When it comes to gender, a lot of people still believe that you can only be a man or a woman. However, that’s certainly not the case in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico. For you see, in that particular area of the country, a third gender has been recognized by the local residents.
In recent times, gender identity has become a hot topic in the public eye. Indeed, many individuals claim that they don’t conform with the traditional genders today, and instead belong to different groups. So on that note, terms like transgender and non-binary are arguably more recognizable now than they’ve ever been.
And given how open our society now is, it seems like the ideal time for gender identity to be discussed properly. After all, if more people are willing to understand the topic, that should be a big benefit for everyone going forward. But in other parts of the world, this particular discussion isn’t that new.
As we previously mentioned, residents of Oaxaca believe that a third gender exists in their local community. And those who identify with that group are known as “muxes.” As we’re about to discover, the label has a real storied history, with the individuals concerned living quite a remarkable life.
While it might seem obvious to say, our gender is the starting point in defining who we are as individuals. Yet whether we’re a man or woman, these facts aren’t as restrictive as they once were, especially regarding our passions and interests. For instance, being a female doesn’t stop you from competing in sports like soccer today.
However, there are many people across the world who feel like they don’t fit into the category of a particular gender. As a result of that, gender identity has gone on to become an important subject. But if you’re struggling to understand the intricacies of certain terminologies, here are some things to remember.
To begin with, cisgender is one of the more simple terms to understand. Unlike the other labels, this describes a person who identifies with the gender they were born with. So if you were born a boy and grew up adhering to that identity, you’d be referred to as cisgender male.
As for the term itself, which is referred to as cissexual too, cisgender was coined by German sexologist Volkmar Sigusch. And he first mentioned it in a paper back in 1991, entitled “Transsexuals and our nosomorphic view.” After that, Sigusch brought it up again in another piece a few years later, called “The Neosexual Revolution.”
Meanwhile, some of the other terminology might seem a little tougher to decipher in comparison. So with that in mind, one charity in the United Kingdom looked to clear up any potential confusion. Known as the LGBT Foundation, this organization has been operating out of Manchester, England, for a number of decades now.
“Established in 1975, LGBT Foundation exists to support the needs of the diverse range of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans,” read a post on the charity’s website. “We are a nationally significant charity firmly rooted in our local communities of Greater Manchester. And [we] provide a wide range of evidence-based and cost effective services.”
From there, the organization shared some eye-catching numbers in the post. It continued, “Each year, we serve over 40,000 people, achieving an average 98% satisfaction rating. As well as providing information to over 600,000 individuals online. As a result, we serve more LGBT people than any other charity of our kind in the U.K.”
Given all that, the LGBT Foundation has sought to clarify the semantics behind gender identity terminology. In fact, the organization has a section devoted to “Non-Binary Inclusion” on its website, which attempts to make things clearer. But that’s not all, though, as we’re about to find out.
The post explained, “When we use the word transgender, we are referring to an inclusive umbrella term that consists of binary trans people, [like] trans men and trans women. As well as non-binary people and people who cross dress.” From there, the foundation then took a closer look at the latter term.
“Non-binary people feel their gender identity cannot be defined within the margins of gender binary,” the post read. “Instead, they understand their gender in a way that goes beyond simply identifying as either a man or woman.” Off the back of that, the website also included an additional definition from another source.
Indeed, according to the Scottish Trans Alliance, the term non-binary covers individuals with a particular mindset. For in some cases, the person might see themselves in the gray area between a male and a female. Yet others could switch across the two genders whenever it feels right for them.
But the definition from the Scottish Trans Alliance actually goes even further than that. Alongside the aforementioned points, non-binary can be used to describe someone who doesn’t conform to either gender completely. In fact, this may be a temporary or permanent state of being. To add to that, the LGBT Foundation makes an interesting observation about the term.
The charity’s post continued, “There are many ways that non-binary can be understood, as the category is incredibly diverse. The definitions are as diverse as the community, which has meant that non-binary has become an umbrella term. As well as being an identity category in its own right.” At that point, a few more labels were brought up.
“Terms like genderqueer,” the post read. “Genderf**k, neutrosis, agender, gender-fluid, bigender and third gender are just some of the labels that people within the non-binary community use to describe their gender identity. Non-binary identities can be fixed or fluid, and this can often cause confusion to people understanding non-binary as an identity.”
To break things down further, some of these terms have clear descriptions attached to them, which differentiate them from each other. Gender-fluid, for example, describes someone who fluctuates between the sexes. As for agender, that covers an individual who doesn’t see themselves as a man or a woman. On that note, let’s now get on to genderqueer.
Yes, genderqueer is a label that someone might use if they identify with certain aspects of the two genders. And to round things off, transgender, arguably the most recognizable of the terms, describes a male or female who doesn’t conform with their born gender. But in one part of Mexico, another identity has entered the public consciousness.
Now, the state of Oaxaca is home to a region known as Istmo de Tehuantepec, which covers two districts. And one of those houses an indigenous town called Juchitán de Zaragoza, where residents have long believed in three genders. According to them, you’re either a man, a woman or a muxe.
