Text: Daniel Fonseca
Photography: Fernando Destephen
Translated by: Jorge Paz Reyes
Alexis Carrasco is sculpting Gallery, his other self. He has been doing it for ten years and is already an expert craftsman of the exhausting and painful work of momentarily transforming himself into a woman. First is the structure: foam rubber breasts, hips, and buttocks. That is the marble on which he sculpts his work.
He looks in the mirror and evaluates the work. Drops of sweat trickle down his temples, dragging the makeup, and peeling the eyelashes. The sound of industrial-strength duct tape being ripped off cuts through the thin walls of room 405 at the Hotel Guanacaste. The smell of sweat mixed with Old Spice fills the room. It’s a warm, humid room; inside you could harvest orchids, but the only thing growing is mold, which creeps into the corners and crawls up the walls. It’s 30 degrees, but it feels like 40.
Outside, Tegucigalpa waits, also transformed. Gutemberg Avenue is illuminated only by streetlights and traffic lights, which cast sharp shadows like teeth on the pavement. A group of workers seek to satiate their hunger in small street food stalls and some drunks begin to fall asleep on the sidewalks.
This is Alexis’ first time out of Mexico. He was born in Cuernavaca, “The city of eternal spring” and that is also where Gallery was born. One day she wanted to find out what it was like to see herself in the mirror with long hair and since then, every chance she gets, Gallery is reborn in all the glory of her colorful wigs and sequined dresses.
A meeting with friends led her to a party, a party to a drag pageant, and from one pageant to the next. Now, she is getting ready to represent her country in the first edition of the Miss and Mister Universal pageant, to be held in Tegucigalpa, at the Excelsior Hotel, a few blocks away from the Guanacaste Hotel, where she is staying.
The event has been postponed for years. The pandemic delayed its programming so much that for a moment it seemed it would never be held again. But now, after years of waiting, thousands of miles traveled and a customs nightmare trying to get a five-foot feather headdress through, Gallery is preparing in his room for the grand finale. But the competition is not what matters most, Alexis says. It’s the excitement that matters.
In the drag community, there is no single opinion on what drag is. While some people consider it “men who dress up as women”, in practice it is more than that and diversity reigns on stage. There is a little bit of everything.
Cross-dressers are quick to say that their discipline is not the same as drag, but the boundaries are blurred. It is not the same, they say, but sometimes they look a lot alike and on stage, everyone comes out to tell their version of what drag is. Maybe that’s where the magic lies; in the heat of the spotlight and the roar of the applause, definitions don’t matter so much.
But, for a pageant, it takes a rubric of how much transformismo (cross-dressing/drag) the contestants bring to the stage. Homar Reyes, one of the judges of the competition, puts it in a way that aims to dispel all doubts:
-In transformismo they are not “hormoneadas” (on hormones) – he says. This is his way of clarifying that drag is not the same thing as being a trans woman, they are just men who dress up as women
The Guanacaste Hotel used to be a Chinese restaurant and, although it changed to Honduran owners, it still retains a couple of decorative elements that give away its origin. The reception is small and dark, except for the counter and a couple of seats, the only decoration is a wooden Confucius and a golden cat figure with its paw raised to invoke good fortune. On each floor in front of the guest rooms is a fire hose: the instructions are still in Mandarin.
Like all the Chinese restaurants in downtown Tegucigalpa that are also motels and that promote themselves with the label “Hotel” to make themselves look friendlier, Hotel Guanacaste has earned its reputation. Those who come to stay here do not do so for the comfort of its mattresses, renovated with the arrival of its new management, or for the coffee offered at the reception, with the distant but familiar taste of soy sauce.
In the rooms, which range from 350 to 550 lempiras a night, there are travelers from rural areas looking for an appointment at the San Felipe Hospital or the U.S. Embassy, who have waited long enough and will continue to wait longer; lovers looking for a private place to have their encounters away from the eyes of wives and husbands and also sex workers who pay two thousand lempiras a week to live there and sleep until three in the afternoon, dodging hunger before the day’s work.
The receptionist is a tanned-skinned woman who lowers her voice when talking about her former bosses. She doesn’t judge, doesn’t stare, she has no memory. She offers a greeting and one of those friendly, complicit smiles of someone who has already seen a lot. When Alexis and the rest of the contestants of the pageant come down in heels and sequins towards the event, she says goodbye with a smile.
– Goodbye, girls.
Oriana, staying in room 303, is familiar with hotels like this one. For her, unlike the rest of the contestants who come from all over Central America and Mexico, the streets of Centro are already familiar. Maybe that’s why she’s the most nervous.
The outfit she chose for the typical dress category is the classic one used on September 15: white fabric, cotton, and navy blue details. It is a simple dress. Oriana and the other Honduran contestants do not have the resources to invest in the big shows that all the other contestants have prepared. While they dress up as mythological figures for this section of the contest, Oriana goes as a peasant girl.
The idea does not seem to demotivate her.
— How much does a costume cost?
— Some of them will tell you thousands, I’ll go to the bulk and make a costume for myself,” Oriana assures. When she is not Oriana, her name is José.
She chose her name in honor of Oriana Marzoli, a Spanish “reality girl” with “a personality similar to hers. An explosion of feelings.
When she was a sex worker she served her clients in another Chinese motel-restaurant not unlike this one, just a few minutes from here. Unlike so many others, she decided to take up the trade “to try it out,” but it’s not an experience she would repeat.
— The street gets to you, it’s not for everyone. But I earned well. The most I got in one night was 23,000 lempiras. That time we didn’t have sex, the client just wanted me to accompany him all night while he did coke.
