The man-woman among America´s indigenous peoples

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The global LGBTTTIQA+ movement’s historical struggle against the criminalization, pathologizing and discrimination of their identities has had a significant impact on different nation states, to the degree of civil rights such as same-sex marriage and adoption being obtained. However, these are processes that cannot be standardized across our complex global multiculturalism.

Even though the majority of countries on the American continent have undergone substantial changes regarding sexual rights and diversity, women and men of indigenous communities face a different reality in terms of their sexual and gender identities. While in some regions, expressions of their identity and sexual behaviour are outlawed and subject to exclusion and violence, in other regions, the recognition of their identities and social integration is possible due to their conceptions of gender, sexuality and tradition persisting and being updated on a par with the historical and political processes their collectives have faced within their communities.

In this respect, anthropology is the discipline that has provided the analytical tools to understand the plurality of gender systems in human diversity. The American anthropologist Gilbert Herdt has proposed the concept of a "third gender" to overcome the problems the bipolarity of the categories "sex" and "gender" in Western thought entail when applied to the discernment of other human realities. For the author, the “third” attribute is present among numerous non-Western peoples: "The bodies and ontologies of these people differ from sexual dimorphism, in the way they conceive of their being and their social behaviour. Moreover, in some traditions – cultures and historical formations – these people are collectively classified in multiple third categories or cultural-historical categories”. This means that in some non-Western cultures, identities and sexual and gender expressions are infinite and have multiple combinations.

“In some non-Western cultures, identities and sexual and gender expressions are infinite and have multiple combinations.”

In effect, for many indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, conceptions of gender and sexuality are rooted in their founding myths, the origin of their existence originating from sacred dual forces. In the region of Mesoamerica, among the Nahuas, it was believed that all existence was the result of the actions of Ometeotl, the sacred force composed of Omecihuatl (dual woman) and Ometecuhtli (dual man), in other words, a sacred and philosophical entity composed of the female-male pair.

In the Andean region, the sacred and creative principle was attributed to the deity of Viracocha, the sacred force that meant father-mother. They were even invoked as such in their native Quechua language: "Cay cari cachon, cay uarmi cachon", which means, "be it male or female". This conception is also reminiscent of the body, as they were revered as ulca apo, i.e. lord of the ulli (phallus) and the raca (vulva).

It was believed that the strength of these dual principles was projected onto human reality and the cosmos in its surrounding and all-encompassing quality. Their evolution in the terrestrial sphere meant they endowed each territorial space with attributes of one of each of the poles of duality, which implied the geographical partition and boundaries were defined by the differentiation of its gender qualities. Likewise, the activities of social reproduction depended on the division of the activities carried out by each individual according to their gender. While men were in charge of work in the public sphere and women in the domestic sphere, there were other realms that required the work of both: a kind of asymmetrical co-responsibility in which, according to the gender value the work entailed, some assumed responsibility and the direction of the actions, while others obeyed and assisted.


“Danza de las mascaritas” (Masked dance) in Santa María Huazolotitlan (Oaxaca, Meexico). Photo: Óscar González Gómez.

Therefore, rather than adhering to fixed identity definitions, people acquired a gender position which depended on the role they embodied in a specific space and time. Thus, each human body went from an exclusive male-female polarity, to an intermediate stage, a continuous transit that required complementing each other in order to reproduce and maintain life. In both the social and domestic economy, the gender positions of each individual were required to maintain a collective cohesion. In short, more value was given to the diversity of gender positions, which each person took on to uphold a common livelihood, than the recognition of one’s individual identity.

Today, in addition to social reproduction activities, this gendered conception is implicit in indigenous rituals, traditions and dances. But above all, it is observed during the festivities associated with periods of agricultural fertility in which the various identities are collectively visible and recognized. In a large number of dances performed during the sowing and harvest periods, the corporal narrative of these dances maintains a close connection with human sexuality: young couples perform acts of courtship or they personify elderly people, who engage with the audience through verbal games and erotic interactions to the amusement of the audience. Lastly, there are men wo dress up in female clothes, pertaining to different ages, and are characterized by their insolent and lubricious behaviour.

“In a large number of dances performed during the sowing and harvest periods, the corporal narrative of these dances maintains a close connection with human sexuality.”

Regarding the latter, some ethnographic studies have stated that these performers consider their acts to be of a clown-like nature. Others, however, associate them with a personification of the devil. Some anthropologists see them more as tricksters, given they assume a temporal, spatial and moral ambiguity.

