Pride 2021

As Third Gender People, Our Cultures Help Us Celebrate Our Gender Nonconformity

“I can’t say that I was born in the wrong body or anything like that because I believe everyone is created in the image of love.”

Photos: Johlie Solofa-Faavae // Dominique Beltran // Irving Lopez

Pride Month is a time for the LGBTQ+ communities to remember their roots, celebrate their identities, and pay homage to the pioneers who fought and sacrificed to exist authentically as themselves. But as we celebrate the global progress and acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities, it’s important to remember that many cultures have long traditions of celebrating LGBTQ+ identities. In fact, before Western colonization, many cultures had been honoring individuals who identify outside the gender binary for thousands of years. That’s why it’s all the more important to acknowledge — and celebrate — trans, nonbinary, and third gender voices from around the world during Pride Month.

The term “third gender” is used to define those who don’t strictly identify as masculine or feminine — rather, they identify as neither, both, or a combination of the two. While different cultures have different names and specific traditions for the identity, what they share is a concept of gender outside the limitations of a male-female binary.

We spoke to three people who identify as third gender about what their cultural understanding of gender means to them. Honey Julia Solofa, 33, is a fa’afafine pageant queen and activist at the Samoa Fa’afafine Association in the independent state of Samoa; Naomy Méndez Romero, 30, is a muxe activist with Ladxido Muxe and Tan Vivalenso in Oaxaca, Mexico; and Red Rojas, 26, is a two-spirit Purepecha, Chichimeca, and Tepehuán artist, healer, and activist at De Corazon Circles and Yanawana Herbolarios in San Antonio, Texas. Here’s what they shared with Elite Daily about how they celebrate themselves and their identities outside of a gender binary.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Naomy Méndez Romero’s interview has been translated from the original Spanish by Rhyma Castillo.

Honey Julia Solofa

Photo By Johlie Solofa-Faavae

On what being third gender means for them:

Honey Julia Solofa: In Samoan, fa’afafine literally translates to “in the manner of a woman.” It’s basically an umbrella category for a minority group of individuals who, to put it in familiar Western terms, identify as trans, gay, bisexual, or any of those labels. To me, fa’afafine is my cultural identity as someone who identifies as a woman but was born biologically male.

Naomy Méndez Romero: In Zapotec culture, muxe means “feminine” — but it also means people fear us because they don’t understand us. The meaning I like to give it is muxes overcome that fear to claim our own distinct identities.

There are many muxe identities. For example, muxe gunaa is a muxe who identifies as more feminine, while a muxe nguiiu is a muxe who identifies as more masculine. Muxes can also identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans — but at the end of the day, we all consider ourselves as a part of the third gender that muxe represents.

Red Rojas: To me, being two-spirited means embracing the duality of the sacred masculine and the sacred feminine within myself, challenging traditional Western ideas about the limited gender binary, and presenting myself in a way that feels authentic and healing. My Indigenous lineages come from the Purepecha tribe in Morelia, Michoacán, and also the Chichimeca and Tepehuán tribes in Durango and Guanajuato, all in modern-day Mexico. I make sure to respect the traditions of my ancestors, which have called me to do this decolonial work by becoming my higher self — a two-spirited person who pays homage to my ancestors’ occupied land. Identifying as two-spirit is my way of staying connected to my ancestors as well as their descendants, who are still here and currently struggling with land sovereignty.

On their experiences with expressing themselves as third gender:

HS: I can’t say that I was born in the wrong body or anything like that because I believe everyone is created in the image of love and as a byproduct of love from their parents. I’m from a very strong Catholic family, so our faith is a big thing. I was very fortunate to have the unconditional love and support of my family when I was growing up, who embraced and accepted me for me. Funnily enough, my family knew I was fa’afafine before I did, so “coming out” as trans wasn’t a surprise; it was always expected from me [laughing].

Some of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome were my own insecurities and limited understanding. When I was younger, I didn’t have a fa’afafine or trans figure to look up to for guidance. During my self-discovery journey, I spent a lot of time looking for love and approval from different people, but the one constant in my life was my family. It took me some time to realize the approval and acceptance I was searching for was right there in front of me, within my family’s unconditional love.

NMR: I first began to understand my muxe identity when I was very young, around 6 or 7 years old. I didn’t like the things boys typically liked and preferred playing with dolls and dressing up in high heels with girls. My mom thought it was just a phase, but at 12 years old, I told my parents I didn’t identify with the gender placed on me at birth. From there, I began my identity as muxe gunaa. My family didn’t fully understand me at first, but they began to truly accept and support me with time. Now, I live with my parents — they love me, they adore me, and I adore them as well. They’re a very important pillar in my life.

