TRANSGENDERASIA: RESEARCH AND DISCUSSION PAPER
(uploaded 7th April 2008)
SEX-GENDER DIVERSITY: A CROSS CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE
Serena Nanda, Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York
e mail author
…Most of those organizations of personality that seem to us most…abnormal
have been used by different civilizations in the very foundation of their
institutional life. Conversely, the most valued traits of our normal individuals
have been looked on in differently organized cultures as aberrant. Normality,
in short, within a very wide range, is culturally defined….a term for the socially
elaborated segment of human behavior in any culture, and abnormality a term
for the segment that that particular civilization does not use.
(Ruth Benedict, 1934, p. 73-74)
Every society contains individuals who do not fit into the culture’s dominant sex/gender categories - persons born intersexed (hermaphrodites), those who exhibit behavior or desires deemed appropriate for the "opposite" sex/gender, or those who, while conforming outwardly to culturally normative gender roles, experience themselves in conflict with these roles in some fundamental ways. A cross cultural perspective makes it clear that societies organize their thinking about sex, gender, sexuality and gender identity in many different, but perhaps not unlimited ways (see Quinn & Luttrell, 2004). Gender diversity, or gender variation, refers to the fact that cultures have constructed different sex/gender systems, and that these systems deal with these challenges differently.
In this paper, I describe four different sex/gender systems: an alternative sex/gender role in India that is neither man nor woman, but contains elements of both; a man/not man dichotomy in Brazil; changing sex/gender roles in Thailand as influenced by Western psychology and globalization; and the movement toward dissolving the sex/gender binary as part of the transgender movement in the United States. At the conclusion of the paper I describe some cultural contexts, such as religion, ideas about the person, the homosexual/heterosexual divide, and social attitudes, within which sex/gender variation operates, with a view toward provoking a rethinking of our own dominant sex/gender system.
The ethnographic record makes it clear that there is no simple correspondence between sex, sexual orientation, gender role and gender identity and that sex/gender subjective positions, or identities, are also variable. Indeed, a cross cultural perspective problematizes every aspect of sex/gender issues that our own culture takes for granted. Because sex, gender, and sexuality are at the very core of the Western understanding of individual identity, it is not easy to dislodge our thinking about these issues, particularly in the context of our own culture. Examples of sex/gender diversity, of which only a few are included here, challenge our intellectual understandings about what is "natural," normal, and morally right, and also challenge us at deeper, emotional, levels.
The cross cultural record of sex/gender diversity provokes us to reexamine the nature and assumptions of our own sex/gender system: the cultural basis of its categories, the relations between sex/gender and other aspects of culture, and how those who do not fit into our culture’s dominant sex/gender paradigms are defined and treated by society. The cross cultural perspective enables us to think about behavior, attitudes, and perceptions of sex/gender within cultural worlds that are not part of our own experience. This perspective is useful for those who deal professionally with individuals with various forms of sex/gender dysphoria and also for individuals experiencing dsyphoria who are seeking meaning and models for their own experiences that are not satisfactorily addressed by the American binary sex/gender system.
The representation and discourses surrounding sex/gender systems in other cultures have been influenced by European moral ethnocentrism since the earliest encounters between Europeans and other peoples (1). The imposition of European religions, cultures, law, and economies on non-Western societies, in most cases resulted in the marginalization or disappearance of indigenous alternative sex/gender roles (Jacobs, Thomas & Lang, 1997; Lang, 1999; Matzner 2001, pp. l4-15; Roscoe, l995); this has also occurred with the spread of Islam to places like West Africa (Matory, 1994) and Indonesia (Boellstroff, 2005). Currently, however, there is a reemergence of interest in these systems, by ethnographers, by medical and psychological professionals, by sex/gender variant individuals, and in the wider society as part of constructing national identities or a cultural renaissance within the context of modernity.
