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4.4: Gender, Sexuality, Migration, and Indigeneity

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    Gender, Migration, and Indigeneity

    ­čž┐ Content Warning: Physical and Sexual Violence. Please note that this section includes discussions of physical and sexual violence. 

    Critical Latinx Indigeneity emphasizes the complicated relationship between Indigenous peoples, historical traditions, and contemporary structures of governments across borders. For instance, Indigenous migrants can benefit from and participate in colonial political and economic structures, even while experiencing xenophobia and anti-immigrant exclusion.24 Bringing together critical perspectives with cultural humility between various contexts can allow Indigenous communities to forge more effective solidarities and resist settler-colonial structures. Utilizing an intersectional perspective also helps to balance the complexity of Indigeneity with migration status, alongside gender, sexuality, and economic factors.

    Gender and family dynamics are deeply influential in shaping both immigration policies and immigrant experiences. Labor demands are often constructed in binary gendered terms. For instance, the Bracero program from 1942 to 1964 solicited agricultural labor from Mexican nationals in the U.S., focusing on short-term visas offered to individual mestizo men. This was meant to restrict the formation of family and sustained communities and instead contribute to the exploitation of farmworkers.25 Farm owners ignored labor laws, and often requested more visas and workers than they could employ at any time. This created a ready supply of unemployed migrants who were ineligible for virtually any other kind of legal employment. By contrast, domestic work and care industries often rely on migrant women laborers. However, a similar logic of family separation and isolation contributes to exploitation and poor working conditions. In particular, for workers who provide service directly in the home, such as nannies, housekeepers, cooks, and nurses, employers can leverage a workers’ documentation status to exploit their time, provide substandard pay, and carry out sustained emotional manipulation.26 These positions are more often occupied by Indigenous peoples, given that they are more likely to be low-income and/or undocumented.

    Gender influences the multi-level factors that determine community wellbeing, including the disparate impact of gender norms on sexual health and private relationships27 and the global dynamics of climate change and environmental crises caused by capitalist structures.28 In the context of sustained political assaults on Indigenous Latinx family structures, sustaining kinship structures takes on personal, cultural, and social implications. However, both within and outside of our communities, it is sometimes misrepresented that Latinx communities are uniformly and traditionally repressive when it comes to gender and sexuality.29 This narrative reflects the real implications of cis-heterosexist and patriarchal ideologies, including those upheld by certain aspects of the Catholic Church. However, it also erases the significance of historical and contemporary experiences of gender and sexual liberation within transnational Indigenous Latinx communities.

    There are at least 65 Indigenous languages that have terms referring to non-binary gender identities.30 These typically signified a position in the community that encompassed both sexuality and gender, such as individuals born male who take on women’s social roles. In virtually all societies, they were understood as an included part of the community, often revered or eligible for advanced social standing. For example, Chumash tribes recognized “aqi” (Ventureño Chumash word for “third-gender people”)31 for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The Chumash peoples are the stewards and Indigenous peoples of land that was previously Mexico and recolonized the United States. The previous Spanish, and sometimes Spanish Mexican, colonizers systemically assaulted the homes, lives, and lifeways of Native peoples. They made a particular target of the aqi. In Spanish, they renamed the third-gender people “joya” (or “olla”) which means jewel, because of their prized status to the Native communities, and also vessel, eliciting a derogatory association and justifying practices of inhumane torture and murder. Chumash scholar Deborah Miranda named this system gendercide and it is a common tactic in settler-colonialism.32

    Third-gender people play an important role in Chicanx, Indigenous Latinx, and Latinx communities throughout the United States and Latina America. Many Native communities have continued to operate their traditional customs, languages, and ways of knowing under the radar of colonizers.33 The Zapotec people, who are Indigenous to lands in southern Mexico, presently known as the state of Oaxaca, recognize a third gender, Muxes. They are an important part of the community’s traditions and culture. Festivals and celebrations honoring Muxes have also contributed to a transnational identity for Zapotecs. Festivals honoring Muxes are held in Oaxaca and in large migrant communities in the United States, like Los Angeles. As well, La Asociación Nacional de Comercio y Turismo LGBT (Mexican LGBT National Association of Commerce and Tourism)  created Ruta Istmo (Istmo Route), the first touristic route in Oaxaca to highlight the Muxe identity. These efforts work to support the contemporary Zapoteca community and their ways of life. One Muxe performer, Lukas Avendaño, is displayed in Figure 4.4.1, in a long, short-sleeve black and white dress, embroidered with red, purple, and yellow flowers. This is an example of the centrality of traditional culture and fashion to the practices of Muxes.

