The Dance of the 41: Mexico's Biggest Gay Secret
On November 17, 1901 in Mexico City, a scandal took place amongst the aristocracy that created a shift in the political and social climate. Police raided a private gala on Calle de la Paz, in which 42 men with a mixture of high-society and lower class were arrested, half of whom were dressed as women. This type of party was not uncommon at the time, however. Many men who lived clandestine, alternative lifestyles, partook in celebrations where cross-dress elegance was the focal point of the affair. Sexual curiosity was a taboo, but it is a type of down low system that created great controversy, especially in a pre-revolutionary Mexico.
There was a difference between this and other balls that had taken place in Mexico, though. On the night of November 17, 1901, political figures were in attendance creating a traction that elevated the raid to national news. It is rumored that the Ignacio de la Torre y Mier, the son-in-law of Mexico’s president Porfirio Díaz, was present and he was known to have led a curious lifestyle, surrounding himself with the lavish beauty of other men.
That night, when 42 men were arrested, Ignacio de la Torre y Mier was released and the presses ran with a story that called 41 men as the culprits for the horrific event. It became known as the 'Nefarious Ball of the 41' and preempted satirical drawings and propaganda by many news outlets, specifically showcasing the work of José Guadalupe Posada, whose creations are internationally known and he is now considered Mexico’s most prominent cartoonist and engraver.
It is not truly known what happened to the famous 41, but it is said that of the alleged 41 men who were detained, half were released because their families sought public clemency while the rest were sent to Yucatán as labor and military support. Prior to the releases and the hard labor, the 41 dandies were forced to wear dresses and made to sweep the streets. They were publicly ridiculed and heckled by the Mexican people while having objects thrown at them.
We do not know the story of the dance of the 41 because it was basically removed from history. A few years after the events took place, a book mentioning the occurrence was written by Eduardo A. Castrejón, but it disappeared from libraries and bookstores, copies were destroyed, and only fragments of the stories in his book remain. For over a century in Mexican culture, the number ‘41’ is negatively associated with homosexuality, and to be called ‘41’ is deemed disrespectful and an insult. Hotels have even avoided the number 41 in numbering their guest rooms! It is a negative legend that spawned from historical events, but there is still much to be learned about the events leading up to and following that infamous night on La Paz street.
Here we are - 116 years later, still battling issues related to sexual identity and trying to educate the world about the perils that surround the LGBTQIA community. Despite the strides we have made in teaching tolerance, hundreds of trans individuals are killed annually and hate crimes still go unreported. We have a long way to go, especially in countries where people are still persecuted, tortured, and killed just for being who they are.
When I first learned about the dance of the 41, I thought, “How has no one done an exposé on this story?” “Why haven’t we learned about this in our history books? Why don’t we use this as fuel for change?” I felt a personal connection to the men who had been targeted in 1901 and who had essentially become sub-human rejects of society. Their story was my story. I took it upon myself to research, learn, and share with anyone and everyone who would listen. As a result of my research, this topic eventually became my MFA thesis and a screenplay that took home an award at the Oaxaca Film Festival.
During my hunt for information about the dance of the 41, I learned about Honor 41, a non-profit organization based out of Los Angeles that promotes the positive images of Latino/a/x LGBTQ community members as a catalyst for change. When I first came across Honor 41, I was excited to learn that an organization based on a story that I felt so personally connected to existed and was doing the very work I felt equally compelled by. Honor 41 aims to take away the derogatory connection to the number 41 by educating others on LGBTQ history and highlighting our narratives. Like Instinct Magazine, it contributes to society by profiling stories that resonate with the LGBTQ audience and that could possibly, save lives.
Since its founding, Honor 41 publishes an annual list of 41 honorees from around the world that have contributed in some capacity to the LGBTQ community. From doctors to activists to teachers and writers, Honor 41 is doing the work and celebrating our rainbow.
Honor 41 was founded by Alberto B. Mendoza, who made the organization his mission after also learning about the dance of the 41 when he turned 41. I have had the privilege of working with Alberto and sharing stories on how we are all connected because of the dance of the 41.
Because today is the anniversary of this historic event in LGBTQ history, he shared some thoughts with me for Instinct Magazine:
How did you first hear about ‘The 41’?
