Mexico Gains As a Home for Gay U.S. Retirees
As baby boomers enter retirement, the American dream of spending carefree golden years in a tropical oasis has never seemed further out of reach. Faced with dwindling 401K accounts and rising health care costs, many must consider going back to work indefinitely instead of enjoying the final chapter of their lives. But a growing number of LGBT retirees are discovering an affordable alternative south of the border.
While the U.S. continues its war on illegal immigrants from Latin America, Mexico is embracing thousands of Americans each year providing a welcome jolt to the economy. With virtually free public health care, temperate climates, and endless opportunities for entrepreneurship, the appeal to U.S. retirees is no secret. Reports of escalating drug-related violence, however, have scared many from even visiting Mexico.
EDGE reached out to several expats who have made the move south, including adult film star and trans advocate Buck Angel. Angel, or the self-named "man with a pussy," broke boundaries in the U.S. by becoming the first trans man to appear in an all-male gay porn earning him countless accolades including "Transsexual Performer of the Year" at the AVN Awards, but grew weary of the government’s crackdown on the adult entertainment industry. He applied for a Mexican visa five years ago, and has remained there ever since.
"The whole political climate really inspired me to get out of the States," Angel told EDGE. "Because my work is so intense, it is great to have a relaxing place I can go in between my work trips. It is perfect to have a haven here, which is very private, and affords me a lifestyle I could never have in the U.S."
Angel resides in Merida, a coastal community on the Yucatan Peninsula. For what he would have paid for a studio apartment in Los Angeles, Angel owns a property that he describes as a "private resort" -- complete with a guesthouse, pool house, separate office, and private gym. With his jet setting lifestyle, Angel employs a full-time domestic staff that takes care of his every need at a fraction of what it would cost him in the States.
"My life here is ridiculously luxurious," he confessed. "Never in my wildest dreams did I believe I could have the amazing lifestyle I have here. It is totally a champagne lifestyle on a beer budget. Everything from real estate and domestic help, to food and healthcare is extremely affordable."
Growing Number Take Advantage of Cheap & Good Healthcare
Though reports have portrayed the Mexican health care system as "third world," Angel claimed he has "never had better medical care in [his] life." Recovering from a recent hysterectomy, Angel said the Mexican doctors took time to keep him informed throughout the procedure. And he recommended that anyone in need of surgery should consider travelling to Mexico to escape the States’ astronomical healthcare costs.
"You can pay for your trip and have a vacation for much less than just the medical bills in the U.S.," Angel said. "My private hospital room was like a deluxe hotel room, yet it cost less than plenty of hotels I’ve stayed in around the world. The doctors are absolutely phenomenal and take so much time to explain everything, like you’re the only patient they have to deal with. This is so different from the impersonal attention I’ve received in the U.S."
As a transsexual, many doctors would refuse to operate on Angel in the States. Mexican doctors, on the other hand, have been nothing but "accepting, kind, and compassionate," he said. For that reason alone, Angel believes Mexico is an excellent option for LGBT retirees.
The community in Merida is surprisingly queer too, he added. Homophobia and hate crimes are virtually nonexistent and natives welcome the gay community with open arms.
"Merida is one of the gayest cities in all of Mexico," Angel said. "There is a large gay male expat community here. The locals are more on the down-low, but there are many guys cruising each other everywhere you go. It is absolutely safe for gay retirees, and a lot of older gay ex-pats have found that the daddy-boy thing is quite accepted here."
While Angel is aware of reports on ongoing drug violence, he thinks it’s simply a matter of location. Crime may be increasing in border towns, he said, but there haven’t been any drug-related deaths in Merida for several years. A strong police presence helps to keep the community safe for natives and tourists alike.
"Just like crime rates in the U.S., it depends on where you go," Angel said. "At first it was kind of shocking to see all of the police with big machine guns, but if you’re not a criminal you have nothing to worry about. I’m glad they’re there because they are keeping my area crime free. It is actually a lot like the 1950s in a way-mellow, no crime, and very family oriented."