    A Muxhe performer standing on steps, wearing a black and white dress with embroidered flowers in red, yellow, and purple

    Figure 4.4.1:Lukas Avendaño” by Mario Patinho, Wikimedia Commons is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0

    Two-Spirit Identities and Pan-Indigenous Solidarity

    Given that both Indigenous spirituality and non-gender binary ways were stolen upon European invasion, Indigenous people from various tribes have come together to reconnect and build connections between these communities and experiences. This process contributed to the development of the term Two-Spirit in 1990 by Native people to talk about sexual and gender identities across tribal contexts. It was developed in part as a response to the widespread use of the term “berdache,” an adapted French word that was popularized by settler anthropologists and carries a dehumanizing stigma to imply a male prostitute (derived from the Arabic, “Bardaj,” meaning “captive” or “slave”). Two-Spirit is not a translation of any specific tribal term, but rather a way to communicate within an English-speaking context about the common commitment to decolonization and liberation for all Indigenous people.

    The term Two-Spirit should be understood as complementary to LGBTQ, within the context of Indigenous communities. It does not replace tribally-specific identity labels, nor does it replace sexual orientation and gender identities exactly. For example, Two-Spirit people may have one or more tribal affiliations and may also identify as one or more LGBTQ identities. LGBTQ Native Americans were looking for a way to remove themselves from a culture that emphasizes sexuality over spirituality and a way to reconnect with their own tribal communities. Adopting the Two-Spirit term was the answer. The term is sometimes referenced more abstractly to indicate two contrasting spirits, such as “Warrior and Clan Mother” or “Eagle and Coyote.” Cherokee scholar, Qwo-Li Driskill describes his relationship between Two-Spiritedness, Queer and Trans Identity in his own tribal context:

    I find myself using both the words “Queer” and “Trans” to try to translate my gendered and sexual realities for those not familiar with Native traditions, but at heart, if there is a term that could possibly describe me in English, I simply consider myself a Two-Spirit person. The process of translating Two-Spiritness with terms in white communities becomes very complex. I’m not necessarily “Queer” in Cherokee contexts, because differences are not seen in the same light as they are in Euroamerican contexts. I’m not necessarily “Transgender” in Cherokee contexts, because I’m simply the gender I am. I’m not necessarily “Gay,” because that word rests on the concept of men-loving-men, and ignores the complexity of my gender identity. It is only within the rigid gender regimes of white America that I become Trans or Queer.34

    The embedded Video 4.4.1 discusses in further depth the complexity of perspective among queer Natives with respect to culture, tradition, and holidays like Thanksgiving. To watch the video in full is 17 minutes and 42 seconds. The video presents an interpretation and perspective from one voice, which reflects the range of factors that influence decision-making about everyday activities for Native and Indigenous peoples. As you watch the video, please note the ways that Indigeneity impacts modern experiences.

    Video: A Queer Native Thanksgiving

    Video 4.4.1:A Queer Native Thanksgiving” by TwinRabbit, YouTube is licensed CC BY 3.0.

    Queer and Trans Migration Experiences

    ­čž┐ Content Warning: Physical and Sexual Violence. Please note that this section includes discussions of physical and sexual violence.

    Gender and sexuality also profoundly shape the experiences of Indigenous Latinx and mestizo queer and trans migrants in the context of larger systems and structures.35 For instance, Manuel Guzmán defined “sexiles” as “those queer migrants leaving home/nation as a result of their sexuality.”36 For example, individuals may be experiencing repressive conditions, external violence, or family rejection due to sexual stigma and seek new opportunities with communities. Individuals may also immigrate to seek medical treatment, such as for HIV, or gender-affirming therapies and surgical procedures. Queer and trans communities are characterized by differential access for immigrants and citizens to cultural fields, political inclusion, and collective membership.

    Queer and trans immigrants asylum seekers and refugees face persistent exclusion and barriers to migration. Gays and lesbians have been explicitly barred from immigrating to the U.S. including the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which disallowed “sexual deviants,” and remained in effect until 1990. Even after the outright ban was lifted, structural heterosexism continued to block queer and trans people. The ban on HIV-positive immigrants was in effect until 2010 and disparately affects queer and trans people. Similarly, until the federal Defense of Marriage Act was repealed in 2013, same-sex married couples were not recognized as families for immigration procedures. Today, LGBTQ people still face disparate barriers to adequate representation and may not have legal standing in their home countries to recognize important kinship ties.

