Some have asked, “Hey, so were there gay, trans, non-binary, or otherwise queer folx in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica, especially in the Aztec Empire?”
Or words to that effect, heh. Grab your flowers and wild cocoa beans, friends. Here we go!
First off, it’s important to note we don’t and probably never will fully understand the attitudes of pre-Colombian Nahuas toward individuals we now call LGBTQ+ or their roles in Nahua society. The racist, sexist, homophobic, religiously intolerant lens of the Spanish obscures the particulars, leaving only a few tantalizing clues.
Furthermore, it’s risky to impose our MODERN conceptualization of gender identity and sexual orientation on the Nahuas, because we’re pretty sure these two perspectives are NOT the same.
What does seem clear is that Nahuas understood gender and orientation in ways the conquering Spaniards didn’t.
Broadly speaking, the Spanish — and the converted Nahuas who helped them grapple with the conquered, decimated culture — witnessed “same-sex” sexual interactions and individuals performing gender roles that didn’t conform to the “biological” (assigned) sex that the Spanish perceived.
Their reaction to this behavior was predictable — they abhorred, decried and punished it — but their perception of support for their homophobia and transphobia among their indigenous allies was also complicated by something we need to establish right away.
Not all Nahuas regarded these individuals the same way.
It’s easy to look back at a civilization and generalize. But just as not all US citizens, Chicanos, Christians, etc. believe the same things, so the hundreds of Nahua cities and towns had varieties of views, the nuances of which were effaced by Conquest.
They didn’t all worship the same. They didn’t all treat queer folx the same.
Thus, we have reports from Spanish conquerors of punishments for gay sex and transgender behavior, but we also have reports of queer folx deeply incorporated into social structures (temples, armies, families, etc.).
When we stop thinking monolithically, we see both views could be true.
Key to how Nahuas might’ve perceived LGBTQ+ individuals is the fact that the principal dichotomy in Mesoamerica wasn’t GOOD/EVIL. It was CHAOS/ORDER, which weren’t in conflict, but instead sought balance.
Another major dichotomy was FEMALE/MALE. Not separate. Complementary. Two sides of the same coin of identity.
The source of the universe was OMETEOTL (“two god”), a being both female and male that was conceived of as a single entity and two distinct beings SIMULTANEOUSLY.
From them emanated other dual deities. Significantly, XOCHIPILLI & XOCHIQETZAL, often called siblings, but more accurately considered two complementary halves of one gender-fluid being. Both of them are gods of (among other things) what we’d term sexuality and gender identity, promoting non-procreative sex, leisure, pleasure, drugs, and fun.
They served as patrons of queer folx.
(Article continues after some images of these deities.)
Clearly, despite the strict laws that (purportedly) the Mexica and Texcohcah imposed on the various behaviors the Spanish also found offensive, that view was not universal among Nahuas.
Remember that Nahuatl-speaking people had lived in Mesoamerica for 600 years before the Mexica settled down at last and founded Tenochtitlan. We shouldn’t be shocked that the former nomads and mercenaries would have different views on sexuality than their urban cousins.
Let’s get into some specifics. From the Codex Tudela and Florentine Codex (as well as a few other indigenous sources), we can deduce that LGBTQ+ folx were sorted into two broad categories (with obscure subcategories that I won’t get into because this isn’t a dissertation):
The Xōchihuah and the Patlacheh.
These broke with male and female “norms,” respectively.
Both terms are in a grammatical form that doesn’t exist in English: the possessor.
In Nahuatl, the -eh or -huah suffixes can be added to stems to create a word that means “owner, possessor, sovereign, haver” of that stem.
- “Calli” is “house.” “Caleh” is “homeowner.”
- “Michin” is “fish.” “Michhuah” is “fisher” or “fish owner.”
“Xōchihuah,” then, means “possessor of xōchitl.” Xōchitl is “a flower” or “flowers,” depending on context.
Flower-possessor. Sovereign of flowers. One who has a flower.
From what we can glean, the term referred to a person assigned male at birth who behaved in ways associated with those assigned female. Why “flower”? Well, the flower in Nahuatl poetics is a robust metaphor for all things beautiful and ephemeral. It also stands for pleasure and for femininity. Occasionally it is used to represent “breasts,” as in bawdy tōchcōcocuīcatl or rabbit-dove songs.
With my rainbow skirt,
O mother dear,
I hold myself tall and proud,
No nieces, girlfriends in my way —
I’m a precious flower,
And I’m everlasting!
