Voices from the margins

Editor's note: David R. Morse is CEO and president of New American Dimensions, a Los Angeles research firm. Susanna Fránek is a cultural anthropologist with research firm Ethnologix. Gerardo Gallart is CEO of marketing services firm La Fábrica de BTL. 

In recent years, Mexico has been decidedly progressive in its efforts to combat discrimination and hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. A recent study by political scientist Caroline Beer concludes that Mexico is more progressive than the U.S. when it comes to LGBT rights, especially in the recognition of same-sex relationships. For instance, in 2003 the Mexican Chamber of Deputies unanimously passed a national anti-discrimination law that included sexual orientation as a protected category and developed a national anti-homophobia campaign. In 2010, Mexico City passed a law allowing same-sex marriage; five years later, the Mexican Supreme Court released a “jurisprudential thesis” in which the legal definition of marriage was changed to encompass same-sex couples. While this ruling did not directly strike down Mexico’s same-sex marriage bans, it ordered every judge in the country to rule in favor of same-sex couples seeking marriage. Currently, Mexico City and 14 of the 31 states legally perform same-sex marriages. 

Mexico - flagOn the other hand, progressive legislation aside, many would argue that Mexico has a long way to go in terms of full acceptance of sexual and gender diversity. As is the case in many Latin American countries, Mexico has traditionally been the realm of machismo and homophobia and many argue that this is still the case. Cries of puto, a derogatory term for a gay male, have gained notoriety in recent years for becoming commonplace at Mexican soccer games. A study by the Center for International Human Rights of Northwestern University School of Law states that “homophobia and transphobia remain prevalent in Mexico and discrimination and hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity remain all too common.”

In order to gain deeper insight into these contradictory narratives and offer a path to marketers pondering an LGBTQ strategy, Ethnologix, La Fábrica de BTL and New American Dimensions partnered to conduct qualitative research in Mexico with members of the LGBTTTI community – the Mexican term for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestites, transgender, transsexual and intersexual individuals – as well as non-community members. A particular focus of our study was with trend leaders, people who think differently and who live on the periphery of mainstream culture. This approach allowed for a nuanced understanding of the intersection of gender, race, culture, history and socioeconomics, giving us a glimpse into their behaviors as consumers and participants in society, as well as giving a voice to their humanity.

The study was conducted in phases throughout 2018, across eight cities in Mexico. Ages ranged from 15 to 35. Socioeconomic levels (NSE) were segmented between low (D+, C-), middle (C, C+) and upper-middle (B) respondents. Interviews took place in homes and different meeting places in the community to ascertain distinct societal perspectives. Qualitative methodologies included:

  • 24 focus groups with a mix of LGBTTTI community and non-community members;
  • nine eight-hour ethnographies with artists, activists, psychologists, etc.;
  • 10 on-site interviews with key segment members (drag queens, artists, actors, queer feminists, etc.); and
  • four ethnographies in Mexico City with queer “artivist” subgroups: poets, animators, fashion designers, etc.

Among our findings were the following observations:

Many emphasized that the LGBTTTI categories should not be taken as being definitive but rather evolving and fluid. Indeed, redefined sexual identities challenge traditional heteronormative gender roles and respondents fully embrace gender differences and cultural diversity and confront what has traditionally been a misogynistic and classist culture with rigor. 

The younger generation, in particular, perceives sexual and gender classifications as still in progress, not absolute; they are in the midst of negotiating new boundaries of their identity outside traditional, mainstream classifications. Common themes with younger LGBTTTI participants included: gender fluidity; confronting the traditional machista/classist culture; challenging beauty standards; and becoming the role models they never had. For many younger respondents, YouTubers often go beyond being a source of inspiration, helping with the construction of a new sense of self. The youngest discover models and points of reference from these platforms that not only provide examples and fantasies but also help with the construction of one’s own unique identity as they crack the code on “me doing me.”

Most felt strongly that acceptance of LGBTTTI rights has grown tremendously over the past 20 years, though at different speeds throughout Mexico. There was a strong consensus that Mexico City is leading advancements in legislation, though the church and conservative entities fight aggressively to block progress and promote conversion therapies. Despite progress, rejection, judgment and discrimination within the LGBTTTI community persist. Differences exist between generations and gender creating the need for more bridge building to create a stronger unifying force. 

Despite advances in Mexico City, respondents in cities including Chihuahua, Torreón, Mérida, Tijuana and Guadalajara were quick to point out that change has been relatively slow. Many expressed that outside of the capital, one encounters the same judgements, prejudices and marginalization as before; in other words, the same laws of exclusion, homophobia and heteropatriarchy still apply.

Influence a paradigm shift 

All are heavily influenced by a globalized, homogenizing LGBTQ culture due to the proliferation of media, popular culture, film, popular music, the Internet and technology. Additionally, as public personalities come out of the closet in greater numbers, they influence a paradigm shift in Mexico and family, sexuality and adoption are themes that take on new meaning. Similar to how programs like Will and Grace in the U.S. helped make mainstream America more comfortable with gays, the Netflix series La Casa de Las Flores deals with bisexuality, gay marriage and transgender topics as a traditional Mexican family adjusts to a new world.

