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March 2, 2007

Blending genders By Katrina Fox.

Filed under: — Tman @ 8:37 am

The transgender liberation movement in the West came into its own in the 1990s, but other cultures have their own take on sex and gender diversity, writes Katrina Fox.
Blending genders
By Katrina Fox.
6/06/2007 6:44:15 PM

The transgender liberation movement in the West came into its own in the 1990s, but other cultures have their own take on sex and gender diversity, writes Katrina Fox.

From ancient Greek cults to Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism and even early Christianity, the concept of transcending or blending gender has been around for centuries. In the West, the German-born sexologist Dr Harry Benjamin coined the term ‘transsexualism’ in 1966 to describe individuals who were born biologically one sex but believed they were the other (such as a woman ‘trapped’ in a man’s body and vice versa).

Transsexualism was subsequently hijacked by the medical profession and deemed a pathology, for which the solution was to undergo psychiatric assessment, take hormones and eventually have genital realignment surgery. Transsexuals were required to comply with stereotypical dress codes and behaviours attributed to their opposite gender, and under no circumstances were they allowed a sexual orientation outside that of strictly heterosexual.

Enter the 1990s and the birth of the ‘transgender’ and ‘genderqueer’ movements, in which a plethora of sex and gender identities emerged. Some people identified as having no sex or gender, some considered themselves male and female, and others claimed they were a ‘third’ or ‘other’ gender.

Such concepts of third, fourth and more genders are not new to non-western cultures, however.

Marjorie Anne Napewastewin-Schutzer is Sihasapa, Lakota, a Native American who hails from the Blackfoot tribe of the Sioux Nation. Addressing a conference of professionals working in the field of transsexualism in 1996, she offered some interesting insights into her culture’s perspective on gender.

“As a gender-crosser, as a transsexual person in Lakota society, we are known as ‘Winkte’,” she said. “My people call me ‘two-souls-person’. As Winkte I have always been an important personage in my society. Culturally, socially and religiously we function as a social adhesive, offering continuity and the promise of our continued existence as a people. We were never a threat to a rigid, polarised and discriminating sexual structure. That is to say, not before the coming of the white man’s priests and their confused and narrow view of the manner of things. The ‘third gender’ solution snakes into the past and connects with Native American societal structure from thousands of years ago. Our societies and our cultures existed, functioned quite well, yes even flourished, long before the Europeans ever thought of challenging the ‘monsters’ which lived in their tears and which swam in the middle of the Atlantic!”

In a number of Native American tribes, this cultural institution of bestowing a special gender status on males preferring to do women’s work and adopting what is considered ‘feminine’ behaviour, and vice versa, used to be referred to as ‘berdache’. However, because of its etymology – the Arab word ‘bardaj’ meaning ‘prostitute’ – it was rejected by Native Americans and replaced with ‘two-spirit people’. Descriptors such as ‘Winkte’ vary according to the different tribes and cultures.

As Napewastewin-Schutzer points out, two-spirit people are welcomed in Native American culture, with children often identified as such from an early age when they show interest in work activities that are traditionally associated with the ‘opposite’ sex. At this time, they are reclassified by members of their community into a ‘third’ or ‘other’ gender.

A similar occurrence takes place in Samoa, where some boys are brought up as girls. Known as the fa’afafine, they too are identified at a young age because of their propensity for ‘feminine’ tasks. Unlike Western cultures which associate ‘feminine’ or ‘effeminate’ behaviour of men with sexuality, both the Native Americans and Samoans place the focus squarely on labour. It is the influence of the West, however, that has led to some fa’afafine who move out of their village to don make-up and flamboyant female attire.

“One of my informants stated that before Western contact, fa’afafine were simply ‘feminine boys’, but exposure to Western movies taught them, and presumably women as well, that clothing, make-up and appearance in general could be used as a more definitive signifier of gender,” says Johanna Schmidt in her 2001 paper, Redefining Fa’afafine: Western Discourses and the Construction of Transgenderism in Samoa.

This Western influence has attracted negative consequences, in that it has created a level of homophobia in Samoa which did not previously exist, according to Schmidt. “Concepts of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ have not really been relevant in Samoa in the past, and there is no specific Samoan term for ‘homosexual’,” she says.

Over in Thailand, the ‘kathoey’ or ‘lady boys’ are a major tourist attraction. Yet while they are revered in some parts of the country, they also face discrimination and hostility from their families. Writing in a new book, Male Bodies Women’s Souls, a number of transgendered Thai students lament the shame they feel they bring on their parents by being a kathoey – or the more polite and preferred term ‘sao braphet song’ – as well as how difficult it is for them to find love.