The global diffusion of cross cultural information and perspectives have had an important impact in modifying sex/gender systems in all cultures. Western medical and psychological sciences, internationally diffused gay and transgender activist agendas and networks, an increasingly global media, international tourism, and the Internet, have all contributed to a broadening of knowledge other cultures and an acknowledgment of the importance of culture as a context for examining and treating individuals in different sex/gender systems (Jackson, 1999; Matzner, 2001; Winter, 2006). This historical and modern globalization means that in all societies today, not one, but several, sex/gender systems--with sources in traditional cultures, colonial cultures, and modern cultural influences--may operate simultaneously. While the sex/gender system of Western culture is influencing other cultures, knowledge of the sex/gender systems of other cultures is also influencing the United States.
This article is an abridged version of my chapter, “Cross-Cultural Issues,” in the Handbook of Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders, edited by David L. Rowland and Luca Incrocci, (John Wiley & Sons, 2008) and also draws on my book, Gender Diversity: Cross Cultural Variations (Waveland Press, 2000). In this abridged version of my article I discuss only two of the many diverse sex/gender systems in the world’s cultures, the hijras of India, among whom I have done fieldwork, and Thailand.
The Hijras: Neither Man Nor Woman: an Alternative Gender Role in India
The hijra, an alternative gender role in India, are culturally conceptualized as neither man nor woman. Multiple sexes and genders are recorded very early in Indian religion and mythology. Many of these were primarily considered to be sexually impotent males, (Zwilling and Sweet, 2000), as is believed true of the hijras today. Hijras are not merely defective males, however, but are culturally institutionalized as an alternative, mixed sex/gender role, neither man nor woman, neither male nor female (Nanda, l999; Reddy, 2005). Their traditional occupation is to collect payment for their performances at weddings and the birth of a male child; today they also perform for the birth of girl children, collect alms from shopkeepers, act as tax collectors, and run for political office. They also are widely known as prostitutes, both in the past and present.
Hijras are “not-men” because they cannot function in the male sexual role and cannot reproduce. Hijras often define themselves as “men who have no (sexual) desire for women,” though they do frequently, perhaps universally, act as anal receptive sexual partners for men, who are not, however, defined as homosexuals. Indeed, although the sex work of hijras is widely, though not universally known and/or acknowledged, hijras are perceived as quite different from other effeminate men or gay men in India (Cohen, 1995; Reddy, 2005, p. 53).
By virtue of their impotence, hijras are “man minus man,” but they are also “man plus woman.” Hijras wear women’s dress, keep their hair long, imitate women’s walk and gestures, voice and facial expressions and language; they take feminine names as part of their gender transformations; and use female kinship terms for their relationships within the hijra community. But although hijras are “like women,” they are also not women; partly because their feminine presentations are perceived as caricatures, but most essentially, because hijras do not have female reproductive organs and cannot bear children. The cultural definition of hijras sketched above does not do justice to their experienced multiplicity of identities (Reddy, 2005). Some hijras self-identify as women; others as hijras, and their life stories, both constructed and factual, reveal many gender identity changes over a lifetime, including those that result from joining and being socialized by the hijra community (Nanda, 1996; Reddy, 2005, p. 91). (2)
In spite of their public presentations as women, two symbolic acts unique to the hijra community immediately identity them as outside the Indian binary sex/gender frame of reference. One is the distinctive hand-clap by which they announce their public presence and the other is the actual or threatened lifting of their saris to expose their genitalia (or lack thereof) as a rebuke to an audience who insults them, either by refusing to pay in response to their demands, or by questioning their authenticity as “true hijras,” implying they are “merely” effeminate homosexuals (Reddy, 2005, p. l36).
The main legitimacy of hijra identity as an alternative sex/gender, both for themselves and their audiences, is found within the religious context of Hinduism (though, in a typically Indian paradox, Islam is also a major context for their identities; Reddy, 2005). Hijras are devotees of Bahuchara Mata, one of the many versions of the Mother Goddess worshiped throughout India. Men who are sexually impotent are called upon by Bahuchara Mata to dress and act like women, and to undergo emasculation. This operation, called nirvan, or rebirth, involves the removal of the penis and testicles and endows hijras with the divine powers of the goddess (shakti). It is as vehicles of the Mata’s divine power that hijras perform at weddings and births, receive alms as servants of the goddess at her temple, and are given alms by shopkeepers and the general public.