    Further, the violent and militarized system of U.S. immigration traumatizes and abuses asylum seekers, especially transgender migrants. ​Christina Madrazo sued the U.S. government for $15 million, due to being held in detention and allegedly raped by Lemar Smith twice in May of 2000. ​Because of a plea deal, his charges were reduced from felonies to misdemeanors, lowering his sentence from 42 years to 8 months.37 Chicanx and Latinx communities experience distinct forms of oppression, prompting some scholars and activists to further adapt terminology to reflect these differences. For example, the term cuir (queer) “registers the geopolitical inflection towards the south and from the peripheries, in counterpoint to colonial epistemology and Anglo-American historiography.”38

    Queer refers [..] to those who are able to evade interpretative unidirectionality, who are able to be unintelligible at first sight, those people outside of the simple models and frames of hegemonic representation, which is not very difficult to achieve in a g-local world that is presumed to be ‘white’ even though the majority of its inhabitants are not ‘white’.39

    You can review more about the complexity of queer and trans identities among Chicanx and Indigenous Latinx communities in Section 6.4: Jotería Frameworks and Scholarly Conversations. In Figure 4.4.2, a photo of London Pride is displayed with a group of activists holding a sign that says “Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group. Supporting LGBTI Asylum Seekers and Refugees,” along with various national and pride flags in hand. These types of intersectional organizations address the unique needs related to migration, gender, and sexuality.

    Activists holding a banner that reads, “Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group: Supporting LGBTI Asylum Seekers and Refugees”

    Figure 4.4.2:Pride in London 2016” by KTC, Wikimedia is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0


    24 Maylei Blackwell, Floridalma Boj Lopez, and Luis Urrieta, “Special Issue: Critical Latinx Indigeneities,” Latino Studies 15, no. 2 (July 1, 2017): 126–37,

    25 Grace Chang, Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2016).

    26 Chang, Disposable Domestics.

    27 Rosa Elena Durán González, Mariana Juárez Moreno, and Lydia Raesfeld., “Violencia y Derechos de Las Niñas de Origen Indígena En El Municipio de San Felipe Orizatlán, Hidalgo,” Revista Universidad y Sociedad 13, no. 3 (June 2021): 56–68,

    28 Úrsula Oswald-Spring, “Decolonizing Peace with a Gender Perspective,” Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research (2022): Ahead of Print,; Úrsula Oswald-Spring, “The Impact of Climate Change on the Gender Security of Indigenous Women in Latin America,” in Environment, Climate, and Social Justice, eds. Devendraraj Madhanagopal, Christopher Todd Beer, Bala Raju Nikku, and André J. Pelser (New York, NY: Springer, 2022): 117–42,

    29 Gloria González-López, Erotic Journeys: Mexican Immigrants and Their Sex Lives (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2005)

    30 Maria Lugones, “The Coloniality of Gender,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Gender and Development, ed. Wendy Harcourt (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 13–33.

    31 Deborah A. Miranda, “Extermination of the Joyas: Gendercide in Spanish California,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16, no. 1–2 (January 1, 2010): 253–84,

    32 Miranda, “Extermination of the Joyas”

    33 Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd ed. (London, UK: Zed Books, 2012).

    34 Qwo-Li Driskill, "Stolen from Our Bodies: First Nations Two-Spirits/Queers and the Journey to a Sovereign Erotic," Studies in American Indian Literatures 16, no. 2 (2004): 50–64,

    35 Eithne Luibheid and Lionel Cantu Jr, eds., Queer Migrations: Sexuality, U.S. Citizenship, and Border Crossings, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

    36 Manuel Guzmán, “Pa’la Escuelita Con Mucho Cuida’oy Por La Orillita’: A Journey through the Contested Terrains of the Nation and Sexual Orientation,” in Puerto Rican Jam: Rethinking Colonialism and Nationalism, eds. Frances Negrón-Muntaner and Ramón Grosfugel. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997): 209–28.

    37 Luibheid and Cantu Jr., Queer Migrations.

    38 Sayak Valencia Triana, “Teoría Transfeminista Para El Análisis de La Violencia Machista y La Reconstrucción No-Violenta Del Tejido Social En El México Contemporáneo,” Universitas Humanística, no. 78 (2014): 65–88,

    39 Valencia Triana, “Teoría Transfeminista.”