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Three way in Oaxaca

3 October 2012


Deborah Bonello (Mexico Reporter) from Juchitán, Oaxaca. While, as usual, Ms. Bonello does an excellent job,  before one gets the idea that Juchitán is some sort of rural South Beach or San Francisco, a comment.  I wonder if Ms. Bonello  isn’t somewhat over-simplifying (and misinterpreting) things when she uses  “gay” and “muxe” pretty much interchangeably.

In part this is a language issue… both Spanish and English use the word “gay” to refer to persons who have sexual and emotional relationships with their own gender (often specifically male-male relationships).

As with most European-based cultures, we defining gender based on physical characteristics.  AFTER defining gender, then we define “normal” gender behavior.  There is a secondary sense of “gay” — and one that is  used as a negative stereotype — based on behavior:  effeminate men and “manish” women being called “gay” (or usually one of the many cruder terms available in English, Spanish and just about every other language).

But the Zapotecs do things their own way.  behavior — not biology — defines gender.  Muxes are recognized as having the behavioral norms of females although the body parts of males.  They are a third gender… “two-spirit people”, as Oaxacan muxe politician and activist Amaranta Gomez defines herself… which leads me back to the definitions of “gay”.  Since muxes are not having sex or forming intimate relationships with other muxes, AND their behavior is not considered atypical for their gender, can we say tolerance for muxes is the same as tolerance for gays?

I have wondered whether our surprise that muxes are considered “normal” and unremarkable in this region doesn’t have more to do with our own cultural assumptions.  Although Miguel Covarrubias’ classic work on the Isthmus of Tehuanatepec, Mexico South (1946) glosses over the existence of the muxes, he devotes quite a bit of text (and some humorous drawings) to the unusual situation in the Zapotec region, where women have the upper hand in  economic and political affairs, not men.   We just assume that other cultures work like ours, and there’s an innate advantage to being male.  Successful women in the wider culture are described in terms of male behaviors, and — sometimes metaphorically — in biological terms (“She’s got brass balls!”) as well.   But, for us, it’s still a man’s world.

Not everyone in the Isthmus is a Zapotec, and — as I’ve written before — Mexican culture is more nuanced in the power-relationships between men and women than we Anglo-Saxon types realize.  Sure, there are huge advantages to being a male — but — if you live in a community where the local culture has been heavily influenced (or the majority culture) is one where females are the more powerful gender, a muxe in the family would be nothing to be ashamed of… the (literal) balls being of less importance than the behaviors that make for success in a woman’s world.


One Comment leave one →
  1. 3 October 2012 11:29 am

    The documentary “Blossoms of Fire” has been around a while (made in 2000, I think), but it illustrates many of the points you are making. The filmmakers, while definitely sympathetic to the subject, miss a bit of the nuance that you’ve well described here.

    The muxe are not “gay” in our NOB sense of the word, but a separate, beloved category. They are themselves, not a label. This is not to criticize the documentary, but just to point out that such delicate cultural details are difficult to perceive and to portray. Too much of the time – for everyone – our own filters of experience and prejudices get in the way of seeing what is really before you.

    Or as my dear friend Jorge says, “In Mexico, even if you see it with your own eyes, it may not be true.”

    Thanks for this fine description. It makes me ponder how much I need to hone my own writing skills and thinking skills. I think you’ve hit it just right.

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