Drag and trans wrestlers fight for acceptance in Mexico's 'lucha libre' wrestling world
Wrestlers Estrella Divina "Divine Star," Diva Salvaje "Wild Diva" and Demasiado "Too Much" (AFP)

Their nicknames and gear are unusual for Mexico's very macho lucha libre circuit. Male wrestlers "Wild Diva," "Divine Star" and "Too Much" grace the ring wearing lipstick, garter belts and mesh leggings.

On a recent night, they get ready to rumble in a makeshift pro wrestling arena -- a garage in Tultitlan, a dusty suburb of Mexico City.

As they change into their singlets in the women's locker room, they address each other in the feminine form. The other male wrestlers get dressed in the men's locker room.

The ring announcer calls on the "Okama Power" team, Japanese slang for transvestite power. The crowd bursts into catcalls and cheers as three luchadores swagger onto the ring in glamorous see-through robes.

It's time for the "exoticos" (exotic ones) to wrestle.

Although this category of lucha libre emerged in the 1970s with the pioneering wrestler "Ola Lila", exoticos are still fighting to be taken seriously inside and outside the ring of the popular Mexican sport.

"Kilvan", one of the opponents of the Okama Power team, only has compliments for his ring rivals. But not everybody is as accepting.

- 'Substitutes of Madness' -

Some luchadores "want to pummel you, squeeze more. They think you're more fragile because of the way you are," says "Divine Star".

The 20-year-old wrestler with long, blond curly hair and a statuesque body is the center of attention at the improvised arena.

The luchador, who proudly shows off curves in a tight, open black singlet exposing a bra, has started hormone therapy to become a woman.

His confidence contrasts with his early wrestling days in the Pacific resort of Acapulco, where he fought in a mask "out of shame because I wasn't out of the closet."

Once he accepted who he was, he thought, "Why should I hide behind a mask and act macho if I'm really like this?"

After the fight starts, "Wild Diva" pins his opponent to the mat with a chokehold, gets back up and plays to the crowd, which chants "kiss! kiss! kiss!" -- the trademark "move" of the exoticos.

The diva pauses, nears his opponent and, instead of a smooch, he slaps his rival square in the face.

The humor and interaction with the crowd are part of what set the exoticos apart from classic luchadores.

But even though they know how to work an audience, they have to wrestle as independent fighters because the biggest lucha libre company, AAA, relegates them to preliminary fights known as "Atomic Substitutes of Madness", alongside dwarfs, women and other fighters.

The other major Mexican pro wrestling company, the Lucha Libre World Council, only has one exotico on its roster, Maximo, who is heterosexual.

"Wild Diva", who is openly gay, laments that heterosexual fighters wear makeup and work as exoticos but then "many denigrate us."

- Fighting labels -

Pioneers like "Ola Lila", "Gorgeous Sergio" and "The Beautiful Greek" paved the way with their effeminate moves and feathery clothes.

But it was the following generation, in the late 1980s, that revolutionized exotic lucha libre with a virile technique coupled with transvestite makeup and uniforms. The stars included "Mayflower", "Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Cassandro."

"Time has helped the acceptance of the exoticos a lot," said Cassandro, the 2008 Mexican lightweight champion who has become a prominent defender of gay rights.

But, he added, "work remains to eliminate labels and that our talent is seen as someone who is an exotico and not as someone who is gay," the 45-year-old wrestler said.

Following his example, the new generation of exoticos uses more powerful and aggressive wrestling moves.

As night follows outside the Tultitlan garage, the "Okama Power" team wins its fight.

"Kilvan" takes the mic, calls for a rematch and tells the crowd: "They only seem gay... they are more manly than many inside this ring."

By Carola Sole