When it comes to defying the gender binary – that limiting classification of gender into two distinct forms of masculine and feminine – Oaxaca, Mexico has a lot to teach the rest of the world.
In that southernmost Mexican state, the indigenous Zapotec people have a third gender: muxe, which describes boys and men who sometimes dress as women and, more commonly, those who live their full lives as women.
Muxes, the Zapotec word for mujer, which means woman in Spanish, shouldn’t be compared to more familiar identities in the U.S. like transgender or transsexual, though. Unlike these gendered identities, which have nothing to do with sexual orientation, muxes often identify as gay men who sometimes dress like women – and when they do, they identify as muxe, meaning that their identities are also fluid.
"I consider myself gay and muxe. I’m gay the moment I’m behaving as a boy, and I’m a muxe the moment I’m behaving as a girl. It’s a duality I have inside me. It’s two in one and that’s the only way I don’t lose my essence," Marluu Ferretti, a muxe, told Fusion.
Muxes have been living openly across the region since the 1950s, but anthropologists believe that the third gender has a much longer history in Oaxaca’s indigenous past.
"They say God gave St. Ferrer a bag of muxes to spread across Mexico and the entire continent. But upon arriving in Juchitán, the bag broke and he spilled them all," Ferretti said.
It’s in the town of Juchitán, a part of Oaxaca, where muxes are most welcome. Since the 1970s, the town has held three-day festivals called Vela de las Intrepidas, which means Vigil of the Intrepids, to celebrate the muxes. During the events, many muxes don dresses and skirts. But the acceptance of muxes in Juchitán isn’t exclusive to a few days in a year. In this town, muxes hold careers just like anyone else, positions like teachers, nurses, caregivers, seamstresses and event planners. Unlike muxes who take jobs like this outside of town, most in Juchitán don’t feel a need to change their gender presentation in the workplace.
According to Ferretti, this is because muxes are much more visible in Juchitán than they are anywhere else. But this visibility and tolerance doesn’t necessary mean that muxes don’t experience violence. "Some muxes have been beaten and even killed," Ferretti's companion Edder Chicuellar tells the news site.
While Juchitán is not a queer paradise, the muxes who occupy this land offer us – society and Latinos specifically – another example of gender neither being fixed nor limited to binaries. They show that gender-fluidity and gender non-conformity aren’t new or progressive rubbish, and that for some of us, it’s linked to our indigenous roots.