Socioeconomic level has a large effect on attitudes and possibilities. For those with more socioeconomic resources, there are greater social pressures in terms of behavior (the need to fulfill heteronormative expectations); greater possibilities for professional development; access to exclusive places that provide security and recognition; and, in the case of transsexual people, the possibility of access to treatments and surgery of the highest quality. For those with fewer resources, there are higher incidences of violence and aggression; socially determined professions (hairdressers, cooks, police); the stereotype of violent domestic relations; limited access to health services; and in some cases, working in the sex industry might be the only means of subsistence.

Has repercussions 

Not all groups have the same visibility, either inside or outside of the LGBTTTI community. The level of visibility has repercussions on the level of inclusion and acceptance. It’s common that the less visible groups suffer greater social exclusion and unique problems, resulting in them having different coping strategies than those with higher visibility. 

Those engaged in activism and the arts brave the edges of Mexico’s paradoxical nature, embracing the duality and relishing the cultural richness that serves as inspiration for their creative, personal and lifestyle endeavors. They strive for a more open, inclusive world that debunks the confines of prior generations that often limits their possibilities. Yet, respecting elders is very much intact; family continues to be a valued, stabilizing force in their lives.

Many expressed that they are activists, demanding equal rights and fighting against discrimination and violence. A common theme is the myth that the United States is more progressive on LGBTTTI rights than Mexico.

Still, most were quick to point out the myriad challenges facing LGBTTTI individuals, both within and outside of the community. For example, outside of the community, trans people, especially women, constantly experience discrimination, very often a function of their physical appearance. Many expressed that heteronormality is often the center axle and any other manifestation is considered a perversion; in many cases, members of the community find themselves the subject of jokes, insults and bullying. Additionally, many discussed homonormativity, the reinforcing of gender hierarchies and intolerance that can frequently manifest among the community’s own members. Misogyny, transphobia and internalized machismo were commonly mentioned.

There appear to be two doors for coming out of the closet, one that is self-initiated, the other imposed. When self-initiated, coming out often takes place first within the family and there is often a female figure who supports and acts as an intermediary (grandmother, aunt, mother, etc.). Many who fall into this category are able to leverage the support of family and community toward greater self-expression. Conversely, when coming out is imposed, the experience is often one of getting “busted,” often after one has constructed a chain of lies that ends up with the family finding out. The consequences might be one of negation, psychological therapy and religious corrective measures, including being taken to a priest. Still, for so many respondents, coming out of the closet generated positive emotions of acceptance, pride and becoming whole. For others not being “too out,” i.e., staying closer to heteronormativity, helps gain more social acceptance and maintain a sense of balance with their families.

Different identities within the community tend to group themselves by subgroups or tribes. Some tribes are based on gender expression or social and artistic interests. Others are structured around physical characteristics of their members. Still, it is important to point out that not all the members of a segment self-identify with a tribe or subgroup. Many keep themselves apart by constructing their own identity with personal characteristics, not those of the group. 

Engaged in cultural production, queer “artivists” use their art as a tool for possibilities of resistance. Through experimentation their art takes on an activist role, i.e., use of non-conformist performativity, public display, fashion, poetry readings and social media. They are disrupting the space of gender identity by calling out oppressive traditions and debunking hyper-masculinity. They reflect new experiments in culture. Storytelling is an intentional construct that fuses personal and collective experience through the arts and the environment, finding inspiration through music, poetry, literature, ideas around sustainability and re-appropriating space for creative performance that encourages collaborative communities.

As is the case in many countries around the world, clubs and bars play a unique role in the gay community. Clubs can be either mixed (hetero and LGBTTTI) or directed toward specific LGBTTTI tribes. These establishments engender a sense of belonging, group recognition and, to some extent, privacy and a sense of complicity. In addition to tribes, clubs are often segmented by price (high-end versus low end) and type (pre-bar, dancing, shows, private, etc.).

Genuinely support the community 

In terms of marketing, many respondents make a clear distinction between companies that genuinely support the community and those that do the “pink wash,” in other words, talking the talk without making a real statement. 

Suggestions for companies included the need to define and express a concrete position in support of this community; incorporating talent, recognizing diversity and inclusion in practice; developing employees with education; supporting inclusive organizations; looking for advocates and opinion leaders within the segment who can represent a brand and be its mouthpiece; communicating values of acceptance and realization; and supporting social causes. 

Conversely, respondents warned companies against pink-washing; perpetuating obstacles within the organization that limit expressions of sexual and gender identity; and transmitting binary stereotypes or ideas of gender and sexuality that are static and not evolving. Many emphasized that taking a stand once a year, during Pride, is not enough.

Extract nuanced learnings

In the final analysis, this methodology enabled us to delve very deeply into Mexico’s LGBTTTI community and to extract nuanced – indeed, intimate – learnings. Like the extant research, we found Mexico to be a study of contradictions, in many ways driven by region, age and socioeconomic status. While younger respondents in Mexico City, of greater socioeconomic means, for example, encountered a burgeoning LGBTTTI community, those outside of the capital, older and of lesser means, described a much more repressed, indeed homophobic and transphobic environment.

One interesting learning was that the methodology allowed us to garner a great degree of trust with respondents. Many felt themselves to be active collaborators in the research project and saw themselves as being voices of the larger LGBTTTI community. Many participants seem to feel that it was important that the interviewers “get it right” and represent their community in an unbiased, positive manner. While we do acknowledge that such a degree of intimacy has the danger of lending itself toward bias, the relationship enabled us to venture far more deeply and into very personal territory, which would never have been achieved with more traditional methods.