages featured pop stars, footballers, and the sons of a number of notable politicians. Spiteful tongues claim the crowd that hung around his house when he was dying was motivated not by solidarity, but the desperate need to find out what had happened to the photos. There are various different theories as to the album's whereabouts. The most popular claims it ended up in the hands of a drug trafficker, who used it as kindling for a fire on the shores of the River Pance. With a smile, Álvarez tells us that he swiped the photo of himself, the one we now see hanging on the wall, from La Leo's album years before it became an urban legend.
The conversation switches back to the difficulties inherent in transgender life. “A man who displays himself on the streets in a crop top and high heels,” says Pardo, “is aware that his decision has a price, and he's prepared to pay it. He knows that dressed like that, no one will offer him a job. He knows that he's making himself vulnerable to extremists capable of killing him. But by the time he's reached that point, there's no going back, and he doesn't want to in any case. He sets about his crusade knowing full well that it will be both self-affirming and suicidal. Many of these men fight tooth and nail for the tiny space fate has afforded them and, rather than sacrifice themselves, they become propagators of the very violence they denounce.”
“The hostile environment makes them aggressive,” Pardo acknowledges.
It is also known that some of these men openly sell drugs on the street and become involved with minors.
Andrés Santamaría, an ombudsman in Valle del Cauca, is a twenty-eight-year-old lawyer. He operates from an office in a huge mansion with a pool, which was confiscated from a member of Cali's mafia by the Colombian government. Santamaría informs me that in Cali there are approximately three thousand transsexuals. Of these, three hundred work as prostitutes and the rest as hairdressers. In his opinion, removing people from the streets they control is not something that should be done by force, but, rather, demands a social response. It's a job that's become too difficult in a city where, as he puts it, an unjust and discriminatory mindset has always prevailed. According to a study he himself conducted, poor people in Cali who commit minor offenses are held, on average, for thirty-six hours, rich people for three.
“The region's economic development,” he explains, “was due in part to the sugar mills, which prospered thanks to slavery. And this gave rise to the hegemonic mindset that still prevails today.”
When the writer Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal launched his campaign to become governor of the region a few years ago, several leaders attempted to discredit him for being gay. The writer defended himself irritably, arguing that he would govern with his head, not with his ass.
Santamaría says that the fact that the rights of the LGBT community are now taken seriously has stirred up old bigoted attitudes. Some pundits see his initiatives not as a democratic duty, but as a symptom of immorality. A radio journalist recently accused him of “fagging up” the city. “This story,” adds Santamaría “reflects who we are as a country: on the surface we're talking about the problems faced by a particular group, but what we're really talking about is Colombia's age-old problem of intransigence, whereby anyone different is viewed as a transgressor and must be erased from the face of the earth. This is why we live through conflict after conflict.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Santamaría attributes huge symbolic value to Las Regias. More than just helping transgender people who've fallen on hard times, they have brought to the foreground several important issues related to urban coexistence. Some of the nearly forty transvestites who make up his squad—such as La Iguana and La Paulito—have found in the team an opportunity to battle their drug addictions.
Las Regias make unlikely footballers: they are always falling over, they kick the ball up in the air when they're less than a foot from goal, they can't control the ball on their chests, never mind with their feet, and they're incapable of passing to a teammate a mere ten yards away. This clumsiness, which is not deliberate but natural, paradoxically becomes their most persuasive weapon. The spectators indulge them because they see them as actors in a parody. If people saw them performing headers like Miroslav Klose or dribbling like Ronaldinho, they wouldn't forgive them their painted nails and false eyelashes.
At halftime, Las Regias’ opponents, a women's team from Riofrío, are three-nil up. The almost two hundred people who have come to the stadium are watching the choreographed show that Édinson Aramburu, another Las Regias player, is performing in the center circle. The Las Regias players, meanwhile, are gathered in the same stands they got changed in earlier. Instead of anxiously discussing a strategy that might get them back on level terms, they're joking around again. As ever, the ringleader is La Ñaña—five foot six, green eyes, bleached blonde hair—who is giving the goalkeeper a hard time.
“Honey, you don't stop a thing, you're supposed to be a dam, not a dame.”
Everyone bursts out laughing. I seize the opportunity to ask La Ñaña, in the same deadpan tone of voice he uses, why he mocks transgender people so much. Is he perhaps homophobic? I see a mischievous look in his eye, but he suddenly adopts a serious face.
“We take the insults society throws at us and we defuse them by making jokes of them.”
However his composure instantly evaporates.
“What are you going to say about me in this piece?” he asks, putting his hands on his hips and looking at me defiantly. As I stay silent, he has an idea.
“Put down that I'm not masculine, I'm ass-culine.”
This time the one who laughs the hardest is La Valeria—thirty-seven years old, six feet tall, dark skin.
I ask La Ñaña to be serious for a minute so we can talk about football. What I've seen this afternoon—I say it dramatically—I find very worrying. If Las Regias were to represent Colombia at the Gay World Cup, they'd almost certainly be thrashed by Argentina, by Brazil; even by Guatemala, just think! His answer is a gem of black humor.
“Oh, sweetie, if they thrash the men's team, they're bound to give a bunch of fairies a good thrashing!”
This time I'm the one who bursts out laughing. Shortly afterward, as I go back to my place to watch the second half, I wonder again about the spectators' motives for coming to watch Las Regias play. Perhaps they're trying to feel better about themselves by donating a few coins to help pay for the treatment of a gay man suffering from AIDS or prostate cancer. Perhaps they're seeking an injection of surrealist humor from the players' sporting incompetence. Whatever the reason, I suspect they're not yet ready to accept the transvestites beyond the walls of this stadium.
"Futbol de las regias," © Alberto Salcedo Ramos, 2007. Translation © 2014 by Rosalind Harvey. All rights reserved. Forthcoming in The Football Crónicas, a not-for-profit book of football-themed writing from Latin America, published by Ragpicker Press.