In her study Eroticism, Sexuality and Humour in the Bolivian Highland Dances, social anthropologist Eveline Sigl (2012) explains that men who perform characters in female dress such as Awicha, Awila or Tayka (the "grandmother") can be considered as ritual transformists, as their intention is not to represent a woman, but an intermediate state that combines the polarities of male and female, man and woman. Their ambiguous posture sustains the duality and their expressive quality and is one of mischief and audacity to potentiate their role in acts of collective entertainment. They portray allegories of sexual pleasure because their aim is to bring joy to those attending, while simultaneously, pass that joy on to mother earth, considering it to ba a prerequisite for her fertility. In essence, within these communal festivities, they contribute to the gratification of the Pachamama and the spirits of the seeds planted, so that the harvest and the coming agricultural year will be fruitful for everyone.


“Danza de las mascaritas” (Masked dance) in Santa María Huazolotitlan (Oaxaca, Meexico). Photo: Óscar González Gómez.

The masked dance as a space for the expression of diversity

In Huazolotitlán, a ñuu savi (Mixtec) village on the Oaxacan coast in southern Mexico, a group of young people in 1998 requested that the community allow them to perform "the masked dance" again, after its removal from their festivities over a decade ago. Today it once again forms part of the dance repertoire within the festivities and ritual life of the coastal ñuu savi peoples. To such an extent that it is now recognized as an expression of their identity. It consists of choreographies by at least eight couples, each made up of a male and female character, all interpreted by exclusively male performers wearing wooden masks and allusive clothing. The act is accompanied by an orchestra that consists of a drummer, two saxophones, a trombone and at least three trumpets. The narrative of movements vary according to the rhythmic pattern of the more than 25 musical sounds that accompany them: the dancers form pairs by standing in two parallel rows facing each other, one side for the men and the other for the women. They perform a series of steps, as one side mirrors the other, linked together in cyclical body movements.

These dances being reintroduced to their ritual festivities, brought great joy to the group of young people. Beyond them being able to take on the role of female characters, the dance provided them with a space to express themselves openly. Although most of them refer to themselves as "homosexuals" or "gays", they often prefer to avoid specific labels. Whenever emotional significance is attributed to their identification with the female character, they attest: "Since I’ve started participating in these dances, my family knows what my person is. They know who I am.” As a consequence, even though Huazolotitlán has embraced diverse sexual gender identities, they have also been given new meaning and, instead of using them as nominations pertaining to their sexual orientation or 'preferences', they are understood as a gender identity or personal identification with female attributes. This notion is reflected in the word used to refer to them in their native language: ru ndux' ɨ ɨ translated into English means "man-woman", or "effeminate", "woman-like" or "feminine".

With the community's acceptance, these young members set up a group that regularly performs their dances on December 24 and 25, as well as several performances during the carnival period. At first, the village had its reservations, given that the young people chose to modify the costumes of the female characters by opting for fitted dresses (instead of those made of traditional cotton), incorporated high-heels, changed some dance steps and added music from other villages. Nevertheless, they managed to develop their own dance style and are now recognised for the quality of their performances. Even among the rest of the peoples in the ñuu savi region, dance has become an important point of reference for the visibility of men who identify as homosexuals, gays or ru ndux' ɨ ɨ.

“Dance has become an important point of reference for the visibility of men who identify as homosexuals, gays or ru ndux' ɨ”.

Beyond their dances, these men have an impact on the social reproduction activities of their village and especially those who are regarded as female within their families: some are responsible for domestic work and the care of younger siblings or their elderly parents; others are involved in trading, selling agricultural products and household goods; and some opt for artistic and aesthetic work such as creating choreographies for 15th birthday celebrations or creating commemorative objects for weddings and baptisms. However, the work for which they are most in demand for, is the manufacture of textiles and the production of traditional clothing, made on waist looms and hand embroidered.

The individual and collective effort to maintain traditional practices has allowed for the social recognition and integration of men of diverse sexual gender identities in the ñuu savi peoples of the Oaxacan coast. The value they have been given, is not a result of them claiming their identity in line with non-discriminatory legal principles. On the contrary, it is the outcome of a process of community reciprocity: respect and social recognition are obtained by complying with the rules and collective methods of organization, because through these, traditions are preserved, a space of authority is generated and the identity of a community is kept alive.


“Danza de las mascaritas” (Masked dance) in Santa María Huazolotitlan (Oaxaca, Meexico). Photo: Óscar González Gómez.

Óscar González Gómez holds a PhD in Latin American Studies from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and is a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México (UACM). His lines of research focuses on sexual and gender identities in Latin America and on gender, masculinities and health.