Creaing an Expat Gay Retirement Community
On the other side of the country, Lou Kief and his life partner, Bill, are attempting to create a nonprofit retirement community for gay men in Guadalajara. The couple ran a successful retail space planning firm in San Francisco for years, but when the Reagan recession hit in the 1980s the two decided to take off on a five-year journey. After rehabilitating an old dilapidated sailboat, the couple sailed along the Pacific coast and fell in love with the culture and temperate climates of Mexico.
So when it came time to retire, deciding on a destination to spend the remainder of their lives together was easy. The couple first purchased a beach home in Manzanillo, but missed the social life that only a city can provide. Finding a thriving gay community and superior medical services in Guadalajara, the pair made the move to the bustling city after nearly eight years in Manzanillo.
Kief set his sights on a historical colonial home in central Guadalajara and quickly purchased it. After two years of renovations, the couple is enjoying their new life in the city, which Kief said is not much different from San Francisco besides in price. And the couple wants other gay men to experience the affordable alternative so they’ve purchased a modern office building with hopes to turn it into retirement home for gay seniors 60 and up.
"Many businesses assume that all gay people have tons of money," Kief told EDGE. "Unfortunately, this is not the case for an overwhelming number of gay seniors who are about to enter retirement and will depend mostly, if not entirely, on a small social security check to make it through the last parts of their lives. When you’re young, you don’t think you’re ever going to need something like this. This last year was the realization that we’re not too far off before we’re going to need it ourselves. So we thought that we needed to give something back to the community."
Nestled in the heart of the city, Jubilación Guadalajara will offer gay seniors "five star living, and personalized care," including fine dining and bilingual concierge service to a local health care facility. Prices in the eight-story building will start at around $115,000 and include monthly condominium fees. When renovations are complete, the retirement home will offer patrons large common areas, a restaurant and lounge, rooftop wellness center with exercise equipment and spa, and an underground parking garage.
Kief predicts that Jubilación will open its doors in the next few years, but the retirement community has already attracted attention on social networking sites. The Facebook page is averaging nearly 400 hits a day and several retirees have already expressed interest in making the investment.
Those looking to retire in Mexico should consider the affordability of Guadalajara over coastal communities where prices are beginning to rise, Kief said.
"The pleasant surprise was that it was less expensive to live in the big city than it was to live on the coast where there is a concentration of gringos buying up property and driving up the price of not only property, but of all the services," he revealed. "In Guadalajara, you have all the services available to you in a big city including many great hospitals and really good bilingual doctors. And you have less cost than you have in the tourist areas."
Like Angel, Kief had nothing but praise for the Mexican health care system. The system operates on three branches of service: civil care, public care, and private care. Civil care is available to unemployed citizens and foreigners at little to no cost. Public care, or IMSS, covers all employed citizens and is available to non-citizens at an annual fee of about $400. Private care grants access to the nation’s best hospitals, and while it is the most expensive option, Kief estimates that it costs about a third of private health coverage in the U.S.
Guadalajara offers retirees some of the best hospitals in the nation, Kief added. And LGBT seniors are treated with respect and dignity.
"The society overall in Mexico doesn’t look down on homosexuality," he said. "People’s private lives here are still very private. It doesn’t matter if you’re a foreigner or a Mexican citizen. Your own personal business is your own personal business, and it’s very nice that it is still that way. Gay people are openly accepted here. The only person that talks badly about gay people in Guadalajara is the archbishop of the Catholic Church-and he talks badly about everybody."
Kief agrees with Angel that drug violence is primarily reserved to the border. Crime varies from section to section in Guadalajara, like cities in the U.S., he said, but he has never had a moment where he felt unsafe since moving to Mexico 10 years ago.
"What I say to people is if you want to know what Mexico is really like, come to Mexico," Kief said. "Make a trip-come and meet some people who can show you the country and form your own opinion. Everybody who comes down here that was apprehensive ends up becoming the best ambassadors for Mexico. The press in the U.S. has just blown [drug violence] so far out of proportion. It is nothing like they portray it to be."
