It was after 9pm on a Saturday night. There were some kids, parents, and passers-by filling the mini-arena built into Boulevard Joaquin Abensur in Iquitos, Peru. A young man in a crop top reading “I ♥ my BOY” was in the center of the arena performing.
In this part of the show, the young man went around to men in the audience pretending to kiss them open-mouthed. In a country where public displays of affection among queer couples are uncommon, and a region of the world where about 600 LGBT people died from violence between January 2013 to March 2014, this sight was a surprise.
When the young man’s lips got a few millimeters away from those of an audience member, he’d stop and pull away, and the crowd would break into a fit of laughter, as if the threat of two men kissing was the funniest thing in the world. He pulled his near-miss kiss gambit with his performance partner, too, another young man, no more than 21 years old, but a bit more butch in his cap, no crop top. It became clear that gender and sexuality were the butt of the joke, but were they mocking queerness, or were they playing with the prejudice that’s rampant in Peruvian society?
It should be said that Iquitos has a relatively active queer scene, compared to your mid-sized Peruvian city. There are gay bars, a gay beach, and its own Pride, but there’s nothing overt about its community. In a country where acceptance is subpart, it still feels underground, and this show perplexing.
These buskers are in fact street comedians, or cómicos ambulantes as they’re known in Peru, and they’re not just found in Iquitos or the Amazon. They are mainly in cities across the country, places like Lima and Huancayo, and are held in public spaces like markets or parks. They’re sometimes in towns during patronal festivals and can be seen on Peruvian television where the shows are more extravagant (relatively speaking) with sets, costumes, and a live studio audience.
In an essay titled “Popular Capitalism and Subalternity: Street Comedians in Lima,” Victor Vich describes these performers as having “an interest of exchanging (for cash) a range of ironic representations of social reality.” Does this imply that there’s more to these shows that mocking homos?
Victor Alexander Huerta Mercado Tenorio, a professor from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú in Lima who specializes in pop culture and humor, thinks so. Perhaps on a superficial level these shows are mocking sexuality, but cerebrally this isn’t the case. He says that street comedians are utilizing societal tensions.
“There’s a big tension regarding sexuality in our society. In our society you are a male or you are a female,” Tenorio says. “The middle is charged with tension, with something dangerous, something that is liminal. So they play with the liminal, with the object that is forbidden.”
The fake kiss shtick is a challenge of sorts, and according to Tenorio, it’s not always fake—sometimes the performer lands it. He explains that these comedians are flirting with a space where nobody wants to go and the surprise of it is what makes people laugh. By making fun of homosexuality, it becomes a way to cope with the fear of it.
“They’re playing with something that people don’t fully understand… So what we are laughing at is one of our greatest fears: fear of being homosexual.”