The word muxe is thought to derive from the 16th century Spanish word for "woman", mujer.
Muxe may be vestidas (transvestites) or pintadas (wearing male clothes and make-up). It has been suggested that while the three gender system predates Spanish colonization, the phenomenon of muxe dressing as women is fairly recent, beginning in the 1950s and gaining popularity until nearly all of the younger generation of muxe today are vestidas.
Within contemporary Zapotec culture, reports vary as to their social status. Muxe in village communites may not be disparaged, while in larger towns they may face some discrimination, especially from men. Muxe generally belong to the poorer classes of society. Gender variance and same-sex desire in wealthier communities of the region are more likely to follow a more western taxonomy of gay, bisexual and transgender. Such individuals are also more likely to remain in "the closet".
In an article published in 1995, anthropologist Beverly Chiñas explains that in the Zapotec culture, "the idea of choosing gender or of sexual orientation is as ludicrous as suggesting that one can choose one's skin color. Most people traditionally view their gender as something God has given them (whether man, woman, or muxe), and few muxe desire genital surgery.
Lynn Stephen writes: "Muxe men are not referred to as “homosexuals” but constitute a separate category based on gender attributes. People perceive them as having the physical bodies of men but different aesthetic, work, and social skills from most men. They may have some attributes of women or combine those of men and women." If they do choose men as sexual partners, neither are those men (known as mayate) necessarily considered homosexual.