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This beach in Mexico is a haven for LGBTQ. But can it last?

ZIPOLITE, Mexico – As the sun begins to glide toward the ocean in this idyllic beach town on Mexico’s Pacific coast, a quiet migration begins. Groups of people, most of them gay men, many of them naked, walk down the beach towards a soaring cliff.

They climb up a winding staircase, over the rugged cliff and down to a hidden cove known as Playa del Amor, or the beach of love. As the sun turns into an orange sphere, the sky turns purple, and the many naked bodies, black and bronze, curved and chiseled, are brushed in gold. When it finally dives into the water, the audience erupts in applause.

“Playa del Amor at sunset, the first time I saw it, I really wanted to cry,” said Roberto Jerr, 32, who has been visiting Zipolite for five years. “It’s a space where you can be very free.”

For decades, this former fishing village, which became a hippie haunt, has been an oasis for the queer community, attracted by its golden beaches, countercultural atmosphere and a nudism practice that includes bodies of all shapes and sizes.

But as its popularity has grown and is attracting an increasing number of gay and straight guests, the city is starting to change: foreigners are snatching land, hotels are multiplying, influencers are flocking to the beach, and many residents and visitors now fear that what once created Zipolite magic could be lost forever.

“Everyone in the community should visit a place where they can feel comfortable, where they can feel free, like Zipolite,” said Mr. Jerr, who’s gay. “But on the other hand, there is also this second part, this ultramass tourism, that is starting to leave places without resources.”

Once a community of farmers and fishermen, Zipolite became a popular destination for European hippies and backpackers from the 1970s, when many came to the beaches of the state of Oaxaca to get an unusually clear view of a solar eclipse. Hippie tourism gave the city a bohemian spirit – it is one of Mexico’s few nude beaches – which also began to attract queer people, who were welcomed by most residents. In February, Zipolite elected the first openly gay person to lead the city council.

Such tolerant attitudes are rare outside of major cities in Mexico, where conservative Catholic values ​​persist. Despite the fact that homosexual marriages have been legalized in more than half of the country, homophobic and transphobic violence is common. Between 2016 and 2020, about 440 lesbians, gays and transgender people were killed across the country, according to Letra Ese, an advocacy group in Mexico City.

David Montes Bernal, 33, grew up a few hours from Zipolite in a conservative society where machismo and homophobia were rooted. When he was about 9, the city pastor performed what he called “practically an exorcism” to force homosexuality out of him.

“That was when I realized it was a hostile place,” Mr. Bernal.

In Zipolite, he has found a place where he can be safe in his sexuality and safe in his body.

“I felt a kind of hope,” Mr Bernal said of his first visit in 2014. “Finally, it seems that there is now a place where we can be who we want to be.”

As word of this openness has spread, the city’s LGBTQ population has increased: gay bars and hotels have become numerous, and rainbow flags are common.

But as accepting as many locals are, some feel that Zipolit’s identity as a casual city that welcomes everyone from Mexican families to Canadian retirees is being eroded, turning it into a gay party town.

Miguel Ángel Ziga Aragón, a local resident who is himself gay and leaves “La Chavelona”, has seen the local economy boom, not only because of gay tourism, but from an increase in tourism in general. While Zipolites once hosted mostly rustic cabins and hammocks along the beach, Zipolites’ tourism scene has become what he calls “more VIP”: Beach suites now cost as much as $ 500 per person. night.

The growth in tourism in Zipolite reflects a nationwide trend in Oaxaca: From 2017 to 2019, revenues from the hotel industry increased by more than a third to nearly $ 240 million. During the same period, the number of tourists visiting hotels in the coastal region that includes Zipolite grew by nearly 40 percent to about 330,000 people, according to government figures.

“It’s a change that’s good for the economy, but not so good for society,” he said. Ziga Aragón.

Along with an identity crisis, many fear an environmental crisis. Mangroves have been built over; wildlife disappears. Residents complain about the lack of running water, which can be exacerbated by major development.

While most residents agree that more planning is needed, some say the transformation is inevitable.

“It’s the life cycle of any tourist destination,” said Elyel Aquino Méndez, who runs a gay travel agency. “One must seize the opportunity.”

But others fear that Zipolite may go the way of many Mexican beach towns that have become thriving resorts, such as the popular gay destination of Puerto Vallarta or more recently Tulum. The Caribbean beach of Tulum, once a bohemian paradise, has become a lucrative real estate market filled with luxury hotels, celebrity influencers and increasing violence.

Pouria Farsani, 33, who lives in Stockholm, enjoyed the combination of beautiful scenery and fun partying when he first visited Tulum in 2018, but when he went back in September last year, he found that it felt “like a part-colonized part of Mexico. “

Mr. Farsani heard about Zipolite from some Mexican friends and visited for the first time in January 2021 – he was enchanted.

“When I’ve seen other gay scenes, it’s been very stereotypical,” he said. “What was going on here was people of all body shapes, ages, socioeconomic status, we could all gather here.”

The body positivity in Zipolite is in part what makes the nudist beach special to many, gay or straight: For Mr. Farsani, who has alopecia, a hair loss condition, it was particularly deep.

“I’m very happy with my body, but I’m not the Ken doll type,” he said. “It scares people in Europe, while my alopecia here is nothing more than it makes me stand out a little more.”

Still, as Zipolit’s popularity grows, so does his hippie mood. Bars are higher, restaurants are getting smarter. LGBTQ tourism is also changing and becoming more and more Americanized, less diverse.

Ivanna Camarena, a transgender woman, spent six months in Zipolite last year, meeting only a handful of other transgender people. “The bodies were very athletic and very masculine,” she said of the people she saw on the beach in her first few months there.

She remembered going to a nudist party that was almost exclusively gay men. “When I got there it was like ‘Wow, what is a trans woman doing here?’ As if they were strange. “

Among the noticeable shifts is what has happened at Playa del Amor, which once hosted bonfires and guitar playing and now often has laser lights and DJs playing house music. People used to chat across different social groups; now the beach has become more separated in cliques.

The sex scene has also evolved. While visitors, including heterosexual couples, have engaged in sex on the beach after dark for decades, in recent years it has become more naughty, with dance parties that have sometimes turned into group sex in the shadows.

“Every time it’s more hedonistic, more hedonistic, more hedonistic,” said Ignacio Rubio Carriquiriborde, a sociology professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University who has studied Zipolite for years. “Now there’s more of a dynamic of constant partying.”

Many residents have become uncomfortable, and the city council recently voted to enforce a beach curfew at 6 p.m. 21.00 to curb such activities.

“One thing is freedom, and another thing is excess,” said Mr. Ziga Aragón. “You can have sex with whoever you want, but privately.”

For others, the concern is more environmental. Miguel Ángel López Méndez runs a small hotel near Playa del Amor and says that partygoers often leave the beach in a mess. Once, while diving out of the cove, he remembered seeing condoms floating “like jellyfish.”

“Everyone is free to do what they want with their body,” he said. “The problem is that there is no consciousness.”

For some gay men, open sexuality in Playa del Amor is part of its power.

“From when you were a child, you are forbidden from so many things: ‘Do not be like this,’ ‘Do not say this,’ ‘Do not do this,’ said Mr. Bernal, who lives in the nearby town of Puerto Angel.” Suddenly “Since sex is a catharsis act, so many things are liberated.”

Yet Mr Bernal is also concerned about the future of the city, where tourism is booming, natural resources are scarce and so many foreigners are buying properties that the price of land has become virtually unaffordable for locals.

“Everyone comes here on vacation to eat something,” he said. “A piece of the beach, a piece of your body, a piece of the party, a piece of nature.”

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