“There can be no true love between sao braphet song and men,” says ‘Lara’. “Even if he loves us, one day he must go back to his previous group … he probably cannot endure the opinions of those around him.”

The word ‘kathoey’ isn’t easily translated into Western concepts of transgenderism, since it can refer to a variety of ‘non-traditional males’, from gay men through to what would be called transsexuals in the West. This also holds true for the ‘bakla’ in the Philippines, something that 33-year-old Linda Montana believes is a positive thing.

“All this ‘trans this’, ‘trans that’ can be confusing,” Montana, who migrated to Australia from the Philippines 20 years ago as a “13-year-old boy”, says. “I refuse to label myself because I see myself as a person, and I’d rather be referred to as a someone not a something.”

Even as a young child, Montana identified more with a female gender identity. “I went to a Catholic boys’ school and it just didn’t feel right,” she explains. “I was made to do basketball, which is a masculine sport in the Philippines, and I hated it, so I gravitated towards volleyball which is synonymous with a girls’ sport. For as long as I could remember, I’ve been closer to girls than boys.”

While discrimination occurs in both Buddhist Thailand and the Catholic Philippines, Montana believes Filipino culture is open-minded towards diversity. “I remember as a child, every year there was a parade, and all the entrants were beautiful women but when you had a closer look, they were transgender,” she recalls. “They were these glamorous creatures, and I knew that I was leaning that way.”

In India, and some parts of Pakistan exists a group of people known as the hijra. Recognised as a third gender since recorded history and clearly acknowledged in Vedic culture, throughout Hinduism and in the courts of Islamic rulers, the hijra live in groups related to their own Gharana (family).

Girish Kumar is director of the Humsafar Trust in Mumbai, a gender, sexuality, health and equal rights organisation for men who have sex with men and the transgender, cross-dressing and hijra communities – and a former hijra.

“A hijra belongs to either one of the seven Gharanas: Block-waale, Lashkar-waale, Bhendibazaar-waale, Chakla-waale, Laalan-waale, Pune-waale and Dongri-waale,” he tells SX.

“The ultimate authority of each Gharana is the person called Nayak, who cannot be questioned or challenged by any hijras. Nayaks have the ultimate say in any disputes arising within the hijra communities. Gurus are the senior hijras who accept the junior hijras as their ‘chelas’. Some of the Gurus serve as representatives of the Nayak in different areas or cities. Gurus under a particular Gharana are usually of equal rank, though age and wealth may also determine the status of a particular Guru. The Guru is respectfully considered as a mother-in-law and is supposed to take care of all the needs of their respective chelas.”

While some hijras are born intersex (with male and female reproductive or genital organs), others undergo genital modification which involves the removal of the penis, testicles and scrotum in a religious ritual (hijras are commonly known in English as ‘eunuchs’). This is not the case for all hijras, though, with many not undergoing such emasculation procedures.

The hijras wear colourful clothes, make-up and jewellery and earn their living in three ways: Mangti (asking for alms), Pun (commercial sex work), and Badai (dancing and blessing at happy occasions, such as marriage or a child’s birth ceremony). Most people will give the hijras a fee at such events, for fear that the hijras will curse them.

Although the hijras live and dress as females, they don’t generally try to pass as women – unlike their Western transsexual counterparts.

Estimated numbers of hijras vary from 50,000 to 5 million in India alone, and feelings towards them from the general community are mixed. Many hijras face discrimination in housing, education and employment, while others are liked and even revered – one such case being Shabnam Mausi, who became India’s first hijra MP in 1999, and whose story was documented in the Bollywood musical of the same name.

In the West, modern-day gender warriors are fighting for their right to legally exist outside the male/female gender binary. They are demanding to be granted documentation recognising them as ‘other’. They are petitioning the government, employers and organisations to include an extra box next to the ‘M’ and ‘F’ for them to tick when asked about their gender identity. They are forging new and exciting frontiers in gender territory.

Or maybe they’re not so new.

As Napewastewin-Schutzer reminds us: “The remote in time or distance is always strange. The familiar present is always natural and a matter of course. Beyond the narrow range of our horizon, imagination creates a new world, but as we advance in any direction, or as we go back over forgotten paths, we find ever a continuity and succession. The human race is one in thought and action.

“In Lakota we say ‘mitakuye oyasin’ (we are all related). The systems of our highest modern civilisation have their counterparts among all the nations, and their chain of parallels stretches backward, link by link, until we find their origin and interpretation in the customs and rites of our own barbarian ancestors, or of our still existing aboriginal tribes. There is nothing new under the sun.”

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~ Ecstatic

What becomes of the serpent when Adam becomes Eve?
Is your secret desire to realize what you believe?
Is the vision of yourself the you you long to be?
Have you the courage to create your own reality?

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