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The Famous 41:
The Scandalous Birth of Modern Mexican Homosexuality
On 17 November 1901 Mexico City police raided a private party and arrested the forty-one men in attendance, half of them dressed as women. "The ball of the 41," as it came to be known, quickly became the scandal of the year, inspiring over a month of strident, often fanciful newspaper reporting; a barrage of corridos and poems, some illustrated with etchings by José Guadalupe Posada; vociferous editorials and sermons; and several fictional narrations of the event, including a novel. Through all this clamor the party gained immense symbolic importance in Mexico as the number 41 itself came to signify male homosexuality. Perhaps more important, the event initiated the first significant discussion of same-sex sexual relations in Mexico since colonial times and raised questions about sexuality, masculinity, and Mexicanness itself that are still debated nearly a century later.
As Carlos Monsiváis has noted, same-sex sexual bonding was a topic so entirely absent from public discourse in nineteenth-century Mexico that descriptions about men sharing beds or cuddling up naked could be related without controversy. 1 For example, in Mexico's (and Latin America's) first novel, José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi's El Periquillo Sarniento (1816), just such a scene occurs in a dive in which a group of scoundrels are reduced to betting the clothes off their backs, "some of them being left naked as the day they were born, without so much as a maxtle, as they call it, which is a scrap of cloth that covers their shame, and there were some rogues who would wrap themselves up in a blanket in the company of another guy, whom they would call their protector." 2 Although critics have occasionally questioned Lizardi's taste--Luis Urbina describes him as, at times, "filthy to the point of being disgusting"--no one has ever accused him of writing a text that was in any way queer. 3 While effeminacy in men was a major concern in Mexican literature of the nineteenth century (it was clearly one of Lizardi's preoccupations), male homosexuality did not exist in the imagination of the general [End Page 353] public. The scandal of "the famous 41" was so far-reaching that such scenes of male-male intimacy would never again pass unnoticed in Mexico.
However, scandal was the word of the day. The topic was so distressing that an accurate rendering of the facts was impossible. Instead of the unbiased descriptions of behaviors, desires, attitudes, or attributes that historians might hope to find, the only clear conception to emerge was a stereotype: "From then until recent times in popular culture a gay has been a transvestite, and there has been only one kind of homosexual: the effeminate." 4
This cliché has been the dominant image of Mexican male homosexuality not only in popular but also in scholarly discourse. Of course, scholarly research regarding homosexuality is a recent phenomenon, and it has been important for it to confront popular stereotypes. A few key examples of such research include Joseph Carrier's groundbreaking anthropological fieldwork among homosexual and bisexual men in Jalisco; Annick Prieur's book on the world of lower-class transvestites in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl; Monsiváis's chronicles of Mexican sexuality among both the elite and the popular classes from a historical perspective; and the growing discourse, initiated by figures such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Tomás Almaguer, on homosexuality in Mexican American culture in the United States. While it has been important to document the construction and evolution of well-known paradigms of male homosexuality in Mexico, exploration should not end there. Roger Lancaster has recently put forward a series of caveats to facilitate that next step in sexuality studies on Latin America. 5 My investigation of a single historical event proposes to take a modest step toward looking beyond the stereotypes.