According to a Reuters story last week, the Zapotec town of Juchitán just displayed its laid-back attitude toward gays and transvestites with its annual festival in their honor. The article indicates that transvestites, called muxes, a Zapotec word derived from the Spanish word for woman, mujer, are quite widely accepted in the town, a striking contrast to the macho attitude of much of the rest of Mexican society.

Dressing up in his striking blue, flowered blouse, Pedro Martinez tells the reporter with evident pride, “When I get all dressed up like this my father always says, ‘Oh Pedro! You look just like your mother when she was young.’” The 28-year old hairdresser has a lace slip under his skirt, a gold coin necklace on his head, and a flowered headdress—the traditional costume of women in Zapotec society. He has spent two hours in his hair salon preparing for the festival of the muxes.

The festival featured a church blessing at a mass by a Catholic priest, a dance, and a parade that culminated in the crowning of a transvestite queen. The festivities included a raucous party, at which the muxes wore either ball gowns and high heels or traditional local costumes. The festival, which also celebrated the culmination of the annual harvest, has been held in the town for 33 years.

Juchitán has a history of Zapotec women playing a strong role in local life. According to local theater director Sergio Santamaria, local legend holds that Zapotec women used to pray for at least one son to become a gay, so that he could take care of her when she became old.

Professor Rosemary Joyce, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Reuters reporter that among the Zapotecs, gays “were seen as … having a kind of spiritual power that comes from being more like the ancestors who are mothers and fathers at once, and more like the divinities who may be dual gendered.” Another news source, commenting on the festival, observed that the muxes, who mix traits from both genders, are considered to have wisdom and power.

Prof. Joyce explained that hundreds of years ago, colonial officials rigidly suppressed expressions of homosexuality, which drove the practice underground. Traditional pre-contact Zapotec culture included gods with ambiguous genders and cross-dressing by shamans. While homosexuality has long been accepted in Juchitán, only recently have gays felt secure enough to practice their preferences openly. The gay pride movement has evidently helped foster this openness.

According to Santamaria, “there have always been muxes, but before they would wear just a dress shirt with a feminine touch, like gold buttons. The transvestites are the new generation.” While the Juchitán festival differs in many respects from the annual beauty contest for transvestites held in Pattaya, Thailand, the spirit of toleration in this community and among the Rural Thai is certainly very similar.