“She wanted to be queen”

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.

Martinez’s friends said she had been meticulous about not referring to herself as transgender. Though Martinez went by “she,” she was neither man, nor woman. She was “muxe.”

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 Tehuantepéc.

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 “two-spirit” 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 fa’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, “exploiting her image without permission. She was not trans, my sister was muxe and indigenous people are tired of the erasure of our identities.”

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.

“One time she asked me, ‘Do you think angels exist?’” Midnight Blue said. “Her greatest wish was to see an angel. I think she forgot that she was one of them.”