Hinduism, unlike Western religions, embraces contradictions without the need to resolve them (O’Flaherty, 1973). PRIVATE Male and female are viewed as natural categories, embodying qualities of both sex and gender, which are in complementary opposition to each other. In spite of the importance of this dichotomy, sex and gender variations, interchanges, and transformations are meaningful and positive themes in Hindu mythology, ritual, and art (Humes, 1996; O'Flaherty, l980). In Hinduism, impotence can be transformed into the power of generativity through the ideal of tapasya, the practice of asceticism, or the renunciation of sex. Tapas, the power that results from ascetic practices and sexual abstinence, becomes an essential feature in the process of creation. Ascetics appear throughout Hindu mythology in procreative roles; of these, Shiva is the greatest creative ascetic. Like Shiva, whose self-emasculation became the source of his creative power, so, too, the hijras, as emasculated men become vehicles for the creative power of the Mother Goddess, and, through her, with Shiva (Hiltelbeitel, l980). Ancient Hindu texts refer to alternative sexes and genders among humans as well as deities, and the Kama Sutra, the classical Hindu manual of love, specifically refers to eunuchs and the particular sexual practices they should engage in. The ancient Hindu depiction of alternative genders among humans and deities is reinforced by the historical role of the eunuch in ancient Hindu, and more particularly, Muslim court culture, which has a 500 year history in India. This historical role has merged with those described in Hindu texts as a source of contemporary hijra identification.
Hijras are viewed with ambivalence in Indian society and are treated with a combination of mockery, fear, and respect. Although hijras have an auspicious presence, they also have an inauspicious potential. The loss of virility the hijras represent is a major source of the fear they inspire. The hijras' power to bless a family with fertility and fortune is joined to their power to curse a family with infertility and misfortune; a hijra who raises her skirt and displays her mutilated genitals is both a source of shame and insult to the audience, as well as a curse by which the hijras contaminate the potentially fertile with a loss of reproductivity.
The cultural anxiety surrounding the hijras draws upon the Hindu concept that eroticism and asceticism both have divine power, yet both can also lead to social chaos. Hijras express this paradox in their bodies and their behavior. As "eunuchs" hijras embody the "cool," ascetic male quality of the renunciation of desire, while in their behavior, they display "hot" uncontrolled feminine sexuality which also makes them "sacred, female, men" (Bradford, l983). Like other ascetics, hijras are thus very much "creatures of the outside," powerful though they may be. As persons who do not marry and renounce family life, hijras are also outside the social roles and relationships of caste and kinship which define the person in Hindu culture and which exercise control over an individual’s behavior. Thus, like other ascetics, hijras are regarded as potential threats to the social order.
But within Hinduism, the concept of karma provides a path for incorporating hijras into the social fabric. Only through marriage and reproduction are Indian men and women granted full personhood and an impotent man or a woman who does not menstruate, is normally considered an incomplete person. Yet the ascetic, or renouncer (of sexuality, among other things), is a meaningful role that transcends conventional sex/gender roles and behaviors. In identifying--and being identified with--the ascetic role, individuals who are “betwixt and between” with regard to their sex and/or gender, can transform their incomplete personhood into the hijra role, which transcends the stigma associated with their sex/gender deficiencies. The Hindu belief in dharma, the view that every individual has his or her own life path that he or she must follow, because every individual has different innate essence, moral qualities, and special abilities, leads to an acceptance in India of many different occupations, behaviors, identities, and personal styles as legitimate life paths. This is particularly so when the behavior is sanctified by tradition, formalized in ritual, and practiced within a group as is true with the hijras (Kakar, l982, p. l63).
