First of all, I have to say that I am grieving the loss of one our pioneering faculty members - Mary Briggs who you will read about in this newsletter. She was an amazing woman and I was fortunate enough to receive some training from here when I was an intern at PHS some 36 years ago!
I am writing this from Mexico where I have started a 6-month sabbatical. The purpose of this sabbatical is to study gender variance which is widespread throughout the world but cultures place different values upon gender identities and cross-gender behavior. In most parts of the world, gender variant identifies and behavioral expressions of those identities are highly stigmatized - although the struggle for acceptance is growing around the world. However, there are cultures where variations in gender identities are much more tolerated, embedded into the normative and historical societal structure of gender, and sometimes a revered phenomenon.
I have started my work here in Mexico in a small indigenous community in Juchitan, Oaxaca. Fifteen years ago, I began my work on this subject, and I have been back to Juchitan many times. From here I will be going to French Polynesia, Thailand, and Burma. These societies (or parts thereof) have a unique and less stigmatized view of gender variance and cross-gender behavior. I will also be visiting Micronesia (Marshall Islands) and Melanesia (Fiji) which have interesting phenomenon but not as positive a situation - but are useful as contrast. I have been studying these societies for many years in my spare time, and I am back to revisit and finalize my observations and conclusions. I am accompanied by Mariette Pathy Allen who will be accenting the data with a photographic study.
I am just concluding my field research with the muxes of Juchitan. Juchitan is a small indigenous community (Zapotec) in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. I have been able to observe the changes and evolution of the culture and the individual lives of many of the muxes. In Juchitan, muxes are a broad spectrum of gender non-conforming males - which would span our western constructs of gay, cross-dresser, transgender, and transsexual. The vast majority of them have sex with other men - and they are mostly distinctively sexually attracted to 'straight men' or 'bisexual men' known as mayates. Some muxes are heterosexually married and have children - their status as muxe is well recognized by the wife and society. A muxe is identified as such from an early age - and because of the relatively small community is known by everyone as muxe. Most parents in Juchitan would simply understand this as a fate of nature as the Zapotec people are fairly agnostic.
While it is not something that is necessarily desired and many fathers have negative reactions to their son's cross-gender behavior, most muxes become recognized as an asset to the family. Muxes take on a social role of caretakers of the parents and family members (they do this from a very young age). They are traditionally bound to live with the family and living in long-term relationship with another person is not really acceptable (except it seems for the ones who marry a woman and raise their own family). There have been some recent stories of two muxes living together - which is a very new and rare phenomenon.
The muxes are a very interesting phenomenon - and one which you cannot find even in other parts of the state of Oaxaca - never mind Mexico. They have long held a unique status within society, recognized and respected because of their role within the family, and they often inherit family fortune. I would say that they gain acceptance through hard work and good deeds - but at least that option is afforded them. As such, many hold positions of respect and power. The muxes organized themselves as a "gay rights organization in the 1970s - becoming Mexico's earliest gay rights organization. They now wield considerable political power.
It is hard to generalize about muxes - as this is a phenomenon quite complex and dynamically changing. There has been a blending of modern constructs of "gay" and "trans." They defy fitting into either construct and may best be understood in the western constructs of "queer."
The situation in Juchitan is extremely unique and exists as a stark contrast to other indigenous communities or other rural areas in Mexico. Muxes defy simple definition as it is a unique gender role within society which is expressed in a variety of ways - which are, to varying degrees, accepted. Many hold on to the traditional cultural belief that there is a place for sexual and gender diversity in a community.
It is an illustration of a community where sexual and gender diversity can coexist and that diversity can be celebrated. It is not paradise as our binary way of thinking of gender and sexual orientation continues to cause pressure to conform or create prejudice for those that don't fit the binary. And the struggle to maintain the traditions and create even more acceptance continues. But, it is an interesting challenge to other societies to think about how everyone can contribute to society capitalizing on their uniqueness and differentness. And, all can be enriched by those who do not conform to gender expectations. I do believe that celebration of sexual and gender diversity is essential to everyone's sexual health.
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