Women in Oaxaca with Same Gender Partners

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 1.59.21 PMBy Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The status of women with same-gender partners has shifted dramatically in the U.S. in the past twenty years, including legal, social and economic changes. But what about in Mexico and specifically in the state of Oaxaca?

As previously reported in The Eye by Julie Etra, a 2001 amendment to the Mexican Constitution prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. But, as in the U.S., proceedings for authorizing marriage between same-gender couples are controlled by state legislation. It was not until 2010 that the Federal District (Mexico City) took the lead in authorizing same-gender civil unions, and the decision, far from popular, was upheld by the Federal courts. Gay marriage became relatively common in Mexico City, and subsequent legislation allowed same-gender couples or gay individuals to adopt children there.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 1.59.32 PMBut even in Mexico City, the reality of lesbians in professional life and women married to women can send even relatively progressive residents into a tail-spin. Friends from Mexico reported with great amazement that they had witnessed a wedding in the U.S. where the religious leader was a married lesbian. It was not clear to us whether their astonishment was greater about a woman being a cleric or about a woman being married to another woman. And when we have been asked in Mexico City about the profession of our daughter’s husband, our explanation that our daughter’s spouse is a woman who is at home taking care of our grandchildren is commonly met with confusion and incredulity.

Based on interviews we conducted for this article, it is generally acknowledged that the state of Oaxaca is far more conservative than Mexico City, and women in Oaxaca with same-gender partners can experience reactions ranging from passively accepting to incredulous to hostile. The highest level of acceptance is reported to come not from Mexicans but from U.S. or Canadian expats who have gay or bisexual family members or who have lived in gay-friendly areas.

The long and revered history of third-gender muxes in Oaxaca (see the article in the February 2015 edition of The Eye) may tend to give the impression that Oaxaqueños are generally tolerant of same-gender couples, but in fact that level of acceptance appears by and large to be limited to a portion of Oaxaca’s Isthmus where a specific culture has resisted assimilation ever since the Spanish conquest.

Superficially, there appears to have been a recent shift in acceptance of lesbian and bisexual women in Oaxaca. On July 6, 2013, the Attorney General of the State of Oaxaca established an office to handle issues of discrimination based on sexual orientation. In addition, after a long court battle waged in the Federal and Oaxaca State courts, a lesbian couple was married in Oaxaca in the spring of 2013.

However, this one court victory did not establish a legal precedent in Oaxaca that would automatically allow other gay couples to marry. The legal precedent must be established by four more couples fighting their way through the courts, being authorized to marry, and doing so. At this moment a dozen or more same-gender couples, both men and women, are going through this process, and by the time this article is published the legal precedent may have been established in Oaxaca.

The right for women to marry does not of course guarantee social acceptance by mainstream Mexicans, especially by the predominately Catholic population in Oaxaca. One of the major obstacles to acceptance of women with same-gender partners is the attitude of the Church. As reported by one of the lesbian women to whom we spoke, “My parents are very supportive of me now; but when I first told my mother, she was upset because the Church said it was a sin.” Teen women who are lesbians or bisexual find little support for their orientation in high school and especially encounter negative views of lesbians promulgated in schools run by the Church. Other religious groups that have successfully proselytized in Oaxaca reinforce this view. For example, the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) accepts members who are gay or bisexual but severely condemns engaging in sexual activities with people of the same gender.

As a result, the vast majority of women in Oaxaca who have or would like to have another woman as a partner “fly under the radar” — they avoid any public demonstration of their status or orientation. It is relatively easy for lesbian or bisexual women to appear straight in Oaxaca, since social life is already highly gender-segregated. Seeing two women or a group of women kissing each other, holding hands, or displaying affection would not be taken as in any way unusual here. Women wearing pants have become the norm, and short hairstyles that elsewhere might be thought to be typical of lesbians have become fashionable without regard to sexual orientation. Lesbian women visiting from the U.S. commented that, although their “gaydar” is well developed in their home cities, it is often difficult to distinguish lesbian Oaxaqueñas from other women. A gay Oaxaqueña clarified that she and other lesbians purposely avoid appearing “butch” to lessen the chances of experiencing discrimination.

According to the women whom we interviewed for this article, overt displays of homophobia are rare in Oaxaca. As one of our contacts said, “I’m an open book but I have never had anyone point a finger from a distance and yell “dyke.”

Travel guides rate Oaxaca as gay-friendly, and while there are many welcoming bars and night spots, we did not find out about any that are specifically gay. Interestingly, the only overt act of discrimination we heard about occurred at a gay group meeting that is regularly scheduled in Oaxaca City – a breakfast mainly attended by gay men. One man wanted to have gay women excluded, but the end result was that gay women could still attend while the complaining man was no longer welcome.

Still, all the women to whom we spoke said that lack of overt discrimination was probably in large part due to their behavior and keeping displays of sexual attraction private. As one said, you don’t see us in parks madly kissing the way heterosexual couples are doing everywhere here. And, although they purposefully blend in to social groups of straight women, some of the younger Oaxaqueñas are sensitive to the subtle forms of negative reaction evidenced by gossip among their women friends. They feel strongly that it would be difficult to marry and raise a family in Oaxaca. Their dream is to lead a life as a normal family somewhere else.

As a destination for retired female couples from north of the border seeking a warm climate with many cultural activities, Oaxaca City seems ideal.   While they may not find gay bars or other gay night life, nor any gay affinity groups to join, there is a plethora of concerts, art shows, lectures, great restaurants, volunteer activities, and other diversions here. Business owners gladly provide service without regard to sexual orientation, or even mentioning in advertisements that they welcome everyone. As a place to live and work for gay Oaxaqueñas, however, the state of Oaxaca appears to be much like the U.S. was twenty years ago – overt social and professional discrimination is sometimes experienced by gay women, but it is based on being a woman, rather than on being a gay woman.

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