Thus, in vivid contrast to the Judeo-Christian religions, which strenuously attempt to resolve, repress, or dismiss as jokes or trivia, sexual contradictions and ambiguities, in India, conscious and unconscious anxieties relating to transgenderism have not given way to a culturally institutionalized phobia or narrowly confined the sex/gender system to an exclusive system of opposites (Kakar, 1982). Hinduism thus affords the individual personality wide latitude in behavior, including that which Euro-American cultures label criminal or pathological and attempt to punish or cure. In accommodating the role of the hijra, traditional Indian mythology, drama, and history provide a context for positive meaning and self-esteem for those with variant sex/gender identities.
Kathoey and Gay: The Changing Sex/Gender System in Thailand
Thailand today is characterized by a complex and multiple system of sex/gender identities, which incorporates traditional cultural meanings, a Western biomedical view, and diffusion of various Western concepts of gay. Ancient Buddhist texts indicate that biological sex, culturally ascribed gender, and sexuality are not clearly distinguished. Traditional Thai origin myths describe three original human sex/genders -- male, female, and kathoey, or hermaphrodite, defined as a third sex, a variant of male or female, having characteristics of both (Jackson, 1997a). Linguistic evidence suggests, however, that kathoey may also have connoted “a person whose gender is different from other males" or a male who acts like a woman, a meaning consistent with the predominant contemporary usage.
The system of three human sexes remained prevalent in Thailand until the mid-twentieth century. At that time, the diffusion of various Western influences resulted in a proliferating variety of alternative or variant sex/gender roles and gender identities, and a fluctuating attitude toward sex/gender diversity, which characterizes contemporary Thailand (Costa and Matzner, 2007; Jackson, 1999; Matzner 2006a; Morris, 1994).
Today, the term kathoey most commonly refers to a “deficient male,” or a male transgender category, that is, a male who breaches biological and/or cultural norms of masculinity (Jackson, 1997b, p.60). Put another way, "a kathoey is [viewed as] a man who appropriates female form [feminine attributes and behavior] without becoming a woman and without ceasing to be a man" (Morris, l994, p. 25). This concept variously refers to hermaphrodites, transvestites, transsexuals, or effeminate homosexual men. Almost all kathoey cross-dress and undergo hormone replacement therapy; most have breast implants, and some also undergo genital reassignment surgery, as well as other surgical procedures to feminize their appearance, for example, reducing their Adam’s apple (Matzner, 2006a). At the same time, somewhat contradictorily, kathoey are still sometimes viewed as "midway" between men and women, or a second kind of woman (Jackson, 1997a, p. 312), a definition that contains cultural traces of the historical Buddhist position. This traditional concept is also reflected in the Royal Institute Thai language dictionary which defines a kathoey as "A person who has both male and female genitals; a person whose mind [ie, psychology] and behavior are the opposite of their sex/gender" which (theoretically) applies to males and females.
In the l950s, a Western, "scientific," biomedical sex/gender discourse was introduced into Thailand. This perpetuated the view within Thai academic circles that kathoey are hermaphrodites: persons whose biological characteristics --sex glands, genitals, and secondary sex characteristics-- combined those of a male and a female to the extent that they could not be clearly assigned to one or the other sex/gender (Jackson, l997b, p.6l).
The role of sexual orientation and sexual practice in identifying the kathoey has also changed. In traditional Thai culture, kathoey sexuality was peripheral to their identity. Indeed, in Thai culture, sexual orientation and sexual practices were not the basis of any personal or social identity, and the modern Western opposition of homosexual/heterosexual as types of persons, did not exist. The influence of Western biomedical discourse, however, led to an emphasis on the feminine attributes of the kathoey, and particularly their sexuality, a view that converged with the Thai understanding of gay in the l970s to the l990s.
Although homoeroticism has long been recognized in Thailand, historically it was not religiously condemned as a sin, criminalized or prosecuted by the state, and no efforts were made to “correct” or “cure” it.” Homoerotic relations between masculine identified men (or between women), called "playing with a friend," were distinguished, however, from sex between a man and a feminine kathoey. These relations were viewed as less stigmatizing than sexual relations between two men because homoeroticism is not a man’s fate, but it is the fate of a kathoey. And, unlike the sexual relationships between a male and a kathoey, relationships between two men were considered inauspicious, resulting in natural disasters, like droughts, being struck dead by lightning, or madness (Jackson, l997b, pp. 63-64).
