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MASC4MASC DREAMS: Inside Mexico City's Tom's Leather Bar

It’s from a dream, this club. “And in this dream I was naked,” said Miguel Pujana, owner of Tom’s Leather Bar in Mexico City. He was telling my friend Pepe and I about how his business came to be, while sitting at a massive wooden desk in the back office at Tom’s located at the top of a narrow staircase. Behind him there was a wall-sized gold-framed painting of the bar’s eagle insignia set against a galactic background. “I was walking on the beach at night,” Miguel continued, still in the dream. “The perfumed breeze caressed my body. I saw a light. In your dreams you can be whatever you want.” He remembered that he opened a door and suddenly found himself in an abbey. It was empty, save for a skeleton and Gothic arches. “I realize it’s a dream,” he said, concluding. “And we’ve basically followed it ever since.”

We were drinking moderately and the smoke from the cigarettes the men were lighting was filling up the small office. Its walls were covered with framed ephemera. Erotic gay line drawings ran along the ceiling and below them, there was a copy of the Mexican “Sentimientos de la Nación,” a document drawn up by rebels led by José María Morelos in 1813 that detailed their hopes for the future of the country. I contemplated a photo of Ronald Reagan, Miguel’s political role model, and an artist’s rendering of Miguel as a Tom of Finland character.

Downstairs in the bar’s public area, the decorations are even more extravagant. Before I even met Miguel, I was enamored of his decorating tactics. In the bar you'll find even more massive paintings in heavy frames featuring Renaissance scenes, men in leather and even more men in swirling storms of abstract colors. The flags that line the wall facing the front bar pertain to Napoleon, Basque country, various ancient royal families and nation-states. In the bar’s dark room the walls are painted with dragons and grimacing faces, even though the people fucking in there may never be able to see them in the gloom. Fabulously, many of the beings in the paintings have been depicted with Miguel’s face -- even on a gryphon and an eagle-creature whose canvases are perched together on the same wall. That is some boss bar owner shit right there.

There are many reasons that a certain segment of Mexico City’s gay population keeps coming back to Tom’s. The bar’s most popular night is Tuesday, when I was surprised to find that my 200 pesos got me an unhealthy number of drink tickets, a number of drink tickets that, if consumed, will make for a very dark room indeed. On Tuesdays, Tom's “is the place to be if you like ass,” as my friend Brian helpfully puts it. On many evenings throughout the week stone-faced, muscular strippers gyrate, usually in gym socks and running shoes. Every night men cruise, hoping to lead someone into the dark room where no one will realize there is a dragon painted on the wall.

There aren’t too many spots where you can have semi-public sex and booze seven nights a week in town. And even though Tom's is one of the few bars in town that has free wi-fi, slutty friends tell me that the bar breaks the code of male gays in 2015 by encouraging people to find IRL hookups instead of burying their thirsty faces in Grindr or another hookup app. Or at least, Tom's works in tandem with the Internet. One of my acquaintances who runs his own amateur porn site has been known to meet Grindr babes at Tom's, only to join forces and search for more ass as a duo at the bar. Just like the Gothic arches that appear to lift up the ceiling but are not actually load bearing and were added in years after opening … it’s all part of Miguel’s dream.

Visiting gay gringos always know about Tom’s. My group of gabacho friends and I went there on our first night in Mexico City – the trial visit before I made the city my home. It was a Sunday, so we were almost the only customers. We got casually drunk at a back table. I remember it was my friend’s birthday and they paused “That Boy is a Bottom” to roll a clip of Marilyn singing breathily to JFK. The video of her vamping in front of the microphone played on the flat screens all over the bar. We received more confirmation there are freaks all over this big old world of ours, a network of partiers and artists and pervs connected by their harnesses and nocturnal inclinations and by a shared promiscuity. We had the best time. 

