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Mexico’s muxe, or ‘third gender’, are part of worldwide LGBTQ movement

In World
January 17, 2024
Stylists apply eyeliner, powder and other touches to the face of the soon-to-be-enthroned Queen Elvis as she holds forth about the singular nature of her community – the muxe – in this remote slice of southern Mexico.

The muxe (pronounced Moo-shay) are Zapotec people who view themselves as neither man nor woman, but instead a distinct “third gender”. Identified as male at birth, they embody female characteristics – in presentation, behaviour and professions – which once earned them contempt and scorn. Today, though prejudices persist, in general they are accepted – even admired – on their home turf.

Elvis Guerra, 30, the queen in waiting, explains that the muxe stand in solidarity with burgeoning gender rights movements worldwide, pronouncing themselves trailblazers of cultural preservation and inclusion in a rural bastion of Catholicism.

“We share the same fight as the LGBTQ community,” said Guerra, who is also a published poet, lawyer and head of a company producing fabrics with Indigenous motifs.
A Catholic ceremony for the Muxes festival. Mexico’s legacy of machismo and Roman Catholicism has fostered hostility to homosexuality and alternatives to conventional gender norms. That has begun to change, slowly, in recent decades. Photo: Shutterstock

She sat patiently as ardent beauticians prepared her for her formal investiture, a highlight of the three-day festival – or vela – that celebrates muxe culture here every November.

“In fact, I think it should be written LGBTQM,” she said. “With an M at the end for muxe.”

Mexico’s legacy of machismo and Roman Catholicism has fostered hostility to homosexuality and alternatives to conventional gender norms. That has begun to change, slowly, in recent decades. Mexico City now holds an annual Gay Pride parade that is among the world’s largest. Last year, same-sex marriage finally became legal in every Mexican state.

But the November slaying of Jesús Ociel Baena, a nonbinary magistrate and prominent LGBTQ activist in the central state of Aguascalientes, was a reminder of continuing intolerance and crime against gay, transgender and nonbinary people.

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Police called the killing a murder-suicide, not a hate crime, saying the judge’s partner fatally stabbed the victim before killing himself. But the magistrate’s family and advocates have voiced scepticism, citing threats against the activist and Mexico’s long history of ignoring or covering up crimes targeting individuals because of their gender or sexual orientation.

Muxe representatives condemned the magistrate’s killing while demanding that police reinvigorate the stalled inquiry into the 2019 homicide of a beloved muxe leader, Óscar Cazorla, who was stabbed to death in his home here in Juchitán, in Oaxaca state on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Cazorla was a pivotal figure who, a generation ago, helped pull the community out of the closet. Known for wearing guayabera with neon-bright flower prints and a cascading array of gold jewellery, he was at the forefront of the battle to end discrimination and allow the muxe to stage their galas with participants in female dress.

“How many more deaths of LGBTQ people – both the well-known and the anonymous – have to occur to wake up the collective conscience, the anger, the rage?” asked Felina Santiago Valdivieso, president of a muxe association. Speaking to an audience of thousands at the November 18 coronation ball for the new queen, she added: “All of us, we all run a risk simply for being who we are.”

Muxe Estrella Vasquez walks through a market at the Juchitan community in Oaxaca State. Photo: AFP

Muxe had long been prevented from wearing women’s clothing in formal parades, and were often denied educational opportunities and jobs. But beginning in the mid-1970s, the muxe launched what they view as a liberation movement, including public protests and appeals to police and politicians. At the same time, left-wing movements were sweeping the isthmus – a part of Mexico with a long and proud history of rebellion and cultural independence, providing an opening for the muxe to throw their support behind political reform.

“We were persecuted,” said Edgar Cacique Ruiz, 55, a muxe who was a close associate of Cazorla. “It was only through constant battles and activism that our way of dressing was accepted, and that our sisters can now dress like women.”

Said Guerra: “To have sexual freedom, you first need political freedom.”

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The muxe view the annual festivities as much more than a big party: The vela, they say, is essential to asserting their identity and winning wider acceptance – a signature happening garnering government and business support, drawing big crowds and generating considerable income. Its success underscores the muxe ascension from outcasts to their current status as a vital thread in the economic and social fabric of a place where the Zapotec language is still prevalent.

Still, Guerra said, the battle doesn’t end “until we have equality, respect in the community, and every muxe child is permitted to go to school dressed like a girl”.

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