Until the influence of Western biomedical paradigms in the l950s, distinctive homosexual or heterosexual identities for homoerotic males and females who in other respects adhered to normative masculine and feminine gender roles were not culturally or linguistically noted in Thailand. The weight of the pejorative American pychoanalytical perspective on homosexuality, however, led to the perception in academic circles that homosexuality was a form of pathology. This reinforced the traditional Thai view that the "natural" (biologically based) status of the kathoey had more legitimacy than the homosexuality of gender normative men which was considered "abnormal" or "unnatural." This biomedical approach implicitly continued the Buddhist view that kathoeys were natural phenomena, whose condition was a result of karmic fate, preordained from birth and thus beyond their capacity to alter, a view still largely held by the Thai public. The Buddhist and biomedical paradigms, which share the view that kathoey status is predetermined, in the former case through karma, and in the latter, through genes, had an important effect on Thai social attitudes toward the kathoey.
While in the late l970s, the English term “gay” entered Thai culture as a reference mainly to a cross-dressing or effeminate homosexual male, by the l990s, the Thai image of "gay" became increasingly masculinized. This new “gay” identity again showed cultural traces from an earlier, implicit, subcategory of masculine status: a man who is gender normative in all but his homoerotic preferences. In Thai culture the category “man” could and did accommodate homoerotic preference as simply a variation of masculine sexuality, as long as it remained private. Taking the feminine, receptive sexual role, however, was stigmatized, if publicly known, and defined a man as socially deficient, ranked even lower than a kathoey.
The contemporary category of a masculinized gay identity in Thailand blurs the earlier distinction between "masculine" and "feminine" sexual practices, which are now viewed not as a defining marker of sex/gender identity, but rather as mere personal preferences. Gay men in Thailand now self-identify with a strong masculine body image and a strong preference for male heterosexual partners (Jackson, 1995). This masculine gay identity, which strongly disassociates itself from an imputed feminine status, is well established among educated and middle class, and increasingly among the lower and working classes. A Thai male who dresses, talks, and acts in ways expected of a Thai man, who is not known to take the woman’s role in sexual relations, and who fulfils his social obligations by marrying and fathering a family is honored by being considered a man, even if he has, or has had, male sexual partners.
At the same time, however, that the contemporary meaning of “gay” offers a new, positive, sex/gender identity to Thai men, the Thai academic research establishment continues its attempt to locate the causes of homosexuality and find ways to intervene to prevent its occurrence and even to eliminate it from Thai society. This community (consistent with an earlier Western perspective) criticizes homosexuality as a pathological condition, but also seeks understanding, compassion, and acceptance of the homosexual as an individual, a value more consistent with traditional Thai culture.
Kathoey (sometimes called ladyboys), are now much more thoroughly identified as feminine, with their sexuality (though not that of their sexual partners), as well as their feminine behavior, viewed as central to their identity. While the term kathoey today applies to a wide range of transgendered persons, including effeminate homosexuals, some kathoeys also self-identify as women. Culturally, they have become the “other” against whom gay men construct their masculine identities. The categories of man and kathoey are now polar opposites in the sex/gender system, as a Thai man regards himself as either a man or a kathoey (Jackson 1997a, p. 172).
A kathoey is not a man in dress, speech, or demeanor; he is subordinate to another man in sexual relations; and he rejects the strongly sanctioned expectation that all men other than Buddhist monks should marry and become fathers. Indeed, the stigmatized demasculinized position of the kathoey (who are ritually barred from ordination as Buddhist monks) contrasts to that of the Buddhist monk, who renounces sexuality, but who is considered a type of Thai man (Jackson, 1997a, p. 312). The feminine sexual orientation, speech, behavior, and dress of the kathoey today defines their social and gender identity. In a patriarchal society like Thailand, where women are devalued, this has increased the public stigma attached to the kathoey.
