El Baile de los quarenta y uno (The Dance of the Forty-One) is a recent Mexican movie, dubbed in English, which is currently available on Netflix. My Latina spouse, Mirtha, read about it and proposed that we watch it on TV during the Victoria Day long weekend here in Canada.

Here is the Wikipedia explanation of the real-life incident on which the movie is based:

During the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, an illegal police raid was carried out on November 17, 1901, against a private home in Mexico City, the site of a dance attended by a group of men, of whom nineteen were dressed in women’s clothing.

“The press was keen to report the incident, in spite of the government’s efforts to hush it up, since the participants belonged to the upper echelons of society. The list of the detainees was never published. Only 41 men were officially arrested. However, there were rumors that Ignacio de la Torre y Mier, son-in-law of President Diaz, was also in attendance. Of the 41 men arrested for “offense to morals and good manners,” most paid for their freedom and only [!] 12 were eventually sent to work in the Yucatan.

The movie begins with the courtship of Ignacio de la Torre, an aspiring politician, and Amada, the illegitimate (a term much used in the nineteenth century) daughter of Porfirio Diaz and an Indigenous woman, Rafaela Quinones. In a racist, patriarchal culture, Amada has an ambiguous social position: her father is powerful, but she is a woman born “out of wedlock,” and she is darker than her white half-brothers and sisters. Her own mother is not welcome at social events attended by Senor Diaz’s legitimate family.

Ignacio de la Torre promises Amada a respectable life, but she is his means of marrying into the First Family of his country, and she can serve as his “beard,” the wife who will presumably protect him from dangerous gossip. At night, he spends much time in an exclusive club of men-loving men, all of whom are sworn to silence about their activities.

Amada is no fool. She paces the floor in the echoing mansion her father has provided for herself, her husband, and all the children her father expects them to have. She opens desk drawers, and finds the love notes to Ignacio from “Eva” (Evaristo Rivas), the man with whom he dreams of eloping.

The men’s club is shown as a luxurious site of orgies and balls. In a room full of claw-foot bathtubs, naked men wash, massage, fellate and fuck each other in twosomes, threesomes, and foursomes. In the gaming room, they smoke and play cards. In the ballroom, they dance together in imitation of the social lives they conduct with their wives on more public occasions.

When Amada confronts Ignacio with the evidence of his secret life, he is furious. Getting caught wasn’t part of his plan. She is willing to continue playing the role of contented wife in public if he gives her a child to focus on. She prays over him, hoping that God will “cure” him. Ignacio gets violent. It seems clear that he only stops short of seriously beating her because he is afraid of what her father could do to him.

Amada invites Evaristo to visit her at home for tea and conversation, and Ignacio is mortified to find him there. Ignacio continues to spend much time at his club, and Amada complains to her father, who assigns bodyguards to follow Ignacio everywhere, supposedly for his safety. A big reveal and a public scandal seem inevitable.

The scriptwriter is a woman, and the viewpoint from which the melodrama is shown looks balanced: the eye of the camera is not completely on one side or the other. Ignacio’s desperation, and his love for “Eva,” are poignant, but so is Amada’s loneliness and humiliation. Even though Amada is warned by other society matrons that a new husband’s devotion declines over time, it seems unlikely she had the faintest suspicion that she would be effectively dumped right after the wedding night.

The true history of “forbidden love” in all its forms generally seems to be this messy. Before it was safe for anyone to admit that they were sexually attracted to members of their own gender, a supposedly heterosexual relationship made a good disguise. This meant that one person was the dupe, the one who was lured into a commitment that the other person never meant to honour.

Several gay ex-husbands I’ve known in real life have told me how disappointed they were when their ex-wives turned out to be “homophobic.” I always ask the man whether he warned the woman what she was getting into, and what he expected when he “came out” to her or she found evidence of his extramarital activities. Usually this happened when he was no longer willing to sneak out only on weekends, or no longer willing to hide his feelings for a Significant Other.

Thinking of the harm done by the gay men I know, I wouldn’t want them to stay “in the closet” forever because that would mean burying a part of themselves. On the other hand, I really wish that no one’s sexual awakening had to hurt anyone else.

There are also women-loving women—including me—who were previously married to men. In most cases that I know of, the marriage fell apart under its own weight before the ex-wife “came out” and began dating other women instead of repeating a losing formula and possibly having more children who (on average) would be their mother’s sole responsibility. There are exceptions to this rule. I heard of a woman who rebounded after a painful breakup with another woman by finding a dating site and quickly getting engaged to a local farmer who was looking for a wife. Before the wedding date, the woman realized that she had not really “straightened out,” and ghosted her fiance, leaving him wondering what happened.

Even though the LGBTQ community now enjoys a degree of social acceptance that our predecessors could only dream of, there is still a certain pressure on those who tell “queer stories” to make them as “positive” as possible. The lesbian romances from Cleis Press that enchanted me in the 1980s tend to end with all the loose ends wrapped up, the happy couple planning a future together, and the exes either supportive or at least resigned. Stories like this are comforting, but they don’t capture the complexity of real life. A poly, pansexual lifestyle is not for everyone, and a person who just discovered they have been deceived is unlikely to want an intimate connection with their deceiver’s side piece, or preferred lover.

Sexual ecstasy doesn’t rule out emotional pain. I wish more editors of erotic anthologies would recognize that showing some heartbreak is not a warning that Lust is a slippery slope to hell. Betrayal and disappointment can just be setbacks on the road to better things.