Mexico: Indigenous 'third gender' pushes boundaries

ESTRELLA Velazquez towers over the crowd as she sashays in platform heels through the indigenous town of Juchitan, Mexico, seemingly impervious to the mocking catcalls behind her back. Velazquez is a "muxe," a word long used by the Zapotec people to refer to gay men. Pronounced MOO-shay, the word can today refer to anyone born male who doesn't identify with men's traditional gender roles.

Far from ostracizing muxes, Zapotecs have traditionally considered them a "third gender" and reserved them a special place in society: initiating young men and adolescent boys into the world of sex. But muxes, emboldened by the worldwide advance of the LGBT rights movement, are increasingly changing their names, having sex-change operations and taking on women's traditional social roles.

Their growing visibility and femininity is causing a rift in this deeply traditional community.

"We're freer and flashier now," said Velazquez, 35, the director of Juchitan's Office of Sexual Diversity.

"But there's a lot of discrimination," said the tall, brown muxe, her hair swept up in an impeccable bun punctuated by a red rose.

The problem, the traditionalists say, is not that muxes sleep with men and boys. It is that they are encroaching on women's cultural space and wearing ceremonial women's clothing – powerful symbols in this predominantly matriarchal society. Zapotec women are at the center of the indigenous group's sacred festivals, known as "velas" – huge parties with food, drink and dancing that last all night and can even span several days.

Women dance at these festivals in elaborate outfits known as "tehuana" dresses, a flowery, hand-embroidered garment made popular by the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. In recent years, some muxes have begun holding velas of their own, dressing in eye-catching, bejewelled tehuanas and the intricate, lacey white headdresses that accompany them, known as "resplandores."

That is a step too far for some Zapotecs. 

"They can do whatever they want with their sexuality, but it's outrageous they're wearing our clothing," said Angelica Castillejos, who designs tehuana dresses herself. "Everything was fine until they started dressing up," the 46-year-old woman told AFP in the Juchitan market.

Zapotec men tend to be less critical. "It doesn't bother me" if muxes act like women, said butcher Alejandro Ruiz – drawing a furious glance from his female cashier. Read more via Sun Daily