Vogue’s New Cover Is A Victory For Gender-Nonconforming People

For the first time ever, Vogue will feature an indigenous, gender-nonconforming person on its cover. Estrella Vasquez, a 37-year-old indigenous weaver and designer from Oaxaca, Mexico, is the December cover star for the magazine’s Mexican and British editions. 
“I think it’s a huge step,” Vasquez told Reuters. “There’s still discrimination, but it’s not as much now and you don’t see it like you once did.” 
In 2017, Brazilian model Valentina Sampaio became the first out transgender model on the cover of any Vogue edition, gracing the front of Vogue Paris. And earlier this year, Laverne Cox became the first transgender person to cover British Vogue
Vasquez is part of a community of people known as muxes (pronounced MOO-she). Vasquez said she hadn’t even heard of Vogue when the magazine approached her and other muxes in her community in Juchitán, Oaxaca about participating in a photo shoot last August. The feature is intended to highlight the significance of muxes and the vital role they play in Mexican society, typically as caregivers, artisans, and skilled workers.
Although the origin of the term “muxe” is uncertain, it’s thought to be derived from the Spanish word “mujer,” meaning woman. Anthropologist Pablo Céspedes Vargas writes in an academic paper about muxes that this community of gender-nonconforming people is widely considered a third gender in Mexico. 
“Additionally, the word ‘muxe’ does not hold any derogatory connotations at all, and the Zapotec language embraces gender diverse people in its vocabulary,” Vargas writes. “The fact that the term ‘muxe’ is not derogatory is quite meaningful since language is constitutive of culture.” 
The acceptance of muxes is more the exception than the rule in Mexico, where 81 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. According to the Pew Research Center, the country has the world’s second-largest number of Catholics, at more than 100 million people. This religious dominance strongly affects the culture’s customs and norms. In Mexico, that often means religion is used to justify discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.
Complicating matters is the country’s reluctance to effectively deal with its own intraracial issues. Darker skinned indigenous Mexicans are generally marginalized in a cultural landscape that tends to portray the typical Mexican as fair skinned with lighter colored hair. 
These tensions recently came to a head when Oscar-nominated indigenous actress Yalitza Aparicio landed the cover of Vogue Mexico’s January 2019 issue. At the time, it was celebrated as a big moment for inclusivity and representation. However, it wasn’t met with unanimous public support: One popular telenovela star in particular was caught on video expressing anti-indigenous and classist views toward the first-time actress. 
“It shouldn’t matter what you’re into, how you look — you can achieve whatever you aspire to,” Aparicio told The New York Times, in response to the discrimination she faced.
Deep-seated colorism, widespread classism, and rampant anti-gay, anti-transgender prejudice combine to create an environment that, traditionally, hasn’t allowed indigenous people like Aparicio and Vasquez to be seen — let alone to be covering Vogue. What’s more, Mexico has a culture that traditionally embraces machismo, a hyperinflated version of masculinity that prioritizes “manliness” above all else, and that can prove deadly for many Mexican women.
Those obstacles are not easy to overcome, which makes Aparicio’s and Vasquez’s bookending 2019 Vogue covers so significant. “Everyone is seeing this cover, everyone is congratulating me,” Vasquez said. “I don’t know. It’s just hard to make sense of the emotions I’m feeling. It almost makes me want to cry.” 
Vogue’s efforts to be more diverse and inclusive are most noticeable in its 19 international editions. In April this year, again for the first time ever, three black Hijabi models — Halima Aden, Ikram Abdi Omar, and Amina Adan — were on the cover of Vogue Arabia. Also in April, Thando Hope became the first woman with albinism to appear on the cover of Vogue Portugal. Vogue Mexico taking the initiative to feature Oaxaca’s indigenous cultures in its pages is critical, especially if the country is ever going to successfully confront and work through its many internal prejudices. 
A hundred-plus years of erasure on the part of Vogue cannot be undone with two covers. It is, however, a vital step in the right direction, especially for the people who are finally seeing themselves represented.
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