Why you should care

Born men but living as women, the muxe community long endured discrimination as a way of life. Younger members are challenging that. 

Naomy Méndez Romero is lucky — her first dress and heels were a gift from her father, and her university lets her wear what she likes. In macho southern Mexico in the 21st century, that matters, because Naomy is a muxe.

Born men, but often living as women, muxe — pronounced “MU-shay” — occupy a traditional role in indigenous Zapotec culture that goes beyond identifying as gay. But Naomy, who is studying law part time and wants to go into politics, sees obstacles even in her hometown of Juchitán de Zaragoza, in the state of Oaxaca, where muxe are part of the fabric of society. “I’m breaking the stereotype or stigma in our region,” she says of a tradition where muxe, who do not necessarily undergo surgery, are expected to stick to stereotypically feminine jobs like cooks, seamstresses or beauticians, and to stay single.

“I want to be a lawyer. I want 100 percent acceptance, not 70 percent, for this to be a true muxe paradise,” she adds.

Naomy, 28, wears female clothes for her weekday job as a secretary at the town hall, where she is allowed to use women’s bathrooms. Estrella Vásquez Guerra, 36, also a muxe and the municipality’s director of sexual diversity, sports the traditional long skirts and blouses that were the hallmark of artist Frida Kahlo. “I love people to turn round and look at me,” says the tall and striking Estrella with a laugh. “We’re fighting to become more and more visible … but there’s still homophobia, still men who don’t accept us in offices or other public places.”

Like many countries, Mexico is struggling to balance nondiscriminatory legislation with social conservatism. Public figures widely known to be gay remain firmly in the closet, and there have been only a handful of openly gay or transgender public officials. Even the late Juan Gabriel, one of Mexico’s best-loved singers, refused to confirm he was gay, saying, “You don’t ask what you can see.” A national survey on discrimination last year found two-thirds of people believed the rights of gays and lesbians were “hardly or not at all” respected in Mexico — a proportion rising to nearly three-quarters when applied to attitudes toward trans people.

My father wanted me to be an accountant, but I couldn’t see myself in a shirt and tie.

Felina Santiago Valdivieso, a muxe hairdresser with political ambitions

Among the non-heterosexual population, 30 percent had suffered discrimination in the previous year, the survey found. Worse, a study published this year pointed to a rate of at least six murders of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people every month on gender identity grounds, with trans people the most attacked. Because of discrimination, many muxe drop out of school and skip higher education, limiting their career prospects. Social acceptance often comes from caring for their aging parents and a reputation for industriousness.

“In many parts of Mexico, to be a muxe or gay is synonymous with debauchery. Being a muxe in Juchitán is synonymous with working,” says Felina Santiago Valdivieso, 50, a hairdresser and activist.

“My father wanted me to be an accountant, but I couldn’t see myself in a shirt and tie,” she says. Felina unsuccessfully ran for election to a local state congressional seat this year. “If I’d had millions, it wouldn’t matter how muxe I was, I’d have won,” she adds.

Ironically, in the same elections, 17 men were found to have faked being transgender under new rules in Oaxaca allowing candidates to register based solely on how they identify themselves. Local electoral law is particularly progressive given that only three of Mexico’s 32 states — not including Oaxaca — let people change their gender identities.

Because of discrimination, many muxe drop out of school and skip higher education, limiting their career prospects

Muxe are traditionally seen as a blessing for a family. But they also bear the cost of a life with limited career prospects and, at worst, outright rejection. Estrella says her late father “hated me: He wanted to kill me.”

Homosexual couples across Mexico sometimes have to jump through legal hoops to marry even though the right to same-sex unions was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2015. Indeed, the head of a far-right party in the electoral coalition of incoming leftist President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador has dismissed same-sex marriage as a “fad.”

Darina Guerra Carballo, 32, who has an older muxe sister, lives with her partner, Jesús Gómez Reyes, 29, and dreams of getting married, buying a house and adopting a child.

“I think it’s normal,” says Jesús, of his relationship — his second with a muxe, or “someone of her sex,” as he puts it. He has two children from an earlier relationship with a woman. “Really, I don’t consider myself gay, but I probably must be because I live with her,” he says.

Even muxe dressing as men can suffer discrimination. Nonetheless, the town of Juchitán remains “one step ahead” of the rest of Mexico, says Elvis Guerra López, a 25-year-old lawyer and muxe, who dresses as a man.

“I don’t care if they call me ‘he’ or ‘she,’ as long as they respect my rights,” Elvis says.

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By Jude Webber

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