Gay for pay: Making money in lucha libre

On the masked wrestling circuit in Mexico, the good guy is often a gay caricature, beloved by all

MEXICO CITY — Sexy Tulepan describes himself as a typical macho who grew up in a homophobic home. At 18, he maintains he is so uncomfortable around gays that he gags when he sees two men embracing. Yet that doesn’t stop him from playing a stereotype-filled caricature of one, pirouetting around a wrestling ring with the ultimate aim of kissing another guy on the mouth. Donning a pink skirt, he smears his cheeks with rouge and pretends to be sodomized by opponents.

Sexy Tulepan, whose stage name means Tulip, is a gay-for-pay fighter in the hypermasculine world of lucha libre, an entertainment-wrestling circuit with both professional and amateur levels. Since the 1940s, when the rough shows took hold here, a slim number of fighters dubbed exoticos pranced around the ropes with exaggerated effeminate gestures. Many liked men in the bedroom, too. But over the last few years, straight wrestlers have increasingly adopted campy drag to advance their careers in the poorly paid business.

“I thought it was weird when someone suggested I apprentice with Sexy Ruby,” Tulepan explained about his manager, another exotico. “Then I went to his classes and saw he fought like a real man and had a family. That inspired me.”

So did the money. The pair are the only exoticos in a company of 60 fighters, and the scarcity means they can earn 2,000 pesos ($166) per fight, double the going rate for a non-pro.

The appeal of lucha libre lies with catharsis, said Steve DeFrank, an artist and Fulbright scholar who is doing a project about it with the Museo de Arte Popular. Many spectators are from downtrodden towns and villages, and the ring allows them to root for the bad guy, who breaks the rules behind the referee’s back. They can shout dirty words. Egging on a homoerotic act provides all sorts of relief.

“The baiting of men to kiss each other can be both a homophobic expression of macho dominance and a socially acceptable way to express homosexuality," DeFrank said.

Destiny and Day-Glo

Sexy Ruby helps Sexy Tulepan with a new outfit before a match.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

While same-sex marriage is legal in Mexico City, gay bashing abounds elsewhere in the country, DeFrank said. The exotico figure is so one-dimensional that it becomes safe to men who are closeted or feel threatened by male love.

"This kind of gay character has been with us since vaudeville,'' he said, "the buffoon, the clown, the trickster.''

Mexico’s lucha libre is a theatrical display of masculinity, with masked characters in Day-Glo costumes who normally go by names like Virus and El Satanico instead of flowers. The duels entail a drama between tecnicos and rudos, good guys and bad guys, and as a sign of changing times the exoticos are now nearly always good guys. While they play into stereotypical images of homosexuality, mincing and blowing kisses, the gay community has embraced them to the point of seating them on thrones during the capital's annual gay pride parade.

What they have to put up with are homophobic jeers in the ring, many unpublishable. Audience participation is a vital component of lucha libre, and it is not uncommon to see an entire family, including a grandma with the baby on her lap, hollering at masked players to stick things up their posteriors. As 250-pound men hurl themselves acrobatically from the ropes, the crowd screams “Beso, beso,” knowing that when exoticos pin down foes, a smack on the lips seals victory.

“It’s double the work. You have to have a certain charisma as well as be a great fighter,” reflected Sexy Ruby, aka Victor Aguilar, 40, a happily married father of two. He derives enormous job satisfaction from the applause and creativity of trying to act like something he’s not.

“Unlike the serious macho roles, you can be mischievous,'' he said. "This stretches me more.”

Destiny: An exotico is born

Not just anyone is cut out for the job, including, for the time being, Sexy Ruby's own son, Eduardo, 15, who performs under the virile moniker of Rey del Fuego (King of Fire).

Parsing his words carefully with the boy sitting next to him, Sexy Ruby said the exotico character finds you and not the other way around.

“It was destiny,” he said, settling back in his chair to tell the story. Ruby, then Victor, had been playing it straight for many years, but one night an exotico who was supposed to perform got stuck in traffic. The panicked promoter begged Victor to step in. After being offered a wad of cash, he overcame “nerves” and borrowed spandex garments from the female fighters. They plucked the name Ruby from a soap opera and slapped on Sexy, a common prefix for female impersonators.

“Fortunately, I won the fight, although I refused to kiss the guy," he said. "Then the same thing happened three more times; the exotico didn’t show and they asked me to substitute. Destiny. After a profound analysis of the situation, I concluded that people preferred me as an exotico. If you have lemons, make lemonade.”

His wife, Susana, believes he’s a natural.

“At first I thought, no way. Now I’ve grown used to it, although I don’t like when my stockings go missing,'' she said.

Meet Maximo

Maximo, the most famous of the exotico lucha wrestlers, at the Arena Mexico in Mexico City.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

Most fighters, exotic or otherwise, compete in garages and seedy parking lots for a few hundred pesos a match. Only one exotico has made it to the world circuit. That is Maximo, 32, a pudgy fighter in a pink mohawk who switched to the faux gay side 12 years ago.

Maximo’s trademark is an off-the-shoulder miniskirt, which sets off his bulging thighs to full advantage. He often appears alongside a dwarf with the stage name of Minimo, who is costumed like a parrot or gorilla and gets thrown around the ring. They provide comic relief in what is otherwise an aggressive display of testosterone.

The other night, Maximo lapped up the attention while he fought, playing the crowd for every wiggle. After leaps and tumbles, interspersed with butt rubbing, his signature move, Maximo got his man down on the floor as the crowd yelled for the mouth.

“People love him,” explained announcer Ivan Salguero, cutting a path through a throng of well-wishers after the fight. He lowered his voice. “You know he’s not really gay, right?”

A very sweaty Maximo explained in the dressing room that he had gone by Corazon de Dragon (Dragon Heart) until 12 years ago, when a colleague, Shocker, suggested he bend genders to boost fortunes. A star was born. 

“I don’t want to change my current persona,'' he said. "As the only exotico, I get to travel to Japan and Guatemala. My mother was upset the first time she saw me as Maximo on television. But now that I am married with two kids, she realizes that I’m not gay. There are many women who come up to me and want to be my mother-in-law.”

He’s fine with the kissing except when facing El Terible: “He has a big tongue and mustache.”

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