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Where 'Gay' and 'Straight' Don't Suffice.

Mema's House, Mexico City: On Transvesties, Queens, and Machos

by Annick Prieur

University of Chicago Press 293 pages, $50. ($17. paper)

FIFI, one of Annick Prieur's informants in her fascinating ethnography of Mexican sexuality, summarizes the complex code of fucking by which her/his community lives:

A mayate is a man who does it with jotos. A tortilla is a man who likes to fuck a joto, and also likes to have the joto fuck him. Bugas are those who say they don't do it with a joto--only with women. Then there are the hetero-sexuales, who like to fuck men--which means jotas who like to fuck men. And bisexuales are those who fuck men, and the men who fuck jotos. They are the bisexuales mayates. ...My experience is that most men that I have been with are mayates. And some rare times bisexuales. And bugas--the truth is that I don't think they exist anymore. Because now any man will be with a joto or a with a woman.

This dizzying taxonomy of male sexuality launches Prieur's exploration of the sexual lives and gender constructions of a group of poor, young homosexual men living in the outskirts of Mexico City. But the term "homosexual" hardly does justice to their gender and sexual identities and behaviors. As Fifi's primer on Mexican sexuality suggests, it is hard--if not impossible--to find adequate English terms for these men or their sexual partners.

Mema himself could be the object of a separate study. He's a middle-aged homosexual man who has had his glamorous drag days, worked as a prostitute and a hairdresser, and is now an activist in the gay community. Recently he's been an AIDS educator for young sex workers in Mexico City. His home is a refuge for an ever-shifting collection of young men with homosexual interests, many of them transvestites and sex workers. The house is a family room, a trysting place, a crash pad, and a refuge from hostile families. Perhaps the closest U.S. equivalent to Mema's clan is the African-American drag "house" so movingly represented by Jennie Livingston in her documentary Paris is Burning.

Prieur encountered Mema at an AIDS conference and took him up on an offer to visit his home. After a first stay that captured her interest, Prieur spent six months, from 1989 to 1991, living with, interviewing, and dancing with the denizens of Mema's house. Her central concern in the book is the construction of sex, gender, and sexuality in this community. But her broader objective is to use this seemingly marginal group for a wholesale deconstruction of gender itself. Along the way she draws us into the lives and loves of these jotos. She records early and troubled histories of effeminate boys, often misunderstood and abused by family and society but in some cases fully accepted by their families--particularly when the joto son provides financial support. Most of these men continue to live with their families, not just for economic reasons but because of the strong affectional ties that remain the norm in Latino families.

Prieur takes us into the dressing rooms of the vestidas (transvestites), where femininity is literally and symbolically constructed. Like old-fashioned drag queens, the vestidas go for the most real, the most curvaceous, the most fuckable. However, those curves aren't just made of foam. Some vestidas are on hormones obtained without medical consultation and administered at home. Successful girls who save up the money can afford silicone breast implants and facial plastic surgery. Unfortunately, all too many simply inject oil to augment breasts, hips and buttocks-often with terrible consequences.

It is the sex lives and sexualities of the jotos that most occupy Prieur and pose the greatest analytic challenge: How can we make sense of Fifi's initial cartography of Mexican sexuality? What seems like the most evident and quotidian system to her proves far more complex to an outsider. Urban Americans tend to divide "sexual orientation" in three primary flavors: homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality. We expect people's sexual orientation to match their erotic object choice; otherwise it is suspect. The man who claims to be "straight" but occasionally has sex with men is branded as closeted, deluded, or on the fence. Even bisexuality is frequently seen as dubious or transitional (particularly by gay men). However, in Mexico--and many other countries--sexual identity has less to do with sexual object choice than sexual aim or, to put it more bluntly, sexual position.

Prieur explains how penetrability is central to the sexual taxonomy of her informants: exclusive tops (mayates and bugas) are a separate class from the bottoms, while the bisexuales are the ones who are versatile. Closely related to this economy of penetration are notions of masculinity and femininity: macho men don't get fucked, while getting fucked is feminizing. No doubt, many a mayate enjoys being fucked or sucking his joto partner, but that should never become public knowledge. Prieur details how most of the transvestite jotos are totally invested in this system of gender and sexual appearances, and want to protect the masculine reputation of their partners because that bolsters their own femininity. It is the collective participation in this system that allows the mayate men not only to use the vestidas as occasional prostitutes, but to become involved in long-term, intimate, even domestic relationships. Indeed, this is the ideal of many of the "girls" Prieur interviews. They have taken the ideal model of Latino, Catholic family life and squeezed their male bodies into the wifely role.

Not surprisingly, the jotos rarely achieve this for any sustained period of time. Thanks to her eight-year follow-up interviews, Prieur is able to recount the many breakups, incarcerations, and beatings her informants endured. Their misfortunes are tragic and Prieur is clearly moved by them. Unfortunately, she concludes the work on a note of cultural superiority, not unlike that of a Western gay man encountering foreign systems of sexuality and judging them "primitive" compared to the American dichotomy of gay and straight identities. A joto and a mayate, Prieur writes, "become victims of their own perceptions and evaluations, and every encounter is colored by schemata that give superiority to masculinity (and masculinity to superiority) and inferiority to femininity (and femininity to inferiority)." Yet she promptly acknowledges that, despite this "victimization," such relationships can afford both partners great love and pleasure. Her analysis resonates with earlier critiques of lesbian butch-femme relatio nships for caving in to patriarchal stereotypes.

The fascinating system of gender and sexuality that she describes, however, may not be all that distant, doomed, or inscrutable. Indeed, our rigid homo-/heterosexual divide is a relatively recent construct, and a particularly urban one. George Chauncey describes in Gay New York a world of "fairies" and "trade" in early 20th-century New York not too dissimilar from Mema's circle. Stephen Murray points out in Homosexualities that even in contemporary America a diversity of homosexual behaviors and identities is commonplace despite the dominance of post-Stonewall models of egalitarian, exclusive homosexuality in urban, middle-class communities. Prieur's exploration opens up the doors to a fabulous realm of sexuality, bringing to life the joy and suffering of her exuberant jotos and encouraging us all to rethink the ways in which gender, sex, and class are intertwined in delimiting our experience of identity in society.

Vernon Rosario, a child psychiatry fellow at UCLA, is the author of The Biomedical Treatment of Homosexuality, forthcoming in the "Controversies in Science" series published by ABC Clio.
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Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Date:May 1, 2001
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