San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

No Party Being Gay in San José

Wood planks and concrete rubble now cover Club Hispalis, a restaurant and gay club in downtown San José, where strippers once danced and erotic movies played.

Some 18 months after Club Hispalis closed, owner Luis Marañón is suing the city of San José for denying him licenses to sell liquor and provide entertainment.

Marañón says San José Mayor Johnny Araya’s decision was discriminatory and had no legal basis, a claim the mayor flatly denies.

Still, Araya’s contempt for homosexuality surfaces in court documents and minutes of municipal council meetings in which he discussed Marañón’s case.

“The concept of freedom … should not be a door to allow behavior contrary to human nature – lesbianism, homosexuality,” Araya wrote to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) in response to Marañón’s challenge.

Marañón’s suit has so far been unsuccessful. The Sala IV ruled last October that it lacked the authority to hear his case, and a San José tribunal said in May that the city had acted within its rights. In the coming months, an appeals court will hold a public trial.

“This is war,” said Marañón, who plans to attack Araya in newspaper ads. “I’m a fighter. And there’s something else: I’m rich.”

The case takes on added importance because Araya, who has been a municipal leader for two decades, hopes to run for president in 2010 on the National Liberation Party (PLN) ticket, and he consistently does well in early polls. In a Catholic country that has yet to embrace gay rights, it’s unclear whether the trial will hurt or help him.


‘Cat and Mouse’

Marañón, a Spaniard, made his money running a club for gay men in Barcelona. A decade ago, he moved here with his Tico boyfriend, Olger Lawson, and opened Hispalis Gym for gay men in downtown San José with small pools, steam rooms, saunas, exercise machines, massage beds and a café.

In 2002, Marañón bought a swath of land next to his gym and built Club Hispalis, a slick two-story club with a red-black color scheme and movie posters on the walls.

Club Hispalis, which opened in July 2003, functioned as a restaurant during the day, open to anyone. At around 8 p.m., it turned into a disco for gay men. Even after the city rejected Marañón’s application for liquor and entertainment licenses, he served booze, hired strippers and showed porn films.

Over the next four years, the city repeatedly shut down Club Hispalis, but Marañón would tear down the closure notices and reopen the club, he said. In March 2007, he closed for good.

“I was tired of playing cat and mouse.”

The gym, separate from Club Hispalis, still operates from noon to 1 a.m. and has more than 5,000 clients, some of them in heterosexual marriages, Marañón said.

Marañón tries to keep Hispalis Gym somewhat secret. It’s not visible from the street, and guests enter through an unmarked door on Avenida Segunda. He advertises on the Internet, through word of mouth, and in the magazine Gente 10, intended for gay men.

“When Costa Rica becomes less discriminatory, maybe we will become more open,” he said.


‘100 Percent Gay’

From the day Club Hispalis opened, Marañón poured time and money into appealing the city’s licensing decisions. Liquor laws prohibit the city from giving licenses to businesses less than 400 meters from churches, health centers or schools.

When city inspector Gerardo Venegas found no such places near Club Hispalis, the head of the licensing department, Rodolfo Fonseca, visited the area himself. He found seven schools – universities or continuing education centers – four health centers and a museum within 400 meters of Club Hispalis, and Araya denied the liquor license based on that information.

But these distance requirements do not apply for restaurants, like Club Hispalis, that are designated as tourist spots by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT). Rather, the city had broad discretion in deciding whether to accept Marañón’s application.

Fonseca, who recommended that Araya deny the license, said he did not remember the specifics of the case. But when asked what he thought of putting a gay bar next to school, he said, “It’s not discrimination. It’s a question of morals.”

Araya also appealed to children’s interests in denying Marañón a license to provide adult entertainment at Club Hispalis. He wrote that minors might enter the restaurant at night looking to buy food, even though Marañón said he prohibits entry to anyone under 18.

“Minors are an essential part of this society,” Araya wrote. “The moral, social, economic and cultural context in which they develop will determine society’s future values.”

Some 11 of the 13 city council members backed Araya. But Heiner Méndez, who briefly worked as a lawyer in the city’s licensing department, said Marañón met with all the legal requirements for both licenses.

“Luis Marañón’s case had more to do with xenophobia than anything else,” Méndez said.

Araya, who did not respond to Tico Times interview requests, has rejected such comments.

“Homophobia has nothing to do with this,” he said in a 2004 speech to the city council.

“In San José, there are bars where mostly homosexuals or lesbians go, and they don’t have any problems. … I don’t have a problem about these types of places, although I don’t share their (interests).”

A recent issue of the magazine Gente 10 lists eight clubs, three restaurants, eight hotels and three saunas that cater to gay clients in the Central Valley, and the list is not exhaustive.

Olio, a gay-friendly restaurant in San José, has never had trouble with the city, said owner Federico Rojas.

Rojas, who is gay but says he acts straight to fit in, keeps Olio PG-rated. Diners can sit close to one another and even hold hands.

If they go further, Rojas politely asks them to behave. He does not want to scare away straight customers, whose business the restaurant needs to survive.

“The problem with (Club Hispalis) is that it was a gay, gay place. 100 percent gay. For me, that’s not a problem. But maybe it was for the city,” Rojas said.


Why Fight?

On Wednesday, the city submitted written testimony to a three-judge tribunal in San José, and Marañón must respond by next week. If there is no settlement, the tribunal will hold a public trial, where both sides can testify and call witnesses.

The sentence could come before the end of the year, and either party can appeal to the Supreme Court, said Judge Hubert Fernández, who is not assigned to the case.

Last Friday, five days before the city’s written testimony was due, Marlene Rodríguez, the city’s lawyer, accompanied inspectors from the city and ICT on a surprise visit to Marañón’s gym, his offices and the rubble where the club once raged.

Marañón, incredulous at the search, said Rodríguez was digging for dirt on him and trying to intimidate him to drop the case. Rodríguez acknowledged that she joined the inspection to gather information for the city’s defense.

“There are some things there that I don’t think are appropriate. But I don’t want to talk about it because it’s part of the defense,” she said.

Rodríguez suggested that Marañón drop the suit.

“The judicial route may not be the best way for him to improve his situation,” she said. “He persists in living in the year 2003.”

Marañón no longer needs the licenses – he does not plan to reopen Club Hispalis.

In its place, he wants to construct a four-story hotel for gay men. There will be a gym on the first floor, a club, restaurant and pool on the second floor, and rooms on the third and fourth floors.

Marañón obtained a construction permit from the city earlier this month and hopes to start building by year’s end. Eventually, he will apply for liquor and entertainment licenses for the hotel.

“Why do I keep fighting? So they say, ‘If we don’t give this bastard (the licenses), he’ll sue us again,’” Marañón said.

He also wants damages. He sank more than $1 million into Club Hispalis, and up to $60,000 on the appeals, he said. He had to take out loans and said he lost sleep and got an ulcer.

Victory, he said, would bring “reparations for financial and emotional harm. And, most important, a little boost for the gay community.”


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