The Mystery Of Gay Amazonia

Wander the queer streets of Iquitos, the largest city in the world with no road connection.

Walking through the streets of Iquitos amid the heat, smog, and buzzing moto-carriages, it’s hard to imagine there’d be a community of queens in the city.

Iquitos lacks the quaint appeal of more popular gay hotspots: It’s dirty, rumbling, and while it has an estimated population of more than half a million people, remains accessible only by plane or boat.

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Lodged in the Peruvian Amazon of the Loreto region, Iquitos feels more like an exile than a gay destination. But according to British writer Dilwyn Jenkins, who wrote The Rough Guide to Peru, the first travel guide dedicated entirely to the country, Iquitos’ queer scene is unusually active, for a Peruvian jungle town.

Looking around, there is no sign of a gay scene. Presumably, it must be hidden away from the plain sight of curious gringos.

There’s little evidence of queer culture in the city’s history either, with one exception. Iquitos rose to prominence in the 1870s, following a rubber boom. It was a prosperous time for the rubber barons, but far less so for the trappers who were local tribesmen and mixed Indigenous-Spanish descents working, in essence, as slaves. Roger David Casement was tasked with investigating the ill-treatment of the Putumayo Indians in 1910 and 1911. Though successful on many levels, Casement was later hanged for political reasons and his diaries were leaked, which exposed him as a promiscuous homosexual.

According to Jenkins, the primary influx of LGBT people can be attributed to them escaping terrorism aimed at the community between the mid-1980s to early ’90s. Escaping from where exactly, was unclear based on Jenkins’ book but presumably from the jungle region, and during this period, they faced atrocities at the hands of the government and guerrilla groups such as Sendero Luminoso and Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA). Gay, transgender people, and prostitutes were kidnapped, executed, and in some cases, mutilated. This included the murder of eight transgender women in Tarapoto on May 31, 1989, which is now been marked by a national day against transphobia and homophobia in Peru.

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The evidence of terror aimed at the LGBT community is documented, but finding official reports or statements that trace their route from dangerous regions to Iquitos proved to be fruitless. By all accounts, Jenkins is a reliable source, but it’s curious that there is no other known record of this migration. Jenkins died unexpectedly in 2014, and the colleague referenced in his obituary was unfamiliar with this bit of history.

Peruvian LGBT activist, George Hale who is the founding director of Center for Promotion and Defense for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (PROMOSEX), knows nothing about this migration:

“Some people from the mountains come to jungle, maybe,” Hale says of a migration. “But most of the people came to the coast, to Lima, to Arequipa, to Piura, running from terrorism. Maybe some of them went to the jungle, but terrorism was in the jungle as well. I don’t think they would really go to Loreto or to all those places because they knew that terrorists were there as well.”

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“There’s not a lot of information about that actually,” Danny Corzo confirms. He’s a representative from K’uychi Ayllu, an LGBT youth organization in Cusco, which promotes sexual and reproductive rights using education and political art.

While the ambiguous history of the LGBT community makes Iquitos seem all the more mythical, Corzo confirms Jenkins’ account that queer people did flee to Iquitos. He claims to know this not from a report but from word of mouth, from people who’d escaped, or people who knew people who’d done so. He also offers a logical explanation as to why: “Iquitos is a very large city so it was easier to hide there and it was easier to go under the radar.”

When it comes to this piece of history, Corzo says that people don’t want to talk about their stories because it’s a controversial topic; there isn’t research about it either for the same reason.

Iquitos is no doubt conducive to gay life. Loreto, with Iquitos as its capital, was the first region to introduce anti-discrimination laws exclusively for LGBT people back in 2010. The city also has its own Pride celebrations at the end of June, going into its thirteenth year. According to Hale, Pride is welcome by the residents of the towncity isy that it isn’t in most other regions of the country. As a whole, he notes how nightlife in the city is very integrated.

“You can go to any disco and just be part of the society. You don’t have to make that separation between gays and lesbians, trans—everything is quite the same.”

Freddy Revoredo has lived in Iquitos his whole life and has, at times, worked as a gay guide for tourists visiting the city. His phone number and email address appeared at the bottom of an online forum about gay Iquitos. It was the only real entry. Though he hasn’t had any customers last year, in previous years he’s welcomed visitors from Canada, the United States, Australia, and China.

Mike Miksche

Revoredo explains that each district has its own gay area with gay clubs. Punchana is the fanciest of the lot, which he dubs as the “California area,” since it’s so high class. He also mentions “Pampagay,” a queer nickname for Pampachica, the largest gay beach in Peru. Revoredo believes that Iquitos is gay-friendly because of the weather the military presence in the area, the closest I could get to an explanation given for this community’s sustainability.

As night falls, the queens became visible several blocks from the shoreline at gay bar called, Copacabana. The bar does not appear on Google maps, but it does have a Facebook page with 770 likes. The crowd was young—mostly men in their 20s, some 30s, and one or two older than that. Nobody seemed to be cruising, at least not overly like you might see in North America. Instead, clusters of friends were drinking and dancing to mash-ups of western pop and Latin American tunes. Two MCs hovered above on the mezzanine overlooking the dance floor. One encouraged the patrons to move. His voice muffled the music through the speakers to the point that it sounded more like a mess than a mashup, but with enough drinks it seemed to make a lot of sense.

Copacabana Bar

The other MC was dressed as a navy officer and wearing lipstick. He came around at one point to show revealing photos on his smartphone of “Susan Ferrari,” a voluptuous Latina who turned out to be his drag alter ego. He seemed proud of his illusion.

Though it was evident that the queer scene was very much alive, the evening didn’t offer any insight as to why Iquitos is so LGBT-friendly. If anything, it just added to the mystery since the crowd was so young.

The same observation was made when using hook-up apps in the city. Growlr, an app geared towards bears, had only one other user online. Scruff, which tends to have an older, furrier crowd, showed a handful more in the city proper. There were so few people logged onto Scruff that guys in Brazil showed up on the grid. Grindr, however, showed a seemingly endless number of men nearby. And the majority were young; daddies were virtually nonexistent in the city.

When asked why there’s an absence of the older gay men in the city, Hale says, “Because most of them are dead. Yeah. They are dead because of AIDS and they are dead because of terrorism. It’s sad to say that but it’s true.”

According to Claudio Ampuero, the manager of TSANWA, an LGBT NGO in Iquitos, the main problem in the city is that gay and trans people aren’t getting adequate sex education, if they’re getting any at all. Without proper sex education, the community isn’t learning about all the ways to protect themselves.

Jesse Kraft / EyeEm

Although access to testing and treatment has been available in Loreto for more than 15 years it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s effective. They’ve had issues due to mismanagement and suspended grants. Also, testing and treatment are only accessed through regular hospitals in the city, so issues of prejudice and stigma come into play.

Could this possibly be the reason for the gap in knowledge about what makes Iquitos so gay-friendly? Anybody who would have offered insight is now dead?

It’s yet another theory to add to all the rest. It’s perhaps far-fetched to think that every last LGBT person who would’ve been able to tell the story of their community is now dead but until there are serious studies conducted about the LGBT community of Iquitos, only such theories and oral histories will exist. Some are more credible than others.

Mike Miksche has written for The Advocate, Slate, Vice, Lambda Literary and The Gay and Lesbian Review.