Interestingly, the muxe gender has reportedly been around this part of Mexico since the Aztecs lived there, over five centuries ago. In terms of the meaning behind the label, a local resident, who identifies as a muxe, explained it to the BBC. However, the individual wanted to make something else clear.
While being interviewed in November 2018, Lukas Avendaño was asked if he should be referred to in masculine or feminine terms. For you see, the indigenous language in that town is known as Zapotec, but Avendaño had an intriguing response.
“I prefer you’d just call me sweetheart,” Avendaño responded with a smile. “In Zapotec, as in English, there are no grammatical genders. There is only one form for all people. Muxes have never been forced to wonder: are they more man or woman?” Also, the Oaxaca native tried to describe what a muxe is.
Avendaño continued, “It’s hard to describe who a muxe is. Basically, we can say that a muxe is any person who was born a man but doesn’t act masculine.” In addition to that, another muxe named Felix added, “We’re the third sex. There’s men and women and there’s something in between, and that’s who I am.”
As for what the muxe people look like, their appearances really do vary. For example, some like to wear dresses, mirroring the styles of the local women, while others prefer to wear clothing fit for men. Regarding the latter group, they opt to sport painted nails and make-up to mark themselves out as a muxe.
Given that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these people are simply transgender themselves, yet it’s not that straight forward. For the muxe gender is a distinct identity only found in Oaxaca, tying back to, as previously mentioned, the Aztecs. During that period, the priests were often seen wearing dresses and didn’t appear to conform to a specific gender.
Meanwhile, an elementary school teacher named Fernando Noé Díaz provided some more fascinating insight on the muxes. “It’s not true [that] there are more of them here,” he informed the BBC. “They’re just more respected, so they can be more visible. I guess muxes are so respected because they are more a social gender rather than a sexual one.”
Furthermore, Noé Díaz then expanded on that latter point, saying, “[The muxes] have an important role in the community. When the man is at sea or in the field and the woman is at the market, there is no one to take care of the household and family. That’s where the muxe comes in.”
So Noé Díaz then gave an interesting insight. He added, “Some even say it’s a blessing for a mother to have a muxe son who will help her at home and take care of young siblings. Also, muxes are socially not allowed to have long-term relationships or get married so they can stay with their mothers when they get old.”
However, that’s not to say that muxes can’t have romantic relationships at all. Indeed, they’ve formed bonds with men and women on that front, while some abstained from sexual relations completely. But it’s possible for us outsiders to misunderstand the context of a muxe sleeping with a man. So let’s find out more.
Well, these men having sex with muxes are referred to as mayates, and won’t be thought of as homosexuals at all. Marinella Miano Borruso touched on this difference a bit more in a piece titled “Between local and global. Muxes in the 21st Century.” In the article, she attempted to clear up the potential confusion that could come from this.
As Miano Borruso went on to explain, “An important difference with urban Western sexual culture is that for Zapotecs, only sexual relationships between a muxe and a heterosexual male have meaning. Relations between muxes or between a muxe and a gay man don’t make sense. In fact they are even inconceivable.” Her words didn’t end there, though.
“No muxe would sleep with a man who considers himself gay,” Miano Borruso claimed. “Zapotec society as a whole doesn’t perceive a man who has relations with a muxe as a homosexual, his hetero-status is not questioned.” Yet this is not as straightforward as the academic appears to believe herself. For instance, there are many muxes who see themselves as gay, according to the BBC.
And the BBC journalist, Ola Synowiec, also noticed that some muxes believed they were women born in a man’s body. Due to that, a number of them actually underwent a form of hormone treatment, in an effort to look more feminine. But as we’re about to find out, that’s not all.
According to Synowiec, a few of the muxes had gotten breast implants as well, changing their look. In the opinion of Noé Díaz, though, that physical transformation wouldn’t alter their status in terms of gender. Indeed, the elementary school teacher revealed, “That’s something new. Fake boobs don’t make a muxe more muxe.”
Furthermore, the muxes have a strong connection to the Catholic Church, which results from their long history in Oaxaca. And Avendaño gave some intriguing information on that front, as he described his hometown to the BBC website. By doing so, he reiterated the ties that his gender had to the religion.
“Muxes have always had an important role in the local Catholic Church,” Avendaño explained in November 2018. “It was their job to prepare the church decorations. In Tehuantepec, the town I come from, muxes have their own brotherhood inside the church.” In keeping with the local traditions, something else has been a mainstay in Oaxaca for a while now.
For close to 50 years, a three-day celebration has been held in Juchitán every November called the “Vigil of the Intrepids.” And this event commemorates the muxes’ role in society, while also attracting the interest of transgender and gay people from outside. To sum it all up, the local clergyman, Arturo Francisco Herrera González, gave a touching sermon at the 2018 festival.
“God created woman and man, but he also created human nature,” González said. “And it’s possible that the nature created by him decided who humans are. And among people, there are homosexuals and it’s totally natural. God created us in his image, and each one of us is unique. There are no two identical individuals and we have to respect that.”