‘Third gender’ model becomes Vogue cover star

Out of this world: Portraits of the Māhū are inspired by the work of artist Paul Gauguin. © Namsa Leuba

Is there really a third gender? Estrella Vazquez says her appearance in Vogue is a ‘huge moment’, just weeks after a stunning photo exhibition spotlighted Tahiti’s genderless Mahu community.

“Everyone is seeing this cover…It almost makes me want to cry,” gushes 37-year-old Estrella Vazquez, her eyes gleaming behind her long, dark eyelashes.

Vazquez is a member of Mexico’s indigenous muxe (pronounced “moo-she”) community — biologically male, members of the group dress and otherwise live as women. Next month, she will become the first third gender model to appear in Vogue Mexico and British Vogue when she stars in a cover shoot with a dozen muxes in traditional dress.

Transgender rights may be a contentious issue in Western societies but, all around the world, indigenous tribes have recognised, accepted and revered a third gender since time immemorial.

Last month, photographer Namsa Leuba’s striking portraits of Tahiti’s Māhū attracted international attention when they were exhibited in London.

Not restricted by Western labels like bisexual, gay or transgender, the Māhū are recognised as transcending the traditional female-male divide.

“Māhū all have the manhood of a man and all the sensitivity of a woman. They have existed since the beginning of time and they have always been part of Polynesian society and culture,” Leuba explains.

Like muxes in Mexico, the Māhū often take on leadership roles in their community. They are seen as spiritual guardians.

“Māhū have this other sense that men or women don’t have,” says the Swiss-Guinean photographer. She describes it as “a mixture of empathy, intuition, generosity and creativity”.

But, too often, Western gender roles have encroached on the status they enjoy in tribal villages. When Christian settlers arrived in Tahiti, they captured and imprisoned the Māhū.

In modern Mexico, muxes who remain in indigenous villages can enjoy a small enclave of freedom in a country where an LGBT person is murdered every three to four days. Those who move to larger towns and cities often face discrimination and violence.

But attitudes towards gender are starting to shift on a global level.

A year ago, Germany became the first country in Europe to give a “third gender” option on birth certificates for intersex babies. Back in 2014, India’s Supreme Court legally recognised transgender people as a third gender, in a victory for the country’s two million-strong trans population.

Is it time to recognise the third gender around the world?

But why stop there? asks a third group. Why is it any better to force a vast spectrum of gender into three categories instead of two? Intersex, trans, Māhū and non-binary people all have their own unique identities that shouldn’t be lumped into an “other” group. Let’s stop categorising gender, and see everyone for who they are.

Boys will be girls

No, insist some. Men and women are fundamentally, biologically different and the law recognises that reality. Modern human society has developed by dividing labour and social roles between the sexes. We shouldn’t mess with the formula.

That’s nonsense, reply others. Third gender groups are part of an ancient tradition that marries male and female energies. The male-female binary is a false invention that erases these beautiful, powerful people. It is time to embrace the third gender.

You Decide

  1. Are men and women fundamentally different?
  2. Should we abolish the concept of gender?

Activities

  1. Find out five facts about an indigenous third gender community from anywhere in the world.
  2. Draw or paint your own artwork in the style of Namsa Leuba’s photography.

Some People Say...

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender; does not exist.”

Gloria Steinem (b.1934), American feminist writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In December, Estrella Vazquez and a dozen other Mexican muxes will be the first third gender models to appear in Vogue. Vazquez will be featured on the cover of Mexican Vogue, while images from the shoot will also appear in British Vogue. “We’re delighted to collaborate with Vogue Mexico for the first time ever on this amazing fashion shoot featuring members of Oaxaca’s indigenous muxe community,” said a spokesperson for British Vogue.
What do we not know?
Whether gender is something that we are born with, or if it is enforced by society as we grow up. A growing number of people believe that a range of social influences based on gender stereotypes shape how we “perform” our own gender, encouraging men to be strong, brave and emotionally closed, and women to be soft, pretty and quiet.

Word Watch

Indigenous
Native to a geographical area.
Western
Usually refers to Europe and Northern America.
Revered
Respected; admired.
Immemorial
Before memory.
Māhū
In Tahiti, the Māhū are distinct from the Rae-rae, which describes male-to-female transgender individuals.
Polynesian
Polynesia is a subregion of Oceania, made up of more than 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean.
Christian settlers
British and French sailors first started visiting Tahiti in the 1700s.
Intersex
When someone is born with a mix of male and female sexual characteristics.
Transgender
When someone does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Non-binary
When a person’s gender identity does not fit into the male-female binary.

Subjects

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