Simultaneously, Thai academic sex/gender discourse attempts to distinguish kathoeys from homosexuals, for example, by linguistically distinguishing "genuine kathoeys" or hermaphrodites, from "false" or "artificial" kathoeys, that is, males who (merely) exhibit cross-gender characteristics and engage in homoerotic practices, and who are sometimes defined as sexual perverts (a perspective also found frequently in India with regard to the hijra). By the l970s and 80s, the categories of transvestites and transsexuals were also distinguished from (biological) hermaphrodites, with only the latter considered true kathoeys. The former began to be viewed as "false" kathoeys, who, like homosexual men, were considered to suffer from a psychological disorder. This distinction, which retains traces of the traditional kathoey as a distinctive intermediate sex/gender category of men born with the mind of a woman, is still sometimes used in the popular media, though it contrasts with the dominant popular view of the kathoey as a male who makes himself up as a woman, or as an alternative category of maleness (Morris, 1994; Jackson, 1997a, p. 312).
Thailand’s changing sex/gender system, in which the meaning of kathoey has changed from biological hermaphrodite to effeminate homosexual, or a "deficient kind of male" has resulted in increasing social and sexual stigmatization and marginalization of kathoeys (Jackson, l997b, p. l7l; 1999). While the ethical principles of Buddhism, along with a generally non-interventionist state, are important factors in the international perception of Thailand as a “tolerant,” and even accommodating place for sex/gender diversity, the most recent research suggests that attitudes toward transgendered persons are far from homogenous, even, or especially, within their families (Costa and Matzner, 2007), and more so for the public – Thai and non-Thai – at large. Despite the popular Western view that transgenderism is “accepted” in Thailand, in fact, kathoey, and other transgendered persons are becoming increasingly constrained by the contemporary Thai state. They are prevented from changing their status legally, must take out passports in their male identities, and as a result of some recent media sensationalism, were for a time prohibited from some occupations, such as teaching (Matzner, 2006b), though the prohibition in regard to teaching was later rescinded. Homosexuality and male transgenderism are both now considered “social problems” by the Thai scientific community, and to some extent, by the state, somewhat negating an earlier view that the aim should be to help kathoeys to live "happy and productive lives in society" through sex change operations and legal reforms that recognized the changed gender status of post-operative transsexuals. With transgenderism now being redefined as a perversion, there has been a rise of anti-kathoey and anti-sex change rhetoric, that now exists alongside older, more tolerant, sympathetic, and noninterventionist discourses; indeed, at one time kathoey were spirit mediums (Winter, 2006; Matzner 2006a; 2006b; 2007).
What partly accounts for the Western view that kathoey and other transgender persons are “accepted” in Thailand is their high visibility. Kathoey are found in all social strata, except at the highest levels of Thai nobility. They live and work openly both in rural and urban areas. Like the waria in Indonesian and the bakla in the Philippines, kathoey are particularly associated with feminine beauty and glamour and widely admired for their feminine grace and elegance. They are well known performers in beauty contests and musical female impersonator revues, both critical sites of the enactment of the kathoey’s non-normative sex/gender role. At the same time, although many kathoeys work at ordinary jobs and run their own businesses, they have the reputation of being sexual libertines, prostitutes, and sometimes crude and vulgar, which is very un-Thai behavior. This contributes to their marginal and generally derided position, even subjecting them to sexual attack.
Current attitudes toward gender diversity in Thailand must be viewed against the core Thai cultural value that how one acts is more important than how one feels. In Thailand, integrating one's diverse public and private personae into a single "identity" or the public expression of one’s “true self” are not strong Thai cultural values, as is true for the United States, and which significantly affects the current movement toward transgenderism (see below). Leading a double life is a generally accepted feature of Thai culture, not necessarily equated with duplicity or deception as in the West. Thus it is not only cultural ideologies of sex/gender diversity that must be considered in understanding the place of that diversity within a society, but an understanding of the whole system of cultural values.
