Monday, August 01, 2016

Muxe - Are Matriarchal Societies More Tolerant of More Fluid Gender Roles?

A friend posted this picture of a poster he saw in Oakland.

The picture required a second look.  Zapotec Muxe?  There's a bit of description on the poster (which you can focus better by clicking on it).

Perhaps the concept of muxe will help us 21st century Americans in our  reexamination of how we think about gender and sexuality.

The military has decided that gay and now transgender troops are ok.  But some legislators in some states have made bathroom use by transgender folk an issue.  And same sex marriage is still a problem for many people.

Getting past the strict dichotomy of male or female or straight or gay is tricky.  We all know there are women who have more than average typically male characteristics and males who have more than average typical female characteristics.  I think most people can get that far conceptually, because you can still put people into one of those two categories:  male or female.

Since genitals in our culture are usually covered up in public, we haven't had much opportunity to examine and get to know the variety they come in.  While we might recognize a picture of a friend's mouth or nose or eyes, most of us wouldn't recognize a picture of a friend's penis or vagina.  And when people are born with ambiguous genitalia, the parents, traditionally, haven't talked about it or the decisions they had to make about what to put on the either/or male/female space on the birth certificate.  But there have been clues in our language - terms like hermaphrodite - that have acknowledged gender ambiguity.

Nowadays these topics are well discussed, at least in many circles.  Enough, at least, that laws have been passed to allow same sex marriage and to protect transgender folks from discrimination.

But this is still an uncomfortable issue for many.  An issue often informed by ignorance.

So when I saw this poster it made me think of the Samoan tradition of Fa 'afafine,  male Samoan children who are early identified as Fa 'afafine and raised as girls to have a unique place in their cultural life, crossing between gender roles.  I learned about at a presentation of Diverse Voices at UAA back in 2007.

Muxes, in their communities in Oaxaca, Mexico, are accepted as somewhere between straight and gay.  A New York Times article tells us a little about muxes:
“Muxe” is a Zapotec word derived from the Spanish “mujer,” or woman; it is reserved for males who, from boyhood, have felt themselves drawn to living as a woman, anticipating roles set out for them by the community.
Anthropologists trace the acceptance of people of mixed gender to pre-Colombian Mexico, pointing to accounts of cross-dressing Aztec priests and Mayan gods who were male and female at the same time. Spanish colonizers wiped out most of those attitudes in the 1500s by forcing conversion to Catholicism. But mixed-gender identities managed to survive in the area around Juchitán, a place so traditional that many people speak ancient Zapotec instead of Spanish.
Not all muxes express their identities the same way. Some dress as women and take hormones to change their bodies. Others favor male clothes. What they share is that the community accepts them; many in it believe that muxes have special intellectual and artistic gifts.
As I read the Wikipedia article on Muxe, I noticed that the district and town of Tehuantapec showed up.  Long ago, my wife and I drove through Mexico, including Tejuantapec.  And that mysterious brain nestled in my skull retrieved a long-ago absorbed and forgotten tidbit: the Zapotecan culture in Tehuantapec is matriarchal.

So I looked up Tehuantapec.  And there it was:
"The city is still the center of Zapotec culture in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and is the second largest in the region. The city is known for its women and their traditional dress, which was adopted by Frida Kahlo. Tehuantepec has a reputation for being a “matriarchal society.” Women do dominate the local markets and are known to taunt* men. However, political power is still the domain of men."
So this got me to thinking.  From somewhere else deep in my brain, I remembered something about power and gender and sexuality.  The idea of some that going from the stronger gender (as male is often described) to the weaker makes no sense, or is even a betrayal of one's gender.  I wasn't able to figure out the right search terms to find something online voicing that specifically.  (Though this is an interesting look at three men who were involved in gay-bashing and their reasoning which gets near this idea.)   The concept was related to power and a disdain for someone who would go from the gender with power to the one with less power.

But the idea that this community that is tolerant of a third gender/sexuality option is a matriarchal community is intriguing and ought to be explored further.  Now, I did leave in the quote about men being dominant in political power in Tejuantapec because it would be disingenuous to hide it.  Even the power divide in Tehuantapec is not clean and unambiguous. Nor is it anywhere.   It would be interesting to explore other cultures that are matriarchal and see whether the gender divide is les either/or in those cultures as well.

*In my ideal world, no one would taunt anyone, except in a playful way for the taunted.


  1. La Peña Cultural Center! Memories of road trips and the National Performance Network. Sigh. Great times with extraordinary artists and culture workers.

    Yes, I'm off-topic but I'm reminded of the wonderful times Gene and I had in our work with ON those many years -- the people and ideas we were part of sharing in Alaska.

    Gender fluidity is necessarily culturally expressed but then so are Holy books which maintain resistance to it. I hold to the hard-won belief that differences are as critical to the good functioning of a society as general compliance with its customs.

    Difference is what fuels our inspiration for change, for innovation, for righting wrongs. It's where we also give rise to our demons.

    Cultural change seems to be resisted precisely because it's untested and its outcomes sometimes no better and perhaps, worse, than where we started.

    This is the self-analysis I've found lies in that mutable perspective of assumed benefits. We're wary of those things that might harm us.

    Men in dresses? What do I gain from it?

  2. And this, being almost 10 years old, seems to simplify what is now known. Whereas the American public, I think, is closer to 100 years behind.

    This comment was more than a little interesting. "I'm saying intervene [with surgery] only if you've proven that intervention is actually of benefit to the patient. Not of benefit to the parent. Because you know that surgery is used a lot to help the parent psychologically. It's a quick fix, if you will. The child looks different, it's very distressing for everyone, and one way to make it go away is just to make the kid look like everyone else. And that's really psychological help for the parents. But that should not be a parameter for surgery."

  3. Not that this is necessarily germane, but U.S. is now 96th in the world when it comes to proportion of elected officials who are women.


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