The Famous 41
Robert McKee Irwin, Ed McCaughan, and Michelle Nasser
Published by Palgrave Macmillan
Reviewed by Name Stephen O. Murray
June 23, 2004
Although famous as a group, the forty-one men arrested in a Mexico City police raid in the early hours of Sunday 17 November 1901 were and remain anonymous.
Collectively, they remain so notorious that in Mexico cuarenta y una means “faggot,” numbering in Mexico skips from 40 to 42 (as many U.S. buildings skip from 12 to 14), and men born 41 years ago report their age as “30 11.”
According to the reports from the Mexican press of the time reprinted in Spanish and translated into English at the beginning of The Famous 41: Sexuality and Social Control in Mexico, 1901, published by Palgrave/Macmillan, there were nineteen males in female ball-gowns at a private party broken up by the police. Although neither cross-dressing nor homosexuality were crimes in the Mexican legal code, Mexican police, then and now, have considerable discretion in defining affronts to public order, morals, or modesty. One of the 41 may have been a female servant, and the slight majority (21 or 22) were conventionally clad men.
Generally, it is the male who appears un-masculine who is assumed to be penetrable/homosexual in the Mexican folk view and not his masculine-seeming partner (who is presumed to be the penetrator of the effeminate and/or transvestite male).
Although “41” became a label for effeminate homosexuals, it seems that only the 19 of the 41 who were cross-dressed were shipped off to hard labor in the Yucatan. The scandal is (and remains!) gender nonconformity, though in the popular conception the correlation of male effeminacy and sexual receptivity to masculine males is assumed to be perfect. (Homo)sex might have followed the drag ball—in the expectation of both ballgoers and of those who halted the ball— but there is no indication that any of those attending the party got around to having sex. The night was still young when the police arrived.
The awareness that some men get away with gender and/or sexual “deviance” is condensed in cuarenta y dos (42), recalling the one who got away, the secret deviant. Almost immediately after the arrests, rumors spread that there was a 42nd in attendance at the ball, and that the one who was not held was the dandy Ignacio de la Torre, the son-in-law of the long-time dictator (“president”) of the republic, Porfirio Diaz.
Derived from a conference held at Tulane University on the centennial of the ball, the book includes (in both Spanish and English) a substantial part of a naturalist novel by Eduardo Castrejon, Los 41, that describes preparations for the ball, the ball itself, the Yucatan exile of the unlucky cross-dressed males, the famous Posada cartoons, reports from a range of newspapers, four chapters analyzing the scandal and concerns about the compromised masculinity of the Porifirian elite, a chapter trying to impose the author’s view on what the gender systems of Mexican prisons should have been (rejecting what evidence is available), a very detailed analysis of one case study of a woman incarcerated in a Mexican asylum, and an essay on the popular poet Amando Nervo’s “sentimental womanliness.”
The last two chapters are not related to the bust of the “famous 41,” and the last one does not specify when Nervo wrote what Sylvia Molloy chooses to discuss. Although insightful, her chapter is unhistorical in being unmoored from dates of composition or publication.
Two chapters, by Robert Buffington on the denigration of the elite’s masculinity in newspapers aimed at the Mexican working class and by Victor Macias-Gonzales on the quest of the would-be fashionable to look whiter (i.e., less Indian, more Parisian), are focused on general cultural conceptions rather than on chronological developments, but both provide specific dates for the reader (Buffington being more compunctious about this). Both chapters include reproductions of cartoons and advertisements from Mexican publications of the era. Their authors (and the authors of the two chapters discussing the scandal and its published representations, Carlos Monsivais and Robert Irwin) are also sensitive to and insightful about the class and racial/ethnic dynamics, placing the bust of the 41 in the context of undercutting the legitimacy of the unmanly, Francophilic, refinadito (hyper-refined) elite.
The crucifixion of the arch dandy —that was the Oscar Wilde trial a few years earlier in England—was barely reported in Mexico. The sapping of moral fiber by Francophilic libertines seems to have been a major concern in Cuba around the same time (see Emilio Bejel’s Gay Cuban Nation), and, a few years later, the effeminacy/homosexuality scandal in the German military (the “Eulenberg affair”) also involved a panic about the nation and its defenders. (The 19 were consigned to non-combat service of the military rather than being military officers in drag.) There was a multinational panic about male effeminacy in the years around 1900, though the “horror” the English nation glimpsed in the Wilde case was the sexual mixing of different classes (which were divided into near castes, as also in Mexico).
I hope someone will undertake systematic comparison of the various scandals and expressions of fears that the masculinity of ruling elites was draining away in the years before the machismo Mexican revolutionaries and the un-cowardly attrition that occurred in the trench warfare of the 1914–1918 war in Europe.
Monsivais notes the police records are unavailable. None of the 41 were interviewed by the press in 1901, and the only representations of their subjectivities are fictional (the novel and some clearly imaginary documents in El Popular). We don’t know who the 41 were, how they conceived of each other or of the gender order (or other parts of the social order) of Porfirian Mexico.
A fascination with the maricones is clear from the amount of representations. As Irwin notes, the conception “that homosexuality is not a temporary deviation, but an essential condition” was already commonsensical in Mexico in the first decade of the 20th century; Monsivais mentions an 1871 novel that referred to la raza ninfea—“the race of the fairies.” Specialized brothels whose clients presumably knew what they were looking for there and the throwing of the drag ball also show consciousness of kind and of others of the same kind and some amount of social organization of that kind.
One other puzzlement I experience in examining the rich trove of materials in this book is the mustaches on the men in dresses. From illustrations 2 and 20, it seems it was possible for a Mexican man of that time not to have a mustache. We don’t know that the 19 men in ball gowns had mustaches, but I would have liked some guidance from the specialists on the period about whether those men wearing women’s clothes at transvestite balls made no attempt to efface the sign of maleness (and masculinity) of bushy mustaches or whether they were shown in cartoons to make sure viewers knew what was under the grande couture.
First published by epinions, 23 June 2004
©2004, 2017, Stephen O. Murray