Hi Constance: This came across the transom today, and I found it fascinating! Clearly, the phenomenon of gender variations has been extant as long as gender. I am quite interested in reading of how this has been lived out socially in other times and places, cultures and spaced.
I hope you find it enlightening as well.
Going beyond the Western gender binary – unlearning our backward cultural conditioning
In Western colonial society (which dominates many aspects of the globalized, capitalist world today) we operate under the presumption that there are only two genders, male and female. But gender is a social construction. One’s options for what gender they identify with are shaped by the culture they are born into. Biological factors are most-often the primary driving forces that choose among the available socially-constructed gender categories.
Cultures around the world have different ways of talking about, thinking about, and identifying gender. It’s often a challenge for (particularly cis-sexual) Westerns to think about other ways gender can be socially constructed. Westerns have the false equivalency of gender and sex drilled into their eternal psyche from the time they are very young, and re-enforced through examples in popular culture. There is no biological reality to gender. Many Westerners have the bizarre belief that one’s XY-sex-determination should also inform one’s gender identity, a socially constructed role in society.
In some cultures, there is no distinction made between gender and sexual orientation and the same can be said for sexual orientation – our culture socially-constructs the options and our biology helps us identify which socially-constructed option feels most ‘right’ and best resonates with us.
I’ve attached some photos to offer some examples of non-colonial, non-Western construction of gender. They’ve all been uploaded onto our Facebook page photostream in case you’d like to ‘like’ or ‘share’ them there. There are literally hundreds of ‘third-gender’ identifying peoples around the world. The eight I’ve chosen are mostly examples I remember from some of my anthropology courses but if you google ‘third genders’ you can find many lists and examples.
Who cares? Why it matters.
The most obvious reason to care about the way our culture has constructed gender and sexual orientation is to deepen one’s capacity for solidarity with people who identify as transgender, transsexual, and others whose gender or sexual identity exists outside of binary Western culture.
But there are other reasons as well. Western culture’s binary nature often creates non-sensical, problematic binary identity constructions that are inherently problematic. For example, I believe that Western masculinity (dominance, aggression, lack of communication, lack of emotional expression, etc) is inherently problematic. I believe that to be the reason why most acts of large-scale-violence and terror are committed by men (see: 100% of the mass school shootings in the United States), and I believe it fosters a degree of internal misery within people who heavily adopt these particular ‘masculine’ traits.
In the age of information, and the age of global connectivity, there is no longer any reason (particularly for young people) to feel isolated or restricted to Western definitions of gender, sexual orientation and identity in general. I think the social ramifications of a generation where more and more people begin to identify outside of the gender binary would be tremendous, and I think we should all consider how we can unlearn our cultural conditioning to embrace other, perhaps less exploitative and dominating identities.
Background information on the identities depicted in the above images:
Hijras are male-body-born, feminine-gender-identifying people who live in South Asia (mostly in India & Nepal). Many Hijras live in well-defined, organized, all-Hijra communities, led by a guru.
Although many Hijras identify as Muslim, many practice a form of syncretism that draws on multiple religions; seeing themselves to be neither men nor women, Hijras practice rituals for both men and women.
Hijras belong to a special caste. They are usually devotees of the mother goddess Bahuchara Mata, Lord Shiva, or both.
Nandi female husbands
Among the Nandi in Western Kenya, one social identity option for women is to become a female husband, and thus a man in society’s eyes. Female husbands are expected to become men and take on all of the social and cultural responsibilities of a man, including finding a wife to marry and passing on property to the next generation through marriage. Female husbands may have lived their lives as women and may even be married to a man, but once she becomes a female-husband, she is expected to be a man. Women married to female-husbands may have sex with single men uninterested in commitment in order to become pregnant, but the female-husband (who is often an older woman, often a widow) will father the child of said pregnancy and treat the child like her own.
Two-Spirit is an umbrella term sometimes used for what was once commonly known as ‘berdaches’, Indigenous North Americans who fulfill one of many mixed gender roles found traditionally among many Native Americans and Canadian First Nations communities. The term usually indicates a person whose body simultaneously manifests both a masculine and a feminine spirit. Male and female two-spirits have been “documented in over 130 tribes, in every region of North America.”
In South America (with a large presence in Brazil), a travesti is a person who was assigned male at birth who has a feminine gender identity and is primarily sexually attracted to masculine men. Therefore, sometimes the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation is not made. Travestis have been described as a third gender, but not all see themselves this way. Travestis often will begin taking female hormones and injecting silicone to enlargen their backsides as boys and continue the process into womanhood.
The work of cultural Anthropologist Don Kulick (a gay male by Western definitions) in Brazil demonstrated that gender construction in Brazil is binary (like Western gender construction), but unlike Western gender construction, instead of having a male-female binary, there is a male-notmale binary.
In this particular construction of gender:
** Males include: men who have sex with women, men who have sex with Travestis but are never on the receiving end of anal sex, men who have sex with men but are never on the receiving end of anal sex.
** Not-males include: women, men who receive anal sex from ‘male’ gay men or from Travestis.
Fa’afafine are the gender liminal, or third-gendered people of Samoa. A recognized and integral part of traditional Samoan culture, fa’afafine, born biologically male, embody both male and female gender traits. Their gendered behavior typically ranges from extravagantly feminine to mundanely masculine
Waria is a traditional third general role found in modern Indonesia. Additionally, the Bugis culture of Sulawesi (one of the four larger Sunda Islands of Indonesia) has been described as having three sexes (male, female and intersex) as well as five genders with distinct social roles.
