The New Gay Promised Land

Unable to come out at home, many rich young foreigners opt for exile in America.

Ever since he was a child, Alberto knew that he wanted to move to New York. At first, the scion of wealthy, politically connected Panamanian landowners and industrialists (who, like the other men in this story, asked that his name be changed) followed a parentally approved plan: He got a graduate degree and embarked on a successful career in business. Then Alberto did something that wasn't part of the program: He came out. Instead of returning to Panama, Alberto met an American boyfriend and bought a two-bedroom apartment in New York. He doesn't plan on returning home anytime soon, and he suspects his parents may want to keep it that way.
"They're typical Latin-Jewish passive-aggressives," he says over lunch in Manhattan. "They tell me to come home, but it's clear they want me to stay." Every year, gay men from well-heeled families in Central and South America move to the United States or Europe, never to return home. Arturo, a native of the Dominican Republic, moved to New York seven years ago to pursue an M.B.A. He now lives in a stylish apartment in Midtown with his boyfriend, a 35-year-old Mexican fellow M.B.A. For the past three years, the two have socialized with a clutch of couples much like themselves—Latin American, professional, and gay. "I wasn't coming to America to be gay, but realized I could be who I wanted here," Arturo says. "Going back to the Dominican Republic now would mean going back underground. So here I am in New York, in a weird sort of exile."
From Oscar Wilde's years in France to Paul Bowles' infamous forays into Morocco to Gore Vidal's legendary Amalfi hideaway, gay men have long gone into exile when their carnal desires clashed with cultural constraints. Yet while gay exiles of a century (or even half-century) ago were seeking the right to love whom they wanted, today's gay exiles have a broader agenda: to be able to lead a fully "out" life, whether that's at work, socially, or in the bedroom. "A generation ago these guys would have gone home, gotten married, and led some sort of compromised gay existence," says Myles Weber, an assistant professor of English at Winona State University in Minnesota, who's written about the history of gay literature. "But they want more honest, more public lives—the old options just aren't good enough anymore."
Alberto and Arturo are at the deeper-pocketed end of the gay-exile generation. Like Arturo in his Park Avenue office tower, Alberto is in America to occupy the executive suite—not clean it. "It's a comparable situation to Wilde and Bowles," Weber says. "Even if not coming from tremendous wealth like Vidal, they could at least afford to escape to Europe and North Africa."
And the wealth they can create for themselves—independently of their flush families—in the United States is what keeps many gay exiles here. Martin, a 39-year-old New York architect originally from Peru, says a gay glass ceiling back home will always keep him "from truly reaching that pinnacle of success" obtained by his straight peers. In Alberto's case, Panama's small size coupled with his family's prominence makes it impossible for him to lead any sort of openly gay life there. "There is nowhere for me to hide," he says. "I am either related to everyone I know, or everyone else knows my parents." Enzo, a 32-year-old pharmaceutical executive from Northern Italy who now lives in New York, is also hamstrung by his family's high profile. "I have 30 first cousins and my brother is the deputy mayor," he says, adding that he has yet to come out to his family. "I would be very well-connected if I returned home, but believe me, I cannot go back there."
Unlike in cases of economic or political exile, the shift from gay expat to gay exile is rarely the result of a single, identity-defining experience. Rather, it's a collection of experiences—coming out, falling in love, professional success—that causes gay refugees to remain in the United States permanently. "You reach a tipping point, where you feel more like a foreigner in your own country than you do in New York," says Martin, whose own tipping point came when he could no longer fake straight during his annual visits to Lima, where he was expected to hide aspects of his gay U.S. identity. For Alberto, too, the holiday trips home began to feel strained: "I would play straight, drinking champagne at clubs with high-school friends while slutty girls danced on my lap." Avner, a 33-year-old Israeli financial planner who has lived in the United States for the past seven years, says his tipping point was more existential than literal. "I don't know how to be gay in Israel—just the words Avner is gay now sound foreign to me in Hebrew," he says.
For Giorgio, a 34-year-old Italian executive who lives in Brussels, the inability to marry his partner of two years in Italy is a key reason he would never return to Milan. "In Italy things remain very, very conservative," he says.
For 38-year-old Roberto—an Austin, Texas, systems engineer originally from Colombia—a literal fear for his safety back home is much of the reason he and his boyfriend of nine years are still living in the Lone Star State. "Sure, there are laws protecting us from violence in Colombia," he says. "But come on—who would really enforce them?"
Still, most gay exiles agree that no matter how great their adopted homeland's appeal—openness, tolerance, hefty bonuses, sexual freedom—being a refugee could eventually wear thin and they'll somehow, someday, return home. For Alberto, a Panamanian homecoming is inevitable. "I am the oldest son in my family, so I will have to go and run our businesses one day," he says. "But there is no way I will return single." For the rest, fears of loneliness, isolation, or simply the unknown push their return from exile further into the future. "I can't imagine a gay life back in Israel, but I also can't imagine myself being buried in America," says Avner, who has not visited Tel Aviv for almost two years. "So I will probably go back one day," he adds, "even if it is just to die."
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