Modern, Temperate & Courteous
Nicknamed "the city of eternal spring," Guadalajara is mild and temperatures only demand air-conditioning one or two days a year, Kief said. While its architecture and technology competes with major cities across the globe, Guadalajara has preserved a sense of civility that has long been missing in the States.
"Mexico is very modern, but Mexican people are still very polite," Kief said. "There is a level of courtesy here that is extended to everybody on the streets, in the restaurants. It is as if it was in our own country when I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. The level of politeness and civility, all of those good things that we miss that seem to have deteriorated in the U.S., are still very alive and well in Mexico."
Off the coast of the Yucatan sits the tiny Isla Mujeres. Only five miles long and a mile wide, the island is just a short ferry ride from popular spring break destination Cancun. When Steve Broin, owner of Casa Sirena Hotel, stepped off the ferry over 20 years ago, he knew instantly that the island would one day be his final stop.
After traveling for more than 15 years, Broin returned to Isla Mujeres five years ago to open up his own six-room hotel. Housed in a renovated colonial style residence, Casa Sirena is in the center of the quaint island village. Stone-tiled baths, stunning views of Cancun’s skyline, and a rooftop bar with complimentary happy hours, make the hotel a popular stop among island hoppers.
The transition into running a retirement business like Casa Sirena has been a joy, but has come with its fair share of headaches, Broin said.
"Generally speaking, the less Spanish you speak, the more everything costs, from legal and accounting services to fresh fruits and vegetables in the markets," he said. "We jokingly refer to this as the gringo tax. But I have found the government officials to be cooperative and helpful, generally in good humor, and patient. The bureaucratic nuisance factor is about the same as that of the business I formerly owned in the U.S., only complicated due to the fact that everything is in my second language."
Broin ran a profitable graphic design firm in Minnesota for over 25 years. Since moving to Mexico, however, he has traded in pinstripe suits for Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.
"I had the wardrobe of $500 suits, the Saab convertible, the trendy work loft space in a converted railroad building, and the obligatory two-week vacation," he reflected. "Now, I go to work in shorts and a t-shirt, walk most places I need to go, live in a small hotel room in my own hotel, and feel like life is always a vacation in paradise."
Yahoo Travel recently ranked Isla Mujeres’ white sand beaches among the Top 10 across the globe, and Forbes magazine named its underwater sculpture park one of the "World’s Most Unique Travel Destinations." Add that to temperate climates, international cuisine, and boutique shopping, it’s clear why Broin never looked back.
Unlike Guadalajara and Merida, Isla Mujeres’ LGBT community is small and tight-knit. But, like the aforementioned, villagers are respectful of queer tourists and homophobia is a bad word.
"The line between gay and straight is more blurred here than in the black and white culture of the north," Broin said. "Many Mexicans simply do not fit into our rigid categories. Drag shows in Merida can be family affairs, bringing a little Las Vegas to a Sunday afternoon outing with beer and food."
The cost of living on the island is slightly more expensive than that of its continental neighbors, but taxes remain very low. Average homeowner taxes rarely exceed $1,000 a year. And though most islanders don’t own cars, many walk or drive golf carts, those that do pay around $500 a year in insurance.
Crime is as rare as snow on the island, and Broin said he feels safe walking the beaches into the wee hours of the night. But he says the growing drug violence in border cities is a threat to the very fabric of Mexican culture.
"It is a serious problem, but the story that is underreported in the U.S. is that most of the violence is between competing cartels and against public officials and police officers unfortunate enough to be on the payroll of rival gang," he said. "They are not interested in killing tourists or foreigners. In my opinion, Mexico is as safe as any major city in the world."
Broin suggests renting property in Mexico before buying to become acquainted with the change of seasons, customs, and location of markets and public services. Though he has no doubt that anyone who visits Mexico will be hard pressed to leave, especially retirees.
"If anyone is considering a retirement in Mexico, they will find beautiful homes at a fraction of the price in the U.S.," Broin said. "They will find a beautiful, historic culture with gentle people who welcome foreigners to their country. Fascinating food, wonderful climate, low taxes, and great medical care are available at a fraction of the cost. Best to learn a bit of Spanish and get a home with an extra bedroom-family and friends will always want to visit."