Katie Orlinsky

The Third Gender

In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a narrow strip of land in Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca, transgenders enjoy unusual freedom and acceptance. In striking opposition to Mexico's dominant mestizo culture, which is racially mixed and dominated bymachismo, the population of the Isthmus is typically Zapotec indigenous and does not condemn or reject "los gays". On the contrary, in Juchitán and neighboring towns children can be born neither boys nor girls. They are muxe.

In Zapotec muxe translates to "gay", yet the muxe of the Isthmus are not exactly homosexual. Rather, they are a third gender: a local, indigenous gender believed to combine the assets of both the female and male and to be equipped with special intellectual and artistic gifts.

For many parents, raising a muxe is a blessing. It implies that strong arms will take care of the house when they go out to work and that they will have someone to look after them as they grow older (most muxe do not marry).

The integration of the muxe in the local culture is exemplified by the velas muxe, massive celebrations of the muxe community. The celebration, which now gets national attention, requires a full year of preparation and costs around $10,000. Each year in November the muxe come together along with roughly 1500 men, women, and children. They choose a muxe as the reina (princess) for every ball, and the mayor of Juchitan awards the crown.

At the same time it must be noted that although accepted, and even respected, the muxe in the Isthmus tend to have few opportunities to break out of their designated role in society. Jobs for the muxe are often limited to that of the housekeeper, hairdresser, party decorator, and prostitute. Prostitution is common among the muxe and sex work is rapidly growing in the Isthmus.