When I finally moved here, I didn’t really get my Mexico City friends’ incredulity that I’d been able to get into Tom’s at all. Being from San Francisco and having spent a sizable amount of time in leather bars, I didn’t follow. After all, there was a dark room, but the main floor was mainly for watching the strippers and drinking beer – certainly not gender specific activities. “But they let me in,” I’d say. “I’m pretty sure that rule is old or something.” And I got in the second time! A third! And I’d seen another woman there, hadn’t I? Then, on my fourth journey to Tom’s: “Sorry, no women,” the door guy told me. “This is a place where guys come to have sex.” 

When I showed up to take photos of the bar for Nark, the door guy who’d turned me down was there to meet me. His name was Sinuhe and it turned out he was the manager, had worked there for 14 years, and was straight, like every one of the 12 men who work at Tom’s and who aren’t Miguel. Sinuhe remembered every time I’d stepped foot in the bar because, as he explained, only about 15 women had done so in the last year. Before that the rules were a lot stricter and no women were allowed at all. He told me they’d had issues with some older members of the male clientele. They freak out on women sometimes, he told me. “I wouldn’t want to spend time in a bar I felt uncomfortable in,” Sinuhe said. 

The next evening we went to meet Miguel, who I was really excited about by that point. Who is this man who builds unnecessary Gothic architecture and has his face painted onto the bodies of mythical animals? He turned out to be a barrel-chested, confident guy who likes rum and cokes. I asked him to tell us the story of Tom’s, and he agreed.

The tale started in the late ‘80s. Miguel had a standing date for Friday night dinner with his friend Hector Barraza. In those days, most gay bars in Mexico City were owned by straights. But the two men wanted something different. They wanted a place where gays didn’t have to be the effeminate putos that society painted them out to be. A place for masculine men who loved masculine men. In fact: “no flamboyance,” Miguel told me. “None of that.” (I stole a sidelong glance at Pepe’s YtinifninitY outfit, a fur coat and the tiny overalls. Pepe dragged on his cigarette and seemed entirely unconcerned by Miguel’s assertion.) Miguel spent his adolescence in Los Angeles, where he saved up for months for his first leather jacket and came of age sneaking around leather bars. He lost his virginity against the “H” in the Hollywood sign, as told in a story he once posted on Facebook about his arrival in the world of leather, entitled “Foreskin.”

Miguel’s wine import business tanked in Mexico’s 1994-’95 economic crisis, and an investor simultaneously appeared that was interested in putting money towards a leather bar. Tom’s was born on the auspicious date of November 9, 1996 – the 198th anniversary of Napoleon’s Coup of the 18 Brumaire that brought the Little Corporal to power and ended the French Revolution. (I ask Miguel if he’s the bar’s Napoleon: “Yeah,” he chuckles. “I guess I am.”) At first, Hector and Miguel enacted a strict dress code at Tom’s. The clientele was enthusiastic for the first four days, but Miguel says on the fifth, people were tired of wearing their harnesses. It may have been too much, too soon, Miguel thinks, for a country that has little leather culture to speak of. So they relaxed the policy.

These days, Miguel admits, the name Tom’s Leather Bar is a bit of a non sequitur. On an average night there may be a few guys in harnesses, but many, many more wear unadorned t shirts. A lot has changed over the years. Miguel’s lightened up the bar’s playlists, which are now full of pop songs. Hector moved to Houston. The customers have gotten younger. The dark room stays busy, but there’s no longer the same emphasis on leather culture, per se. Miguel is proud of this evolution, and of the fact that Tom’s stays relevant with each new generation of Mexican gay men.

By the end of the story, I was drunk and proud of Miguel for bringing his masc4masc dream to fruition. So much so, that I wanted to know if there was another bar as cool as Tom’s in Mexico City that did allow for women and flamboyance. I asked Miguel for the location of such a place. “There really aren’t any,” he said. “Women don’t really do leather here, more like BDSM.” He wasn’t sure where gender inclusive BDSM happened either, probably private parties, he thought.

Maybe a leather bar for the rest of us is someone else’s dream. After all the gryphons, dragons and beer, I’m inspired. If Tom’s is proof of anything it’s that if you build it, they will cum.

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