— And what did the client do for a living?
— He was a general in the Military Police.
Anthony Bonilla, master of ceremonies of Miss and Mister Universal, is in charge of all the logistics for this first edition of the contest to develop in the best way. After several days of events his voice is shattered, he can only be heard because he gives instructions with a microphone. His figure is small, wearing a short shorts and black shirt with the logo of the event in gold letters in a typeface that is hard to read. Until recently, half of his body was paralyzed with stress.
— Why did you hold the contest at the Excelsior Hotel?
— We wanted to do it at the Manuel Bonilla Theater, but they didn’t give us permission. It’s not a “cultural” event, according to them,” he says.
The Manuel Bonilla Theater rises imposingly in the streets of downtown, near the National Art Gallery and the Museum of National Identity as columns of the capital’s “high culture”. It is closed almost every day of the year. When not, it hosts ballet performances, orchestra concerts, jazz fusion concerts, and events of the Ministry of Arts, Culture, and Sports attended mainly by the few who can afford such entertainment.
Occasionally there are also plays. Sometimes it’s even free.
But events like a drag pageant are relegated to bars and discos when there is no budget, and in hotel lounges like the Excelsior when there is.
— “There is no support,” he complains, “neither from the bars nor from the government so that I can say ‘I can live as a drag performer, I can live as an entertainer doing my art’ because they don’t pay for it, they don’t support it. They think that this is like “Ah, he likes to do it and that’s it”. This also takes money. A long [time] ago it was more supported by the discos because they lent us the space to be able to develop it and make us known as drag performers.
But not anymore.
Before the pandemic, there were six or seven drag events a year in Tegucigalpa alone. Although they do not appear in history books, the streets of the capital hold the memory of hundreds of events, public and private, of the community. Some were so old that they had not yet discovered the terms LGBTIQ+ and everything was categorized as “gay” or “transvestite”, among other less friendly terms.
The golden age of the capital’s drag show was experienced during the eighties and early nineties, when a whole generation that learned to evade the military took to the streets for the first time in a country with democratic pretensions, only that at that time those who they had to evade were the police.
Suddenly, clandestinity, which was the way of life for everyone, became an escape valve to explore one’s own flesh, its limits, and possibilities, and ended up creating a sexual and political microcosm, raised on heels and wigs, fake breasts, feathers, sequins, and everything.
The events took place in any space where the police would not arrive to make arrests for indecency or prostitution, usually in bars and nightclubs that were entered with exclusive memberships for trusted clients. Back then, just going out on the street put a target on the back of the entire LGBTIQ+ community in the city, and human rights violations were the norm.
Not that the situation has improved now. In 2014, the National AIDS Forum, the LGTBI Arcoíris Association, Colectiva Amazonas, and Progressio/Latina presented a report that pointed to the Honduran police as “the main aggressor and violator of human rights against the LGTBI+ community” and there has been a special vulnerability against trans women and those living with a different gender expression.
In that sense, Vicky Hernandez, a trans sex worker murdered by the military on the night of the coup d’état on 2009, June 29, has been the main example of the treatment of the community by public security forces in the new millennium.
From her murder to 2022, 397 gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans people have been victims of violent deaths. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the State of Honduras guilty of Vicky’s death and as one of the reparatory measures, Honduras has to implement laws and protocols that protect Honduran LGBTIQ+ people, such as a gender identity law that allows trans people an identity document that recognizes the name they chose. It has not yet passed.
By the time of this resolution, most of the misters, misses and showgirls of old Tegucigalpa no longer lived in the city.
Some were killed by AIDS, others by the State. The rest migrated.
With their absence, the spaces once claimed by the community were closing, first slowly and then suddenly. In the early 2020s, drag pageants were held only at the Dubai Empire nightclub, which collapsed due to the tropical storms in May 2022. Right there, in 2019, the National Police arrested seven people for “disorderly conduct on public streets”, after almost suffocating those present with tear gas.
The second step in the drag is texture. Ten pairs of stockings hug the flesh, squeezing it to the point of almost -almost- cutting off circulation and leaving smooth, soft calves.
— I was always drawn to the female character in cartoons. The one with long hair or something that had a more feminine touch than the others. As a child I never felt different, says Alexis.
Alexis begins to apply her make-up, trying to take advantage of the little light left in the room. After much deliberation, she decides to wear a yellow dress to the event. As soon as she arrives, she is going to change it.
— What about drag?
— One more window for discrimination.
The last thing is the height. With the heels she reaches almost two meters high, with them she intends to parade and dance all night, and also to walk the streets of Tegucigalpa. The grand finale takes place in the main hall, alongside a meeting of the Ecumenicas por el derecho a decidir, an organization that, surprisingly, approaches feminism and sexual diversity from a theological perspective.
Even if she does not win, Alexis is not transformed by awards. Her reward, since always, has been the incredulous looks, the whispers saying “No manches, is that Alexis? And now, getting to know Honduras and walking its streets. That is worth the effort, the pressure of the stockings, the itch of the wig, the discomfort of the heels. After ten years, drag has become an inseparable part of who he is. Not a way to become someone else, but to express himself with total freedom.
He walks out of the hotel towards the event, passersby craning their necks at awkward angles just to watch. Some shout at her, others whistle. All eyes are on her. Gallery doesn’t know the city, but the experience is familiar.
— Aren’t you worried about something happening to you on the street?
— No,” she says, “I’m more worried about the hot weather.
The shadows, now thicker, swallow the sparkles of her dress. Gallery steps into the darkness and loses herself in it.