Mexico’s Muxe Leaders Assert Rights and Strengthen “Social Armor” Through Visibility - Work Supported by The Arcus Foundation Grantee
A group of leaders from within the muxe community of Mexico’s southeastern Oaxaca state is achieving significant advances in influencing how they are seen by wider society and treated by public agencies responsible for the local population’s health, education, and safety.
The Indigenous Zapotec-speaking muxe community, who express their gender identities beyond the male-female binary, are often portrayed in popular media coverage wearing traditional dress, including colorfully embroidered huipil blouses. Members of the community have long been at high risk for incidents of discrimination and violence.
“It’s very important to make the community visible and reach society with educational and sensitizing information so there is greater awareness that discrimination is a structural problem that creates safety risks,” says Beatriz Ramos, program coordinator for the Ixtaltepec regional office of Fundación Mexicana para la Planeación Familiar (Mexfam), a nationwide civil society organization promoting access to health, education, and advocacy of sexual and reproductive rights.
In recent years, Mexfam has implemented a project called Transformándome (“Transforming Myself”) aimed at promoting greater safety for the muxe community in Oaxaca’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
A majority of the 128 respondents to two surveys conducted as part of Transformándome’s 2020 baseline study of Tehuantepec’s muxe residents said that their rights to healthcare and education are rarely respected in daily life, and this exposes them to even greater levels of discrimination and violence.
According to Transformándome, 58 percent of survey respondents experience social, institutional, religious, and cultural discrimination; and 43 percent of secular leaders who participated in administering one of the surveys said that sometimes muxe people have been rejected or excluded from social activities, like local festivals.
Transformándome’s work during the last three years—in the municipalities of Juchitán de Zaragoza, Santo Domingo de Tehuantepec, Santiago Niltepec, Unión Hidalgo, Santa María Mixtequilla, Santa María Xadani, Asunción Ixtaltepec, Santo Domingo Ingenio, Chicapa de Castro, and Jalapa del Márquez—has included dialogue with public officials in an effort to raise their understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We had to challenge the basic language used by the administrations,” says Ramos. “‘Transfemicide’ was not used in official documents. Reports would say ‘man dressed as woman found dead’. We sat down with the district attorney to correct terminology and create new tools for collecting information.”
As part of the project’s 2021-2022 work, 12 caseworkers from the muxe community launched private investigations into a sample of 42 suspicious deaths of recent years identified at a 2020 convention of municipal officials and community members.
At least 23 of the cases were confirmed by caseworkers as killings or apparent killings of muxe individuals, on average 36 years of age, working in retail, waiting tables, or employed as artisans, stylists, or chefs. Of these cases, 17 had been reported to the authorities, and only four had been prosecuted.
“Relatives of victims were not always willing to talk,” says one of the team’s 12 caseworkers, relating her experience of investigating the deaths. “We explained why we wanted to collect the information, not for a lawsuit, not for witnesses, not for them to testify. It was simply for us to collect information so we could identify the problem.”
The resulting report, released in October 2022, found significant gaps in official procedures and documentation, leading to a lack of protection for the fundamental human rights of the region’s muxe community.
Overall, the project’s efforts to forge relationships with public officials is enabling Transformándome to begin to create long-term strategies for social change, including the development of a protocol for advancing safety through public policy and, for example, establishing anti-discrimination councils within municipal administrations of the project’s focus areas.
“We’ve had to create a strategy for community safety so we’re not invisible and so we can seek support from public agencies, [which is] so important, for example, for healthcare during the pandemic,” says Amaranta Gómez Regalado, a muxe activist and professor, as well as leader of the Transformándome project and coordinator of the private investigation team.
“Transformándome is laying the foundations within the Oaxaca state system to begin the process of recognizing our rights,” Gómez says. “That has been strengthened with activism in the last few years.
“The guiding thread to our resilience has been that we have started to become visible,” Gómez continues. “Visibility is a kind of social armor that we muxe have built for ourselves.”