Mexico City The two leading candidates in Mexico's presidential campaign have raised eyebrows by casting doubts on each other's masculinity.
But the real surprise to many people in this land with a reputation for "machismo" has been the negative reaction to the tactic.
Criticism led opposition candidate Vicente Fox to quickly drop a negative TV ad aimed at rival Francisco Labastida, the candidate of the long-governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Using a Mexican slang term for someone of undefined sexuality, the ad showed Labastida hugging and lifting a PRI colleague by the thighs. It also featured shots of male strippers at a campaign rally for another PRI candidate.
After canceling the ad, Fox's socially conservative National Action Party, known as PAN, ran an advertisement in newspapers defending itself to the gay community.
The party is "not against the gay community in any way," the ad said, adding: "In a Fox administration, there will be freedom for people to live without masks."
Carlos Monsivais, an author and social critic, said the party's retreat was a milestone for Mexico, where there are no openly gay politicians and homosexuality has not been widely accepted.
"The most important thing is that even Fox and the right had to back down and apologize to the gay community," he said. "It's incredible to hear the word 'homophobia' being used even by the right."
Labastida's supporters have drawn their own criticism for taking shots at Fox's masculinity with allusions to his separation from his wife and his being the father of four adopted children.
"Fox isn't man enough to have children, because the children he has aren't his," said Guillermo Gonzalez, the PRI mayoral candidate in the Mexico City suburb of Naucalpan.
Such attacks have seldom been so direct in Mexican politics, although in the previous presidential election six years ago, the PRI allegedly hired transvestites to attend an opposition campaign rally in Veracruz state in an attempt to discredit it.
This time, the attacks were started by Fox, who is running neck-and-neck with Labastida in the polls before the July 2 election. Fox called the PRI candidate a "sissy" and "La Vestida," a pun on his rival's name implying Labastida is a cross-dresser.
But the atmosphere changed when a minor-party candidate, Gilberto Rincon Gallardo of the Social Democratic Party, stuck up for homosexuals, the handicapped, rape victims and Indians in a televised debate, the first time many of those groups had been mentioned in the race.
"In weak democracies like Mexico, legal protections are necessary to prevent a tyranny of the majority over minorities, so that people can decide on their own private lives without a majority imposing its moral or cultural views," Rincon Gallardo said.
On June 17, the gay community held what was by far the largest gay-pride parade in Mexican history, with organizers estimating a turnout of 30,000. Just five years ago, such parades drew an average of about 1,000 people.
But gays haven't had much success in their effort to make an issue of the banning of some gay cultural events by PAN officials in towns they govern.
Benjamin Araujo of the Front for People with AIDS-HIV said that "gays are more tolerated than accepted" in Mexico and that an openly gay political candidate is an impossibility.
The prevalence of anti-gay attitudes was illustrated by a report by the Citizen's Committee Against Homophobic Hate Crimes: It estimates that 190 gays were killed in Mexico because of their sexual orientation between 1994 and 1999.
But Monsivais sees progress.
"We still haven't reached the point of having an openly gay candidate," he said. "But we are now at a point where there can no longer be an openly anti-gay candidate."