The rather dull headline undersells this sensitive, fascinating and terribly sad piece about the death of Angela Martinez last month in LA: Death of an Indigenous essential worker sparks debate over gender identity.
Martinez died of COVID-19, but the manager at the Burger King where she worked claimed she died from a “hormone overdose”. It was an appalling and idiotic claim, and there were storms of protest. But amid the storm it seems that Martinez herself was forgotten about: while her death sparked protests under the hashtag #TransLivesMatter, Martinez didn’t consider herself trans.
Martinezâ€™s friends said she had been meticulous about not referring to herself as transgender. Though Martinez went by â€œshe,â€ she was neither man, nor woman. She was â€œmuxe.â€
The muxe identity, which Martinez held dear, has existed as a respected third gender in Zapotec cultures in Oaxaca for centuries, especially in the southeastern area of Istmo de TehuantepÃ©c.
Gender binaries aren’t carved in stone: the idea that there are just two genders is primarily a white European Christian thing that our ancestors spent many years and spilled a lot of blood exporting to other countries.
The notion of a third gender has existed for centuries in different cultures worldwide. In some Native American cultures, the term â€œtwo-spiritâ€ is an umbrella term describing those who fulfill a third gender. In South Asia, there are more than half a million officially recognized hijras. In Thailand, there are the kathoeys. In Ethiopia, the ashtime. And in Polynesia, the faâ€™afafine.
The protesters using the #TransLivesMatter hashtag were well-intentioned, but ultimately they were projecting a primarily white perspective onto somebody who didn’t share it: while Martinez was clearly a strong trans ally, she didn’t see herself as trans.
…friends complained that trans activists were, as Midnight Blue wrote on Facebook, â€œexploiting her image without permission. She was not trans, my sister was muxe and indigenous people are tired of the erasure of our identities.â€
Although I’ve quoted bits about Martinez’s gender identity here, that’s not really what the piece focuses on: it’s a warm, sad and beautifully written portrait of the human behind the headlines.
â€œOne time she asked me, â€˜Do you think angels exist?â€™â€ Midnight Blue said. â€œHer greatest wish was to see an angel. I think she forgot that she was one of them.â€