I’ve come to live a different life
Away from all the servant girls.
I’m a Huastec woman —
My popcorn buds are beautiful!
That’s an excerpt of my translation of song 87-g of Cantares Mexicanos (a Nahuatl poetry codex) from my book Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Maya Poetry. “Popcorn buds” is a translation of “izquixōchitl,” the esquisúchil flower or Bourreria huanita. Here it’s used as a metaphor for breasts/feminity.
In another piece, song 75 of the Cantares Mexicanos, a woman calls her vagina “noxōchinenetzin” or “my little flower doll.” Note that “nenetl” or doll was a euphemism for “vagina”.
This evidence and more suggests that “flower” = “female aspect.”
Perhaps “xōchihuahqueh” (the plural of xōchihuah) labeled all people assigned male at birth who engaged in behaviors traditionally considered feminine (a broad spectrum from gay sex to cross-dressing and female tasks to fully trans women), because they possessed an essence (the flower) that set them apart.
We tend, from our vantage point, to think of a pre-Colombian xōchihuah as just a trans woman, but that imposes our world view on them. Instead, I propose these were all folx assigned male at birth in whom the feminine side of the duality was stronger (or dominant).
Before moving on, two more observations about xōchihuahqueh.
- Several sources, including Fernández de Oviedo, tell us that kids were sometimes recognized as trans girls by their parents. They were permitted to dress as girls, learn their social roles, and so forth.
- This notion of xōchihuah as a broad label could help explain what baffled the Spanish: nominally cis het men with cis female wives/concubines also took lovers assigned male at birth. What we might now consider a bi- or pansexual practice was probably viewed differently by the Nahuas. As a pansexual man myself, I’m intrigued by the possibility that orientation lay along a more nuanced and perhaps spiritual axis for many Nahua groups. Thus a cis man might be drawn to “the flower” in any individual, whatever gender they were assigned at birth.
NONE OF THIS should be misconstrued as saying trans Chicanas and trans Mexicanas shouldn’t call themselves xochihuas if they want … in fact, I like that notion VERY MUCH.
Turning to the (proposed) category of patlacheh, note that the word has variously been rendered “hermaphrodite,” “homosexual woman” or “lesbian,” which together again suggest the Nahuas grouped gender/orientation variations differently than the Spanish or modern Americans.
Through Spanish sources, codices, songs, we find clear references to people assigned female at birth engaging in behaviors — sexual, sartorial, social — traditionally carried out by those assigned male at birth. The attestations aren’t as numerous as for “men,” unsurprisingly.
As I mentioned above, “patlacheh” is a possessor noun. It literally means “possessor of patlachtli.”
But what is patlachtli?
There are two meanings of the word. 1) Wild cacao, Theobroma bi-color, a name derived from 2) “broad/long flat thing,” in general.
The adjective form is patlachtic. Among other things it describes in the Florentine Codex is the clitoris (zacapilli). Teeth, pearls and pebbles were called patlachtic, too. Related words were tēpatlachhuia (for a woman to have sex with another woman) and patlachihui (to swell up or broaden).
Patlachtli also appears to have been a metaphor for the phallus or for masculinity (much as xōchitl represented femininity).
In other words, for a “patlacheh” the masculine aspect is strong or dominant.
Of course, the ignorant Spanish assumed patlacheh meant “has a dick” (whether because of being intersex or using a dildo, a practice also mentioned in Cantares Mexicanos).
That might’ve been true for some patlachehqueh (the plural form), but I’m guessing that wasn’t the defining factor. Instead, it’s a different axis, rooted in spirituality.
Though there’s scarcer evidence for this conjecture, that would appear to suggest that some (cis het) Nahua women might have been drawn to the “wild cacao” regardless of whether the possessor of that “broad and long” spiritual element were assigned male or female at birth.
I’ll wrap up by saying that — while there is still much we do not / may not ever understand about gender and orientation among the Nahuas — there were most certainly folx that were trans, non-binary, gay, etc. in those societies.
They apparently enjoyed some freedom and positive recognition. At the very least, they were allowed to love.
Xitētlazohtla. Mā titlazohtlalo.
Love. Be loved.
Till next time.
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Those wanting to delve into greater specifics of Nahua sexuality and orientation should read SEXUAL ENCOUNTERS/SEXUAL COLLISIONS: ALTERNATIVE SEXUALITIES IN COLONIAL MESOAMERICA, edited by Pete Sigal.