I learned about it in April of 2012, a few months before my 41st birthday. I was telling a friend how the number “41” had been haunting me since I was 14yrs when “friends” nicknamed me “41”. I didn’t know it was the equivalent of calling someone gay/maricón in Mexico. Since I lived 5 minutes from the Tijuana/San Diego border it was something these kids knew about. I didn’t, much less did I know the story behind it until I was having dinner with that friend. I told him my experience with “41” and he asked me, “How did those kids know about the story of the 41?” I asked him, “What Story” and then he told me.
Why do you think that the events of 1901 in Mexico City have not been more widely publicized?
For starters, it’s had such a negative stigma for those who got labeled “41” that even asking about it can generate unwanted attention. I also think that since the Mexican Revolution was near, the story got lost…and as a mostly catholic country, I don’t think it was a story that the church, LGBTQ people and others who could be affected wanted out there.
What can we learn from the events that occurred in Mexico City on November 17, 1901?
Unfortunately stories of hunting, persecuting and jailing LGBTQ people have happened for hundreds of years and continue to this day all over the world, just this past summer in Nigeria, 42 “homosexual men” where arrested in a hotel. A similar arrest happened in Uganda the year before that, and just last month in Egypt raids against gays were increased while in Indonesia 51 men were detained for being at a “Gay Spa”. In the US a raid in June 28, 1969 of the Stonewall Inn (a known gay bar) in NYC, is credited for starting the modern US LGBTQ movement when a revolt against police by mostly Drag Queens and Trans women finally had enough. While a lot has been achieved since then in the US, just last year on June 12, 2016 49 people where massacred in a Gay bar in Orlando, FL. So it still continues and probably always will in one way or another.
How did Honor 41 come to be?
I started Honor 41 because for me the labeling of “41” was traumatic experience. When I finally heard the story, it healed me because it somehow confirmed I was not alone and also saw myself in history. I wanted to reclaim “41” as a source of pride, educate others about that moment in our Mexican LGBTQ history and I wanted to find ways to honor the legacy of all Latino LGBTQ people who went un-heard and unseen by celebrating the faces, voices and stories of Latino LGBTQ role models throughout the US. Because as Latino LGBTQ members we are not normally represented in mainstream media, gay media and Latino Media, and when we do it’s not in a positive way, I wanted to fill a void that I believe is still missing. In addition, I wanted to help create role models for us as Latino LGBTQ people. I didn’t have those role models growing up and I wanted other generations that follow to see us and potentially look up to us so they too can have a bright future. I think this is why most of the honorees of the 41 List also agree to share their story, to help others because they didn’t have that support.
What is the goal of Honor 41?
The main goal is positive visibility of who we are, what we are about and about our stories. I want us to define who we are and not wait for others to tell our stories. When I launched Honor 41 as a 501c3 in 2013 personal story telling was not as popular as it is today. Our first project “The 41 List” featured the stories of 41 LGBTQ role models in their own voices in a video interview, to date we have 164 interviews and have featured LGBTQ Latinos from 14 different Latin-American countries, the US and with a balanced representation of all of our community. In many ways I feel Honor 41 has helped contribute to the confidence of all of us that our stories matter and we all have a story to tell. Today, with the popularity of social media platforms and more tools to share and captures one’s personal the awareness and increased support of the Latino LGBTQ community is at an all-time high, but mostly in big cities, so there is more to be done.
How is Honor 41 a catalyst for change?
The bravery of 164 Latino LGBTQ role models sharing their personal stories of coming out, family issues, success and pride have helped empower others to share their stories. In addition the “41” selected each year from across the country form a special bond that connects them and has helped usher new partnerships for activism, business ventures and friendships, ones that may not have happened if not for them connecting thru being on the list. The big contribution I didn’t expect was that parents, teachers, siblings, friends and clergy have been watching the videos of these amazing 164 role models and have often commented, thanking us for sharing the stories that now gives them more confidence their LGBTQ kid, student, cousin and friend will be ok.
So today, on the 116th anniversary of the dance of the 41, how can we look to the past to help us pave a better future? How can we create change so that the realities of those who came before us can be heard and taught? I, for one, am grateful for outlets such as Instinct that provide a platform for LGBTQIA individuals to openly share stories, initiate discourse, and join the movement each and every day. Today, this is how I remember those 41.