Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies
Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies

Secret weapons of the gay revolution: language, mirrors, and the proper fork

Mon, March 4, 2019
Secret weapons of the gay revolution: language, mirrors, and the proper fork
"Marta Olmos, born Jorge, who was the first person in Mexico to undergo a sex change operation." Photo Credit: "Marta hace sus compras," ABC (Mexico City) 7 May 1953, pp. 7-8. Hemeroteca Nacional.

Written by Jessie Temple

The history of gay culture in Mexico between 1930 and 1960 reads like a spy story: smuggled publications passed through translators and over international borders, information transmitted over the glint of candlelight on silver at dinner parties or through a glance acknowledged in a mirror. If the story tends towards the glamorous, suggests Dr. Víctor Macías-González, currently a fellow at the Latino Research Initiative, there is a simple reason: money and manners made it possible for members of the Mexican upper middle classes to travel abroad and bring back ideas – including ideas about gay culture – to Mexico. Mexico’s upper and upper middle classes tended to speak English and French in addition to Spanish. Back in Mexico, they could find a certain protection from government and cultural oppression in the high-end bars and restaurants frequented by foreign tourists. There, they were safe from the police and did not have to fear being arrested and outed.  Or, they entertained at home, where they redesigned domestic spaces to accommodate their social network, using techniques and ideas they had observed abroad or in the homes of foreign gays living in Mexico.

Mid-century Mexico was a difficult place to be gay. Both the state and the Church closely policed the private lives of citizens, and a sensationalist newspaper culture and corrupt cops targeted gender-non-conforming people as easy headlines and as payola. Cross-dressing was not uncommon, but it was closely related to gender norms; for instance, men who were seeking jobs as family cooks or as food vendors sometimes could dress as women because they were working in traditional women’s work.   Dr. Macías-González points to the story of Marta Olmos, born Jorge, who was the first person in Mexico to undergo a sex change operation. If the idea of gender reassignment surgery in a conservative Catholic country seems odd, he says, consider that doctors at the time did not view this as an attempt to treat patients from non-conforming gender identities, but rather a way to “fix” gay men by turning them into women. The Mexican government, faced with a slumping economy in spring 1954, saw the Marta Olmos story as a way to distract a restless public while also touting the cutting-edge science of the Mexican medical community. Newspapers were full of images of Marta conducting her life as a woman: shopping for groceries, cooking dinner, even dandling a cute baby (she was babysitting, but the shocking implication of impending motherhood was clear).  Ultimately, public outcry against Marta led the government and newspapers to cease covering the event and relegated Marta to obscurity.

While many gay men in Mexico were understandably reluctant to engage in organized resistance, they were receiving information from gay magazines and newspapers printed abroad. In the 1950s, the founders of ONEmagazine – based in Los Angeles – noticed that they had as many subscribers in Mexico as they did in the U.K. In part, this was due to the existence of Librería de Cristal,  a bookstore run by refugees from Franco’s Spain. Its founders agreed to distribute gay magazines including ONE, and the founders of ONEagreed to distribute gay books from Mexican and European publishers in the U.S. Language skills were essential to this dissemination of information and culture: the language of business correspondence in Mexico was neither Spanish nor English, but French.   Americans did not know Spanish, and Mexicans (and Spaniards) did not know English.  Trilingual translators acted as what Dr. Macías-González calls “bridges”, connecting Mexico City, Los Angeles, New York, London, and Paris.

Dr. Macías-González describes himself as similar to the subjects he studies: “I am like these people, a trilingual migrant sexile.” Born to a middle-class Chihuahuan family, he grew up in El Paso, but quickly found opportunities to travel far afield. In Mexico City, he did research for his dissertation, in which he investigated, among other subjects, how the political and social capital of the Mexican upper classes shaped foreign policy. 19thcentury politics was essentially social, he says, governed by people – mostly men – who went to the same schools, played the same sports, and joined the same clubs. “It was a short chapter in my dissertation, and I’m still studying it. You can kill someone with a gun but you can also destroy them with manners.”

For Dr. Macías-González, manners—and other forms of social and cultural capital—are still an essential tool for career advancement. “If you’re invited to a conference, and you go to a dinner, are you going to know what fork to use? There are all of these little clues that show that you belong, and that’s one of them.” The Eagle Mentoring Program, which Dr. Macías-González started at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in 2008, trains participating students (high-achieving, historically under-represented minority students majoring in the liberal arts) not just in the academic skills of resume building and publication, but in etiquette: how to eat, how to dress, how to make small talk, how to arrive in a room and understand both the players and the game. In short, the Eagle program trains students like ambassadors, strengthening their social and cultural capital in order to make them more effective – perhaps as agents of a cultural revolution, but certainly as agents of their own lives.

Dr. Macías-González will speak about his current work on March 5th, 12–1:30, GWB 2.206.

Dr. Macías-González is a professor of History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He will be a fellow at the Latino Research Initiative through Spring 2019. Find him at vmacias-gonzalez@uwlax.edu

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