Six Genders of old Israel
In the old Kingdom of Israel (1020–931 BCE) there were six officially recognized genders:
Androgynos: both male and female
Tumtum: gender neutral/without definite gender
Aylonit: female-to-male transgender people
Saris: male-to-female transgender people (often inaccurately translated as “eunuch”)
Australian scholar of sexual politics in Thailand Peter Jackson’s work indicates that the term “kathoey” was used in pre-modern times to refer to intersexual people, and that the usage changed in the middle of the twentieth century to cover cross-dressing males, to create what is now a gender identity unique to Thailand. Thailand also has three identities related to female-bodied people: Tom, Dee, and heterosexual woman.
EDIT: So let me clearly say that in no way am I intentionally encouraging white people (or anyone else) to appropriate these identities. Rather, I hope that this post and conversations like this will lead to an understanding of cultural diversity and other gender constructions/identities and an understanding that there is no biological reality to gender, and that gender manifests itself in many beautiful ways across many cultures.
I AM encouraging people in colonial society to have a less-binary, more nuanced approach to gender that doesn’t lead to so much domination and exploitation.
I also understand that in order to talk about these things, words like ‘male-bodied’ or male are inherently western concepts. Each of these societies and cultures have other ways of talking about these identities. Although I wasn’t born in the U.S. I have spent most of my life and the entirety of my adult life in the United States. I speak no languages other than English. There are concepts that I can’t understand, that my language limits me from even talking about, and in order to communicate these ideas, I am restricted by the only language I have available to talk about these concepts with. My perspective is etic. I do not belong to the above cultures, so when I talk about these things and use the English language to describe them, I am limited in my options for describing a concept as abstract as gender. The very categories of gender and sexuality belong to the cultural lens through which I view the world and I could not possibly provide a comprehensive emic analysis of the way the things we call ‘gender and sexuality’ actually are understood (if at all) within these cultures. In that way, mine is a very limited perspective. But it is geared toward other people living in Western society and it is aimed at changing this culture, not to appropriate these others but to not be so terrible toward gender and sexual variant people in this culture and to begin to question the implications of how we define gender and sexuality both personally, and as a whole culture.
Also, there’s some problematic stuff in the way I framed this and some of these only have one source.
This thoughtful and informative article jumped to the fore when I saw it…recent encounters have featured the bandying about of this term “Political Correctness”, and the brandishing of it as a weapon of online aggression.
I encourage you all to read this article and try very hard to get past knee jerk reactions to things not liked or preferred, and then attempt to connect with people who may be a bit different than what you know or who you know.
all was hushed and quiet, so still
that the fiercely beaten air fanned by that
ruby throated hummingbird became a hurricane.
her breath was fast and furious
in crimson jeweled puffs darting,
diving streaky panting gasps,
her wings whirring, fluttering frantic
roaring in the looming silence,
in my towering still moment
me so quiet here, so settled and so solid
that Nia-gara Herself would whimper
and under her breath would mumble
terse and choked, reduced to churny tumble.
then a solitary cricket
just erupted into singing
and then nothing dared to stir
dared draw breath or dared to move…
in this space of cricket clamour,
in the hurricane of hummingbird winds blowing
but so far away on lost lamenting shores
(in the edges, in the edges)
and an instant comes, arrives
when a wave is born and rises up
no longer sea but now itself
and knowing time and longing
to emerge and run forever
to the moon and to the shore…
this kinetic stillness stretches
in this intersecting moment
touching time and touching timeless
from the whirring wings aflutter
and the cricket in the gutter
and Niagara’s jealous mutter
to this wave leapt up from clutter
hanging on that crucifix there
not yet broken by its futile try
to fly across the endless sky
to kiss the moon and touch
her golden placid face…
the moment…the wave
no more sea from which it heaved
but not yet broken and unbalanced,
not yet shattered on the edges
not yet fractured there forever
to be that wave again…
that one moment of moon passion
and that rushing exaltation
(in the eye, in the song, in the mutter of this matter)
and then the moment shatters
and foretells a falling future
and the wave loses its option
has no way to retain wholeness
and just slide back unobtrusive
to the silver sea unbroken
there to merge again with nothing
and the hummingbird is stricken
in the sound and in the breaking
of a moment and a wave
in a hurricane of movement
midst the singing of the cricket
and the mutter of that falls
and it darts away, is gone,
trailing airy sangre breaths
and the cricket falls asleep
and Niagara is emboldened
to again assert Her tumble
and the hurricane is gone,
yes the moment it has broken
and the Voice of God has spoken
in the quiet, in the mist.
but for me, well moments still
string together into prayer beads
slipping smoothly thru my fingers
as I mutter like Niagara
and I sing the cricket song
with my hurricane-heart flutter,
wings a-beating with such longing
for another rising moment
to arrive and to break over me
in knowing soft moon passion
and a promise of redemption
and release to finally rise
and fly away, my spirit panting
in red puffs and exaltation
when I reach the shore so broken
I can be no more there broken…
until then, well I will live,
midst the whirring,
in the singing
thru the muttering
in the breaking
on the shores
of Golden Morning.
Posted without comment, on advice from my bff and my baby.
Constance, please read this…please hear hearts