RR: Growing up, I never saw myself within the gender binary, but I didn’t know anyone who identified as third gender until I met a former roommate of mine. They weren’t Indigenous, but they showed me I didn’t have to limit my identity within the gender binary. Finally being able to express myself as a two-spirited person to an Indigenous community that really embraced my experience was a huge deal for me. I learned more about embracing and celebrating my own duality through how Ometeotl — which literally translates to “lord of duality” in the Aztec language, Nahuatl — unfolds. That held a lot of medicine. But expressing myself to my blood family was very different, and my parents reacted transphobically. But finding community in a chosen family that I’ve cultivated by surrounding myself with people who understand me has been an amazing, healing experience.

Red Rojas

Photo by Dominique Beltran

On how traditional Western ideas of gender have affected them:

HS: Even though I grew up in Samoa, Western ideas of the gender binary have deeply affected me as a fa’afafine. Before Samoa became an independent state in 1962, we were colonized by Europe. So of course, our culture was influenced by colonialism: Living your truth as a fa’afafine was taboo, and that part of our cultural identity was suppressed. In the past, we weren’t able to live as our authentic selves. But with time, people have become more understanding and more accepting — but even now, I feel like there’s a duality to that acceptance. Fa’afafine are celebrated for our talents and creativity, but only when it’s for someone’s else’s benefit — only when we’re being exploited. We’re more accepted when we’re there to entertain, but when it comes down to fighting for our basic rights as human beings, not everyone supports us. In a way, that makes it easier for us to quickly spot who’s got our best interests at heart.

NMR: Western ideas of gender identity both have and haven’t affected those who identify as muxe. They haven’t because as muxes, we define ourselves through the customs and traditions of our culture — and especially through the Zapotec language, which is spoken by 450,000 people in Oaxaca and Veracruz. We know that our culture, not Western culture, is what makes us muxes. But if you ask us if we’re affected by Western culture when we travel outside of our city, then the answer is yes. It’s a conflict. Because of the way I look, people will call me a joto or say, “That’s gay.” It’s hurtful. It’s offensive. But over time, I’ve learned how to adapt and let those burdens go. To exist as muxes, we have to adapt to the things people say about us. In that aspect, it always feels like a fight. But it fortifies our characters, and it makes us stronger. We are always breaking stigmas and overcoming obstacles, and younger generations are still bringing us to new horizons.

RR: I have to make a constant effort to decolonize my mindset from Western perspectives. Even now, I feel like I’m still doing the work to understand my two-spirit identity.

At first, I didn’t have the most healing relationship with being third-gender. I’m a femme-bodied person, and people kept identifying me as femme, but I didn’t feel that way. I felt like I had to overcompensate with my masculine side for people to accept me as two-spirit. But then I realized everything I had learned about being masculine growing up was from a very toxic Western perspective, and that’s not healing for anyone. It was a really unhealthy way of trying to balance how I present myself to make other people comfortable. But now I know I don’t have to meet any of those expectations. I just have to be myself, love myself, and celebrate my identity through my work as an artist.

On what makes them feel most celebrated as third gender:

HS: As much as I’m an activist and an advocate for my fa’afafine family, sometimes I feel like the most radical act of self-celebration I can do is to just live my truth. That’s the best message I can share with everyone — just remind yourself that being happy in the skin you’re in, loving yourself, and living your truth is such a powerful part of celebrating your identity. It’s activism in itself.

NMR: Society is by no means a paradise for muxes or for anyone who faces discrimination based on their LGBTQ+ identity, but there has been a movement toward acceptance in many parts of the world. I feel accepted and celebrated as a muxe when I help other people smile and discover their identities — especially younger people. Whenever they thank me or tell me I’ve helped them by validating their identities in some way, that’s when I feel most content. For me, the moments I get to help my community are triumphs.

RR: Doing the inner spiritual work of being in ceremony, or meditation, with myself makes me feel most celebrated as a two-spirited person. I gather what I learn in ceremony, and use that when I practice self-care and introspection — especially within my work as a bodypainting artist. The last piece I did on myself, I entered a state of meditation where I allowed the spirit within myself to flow out so I could better understand it. The whole process just felt like such a celebration of the spirit within me, which was happy to emerge and be held, loved, and acknowledged. It felt like an affirmation of my ancestry.

Naomy Méndez Romero

Photo By Irving Lopez

Words of wisdom for those who don’t conform to the gender binary:

HS: Through all the highs and lows that you may go through, there’s no better and more rewarding feeling than to live your truth as your authentic self. Your blessings are not for anyone to question or understand. They are yours, and you are worthy.

NMR: Enjoy every day of your life as if it were your last because tomorrow is never promised. Love yourself, value yourself, cherish yourself in every way you can — and fight for yourself, because being who you are will always mean you are fighting against the tide. And the tide never tires. But no matter what path you take, remember that you are not fighting alone. There are tens, hundreds, thousands, millions of people by your side who are fighting for the same dreams you are, and when you are fighting for yourself, you are fighting for them too.

RR: Walk with your head up high, and know that you aren’t alone. You are held by your ancestors and community members, who are there to walk your path alongside you.