Sex/Gender Diversity Across Cultures
Sex/gender variation exists in many different cultural contexts and takes many different forms. Many societies regard sex/gender variants as merely natural, albeit unusual, phenomena (Geertz l975), while other societies make accommodation for sex/gender variants through the construction of alternative sex/gender roles, some of which I describe earlier (Costa & Matzner 2007; Graham, 2006; Herdt, 1996; 1996a; Lang, 1999; Matzner 2001; Nanda, 1999; 2000). While most recorded alternative gender roles are associated with males, others, like the “sworn virgin” of the Balkans (Gremaux, 1996), the tombois of Indonesia (Blackwood, 1998), the sadhin of India (Humes, 1996; Phillimore, 1991), or the Mohave hwame (Devereux l937) are associated with females. Still others, like the Hawaiian mahu (Matzner, 2001), the Thai kathoey, or the Indonesian bissu (Boellstorff, 2005, p. 38) originally applied to both males and females, though they now refer mainly to feminine males. While anthropological debate continues on whether some of these roles were genuine or autonomous alternative genders (Boellstroff, 2005; Wieringa & Blackwood, l999), roles transcending sex/gender binaries are clearly a widespread cultural phenomenon. While in many contemporary societies, individuals exhibiting non-normative, or transgressive gender behaviors and/or identities, may be treated with ridicule, fear, or disrespect, traditionally such individuals were often believed to have sacred powers and superior skills, and occupied special prestigious social roles.
Sex/gender concepts and roles can only be understood in the context of specific cultures. One of the most significant cultural patterns that shapes a society’s attitudes toward sex/gender variation, is the culturally constructed idea of the person. Thus, while the sex/gender systems of other societies have usefully provided some alternative identifications for transgendered persons in our own society, these identifications can be problematic, as the notion of the person in which they are embedded are not easily transferable.
The existence of identity as the sameness, unity, and persistence of one’s individuality, especially as experienced in self-awareness and behavior, and its relation to gender and sexuality, varies cross culturally. Not all cultures make gender identity as central, as stable, or as unvarying as it is in Western culture (Wekker, l999, p. l20). In many societies gender competes with other identities, such as age, ethnicity, kinship status, and class as a significant basis for self identification and action. As ethnographic researchers increasingly incorporate the individual voices of transgendered persons into their ethnographies, they reveal that the gender identities of such individuals vary from each other; may change over a lifetime; and are associated with different degrees of negatively experienced internal conflict (see for example, Costa & Matzner, 2007; Matzner, 2001; Nanda, 1996; Blackwood, 2004).
In an interesting contrast to the American emphasis on the unity of the self and the importance of the integration of its private and public aspects, in Thailand, the public expression of one’s “true self” is not as valued as it is in the West. This significantly impacts on an individual’s experience of sex/gender dysphoria. “Coming out” as a homosexual in Thailand still brings shame or “loss of face,” without the compensation of the high value on “being oneself” so essential in American culture. A similar point was made by a Filipino bakla living in New York, in expressing a contrast between American and Filipino gay men to ethnographer Martin Manalansan (2003, p. 27):
The Americans are different, darling. Coming out is their drama. When I
was studying at [a New England college] the queens had nothing better to
talk about than coming out. Maybe their families were very cruel. Back home, who
cared? But the whites, my God, shedding tears, leaving the family. The stories
are always so sad.
By itself, a cross cultural perspective will not do away with the trans- and homo-phobia that makes the lives of countless individuals throughout the world so difficult. But it can open our eyes and offer us broader possibilities, and perhaps most importantly, in our own culture, teach us to be cautious about drawing conclusions in regard to the relationship of sex/gender variation and mental health problems. As anthropologists, our task is to continually weave between the particular and the general as we try to understand both the similarities and differences among individuals and among cultures that are part of our common humanity.
Deep thanks to all my colleagues whose field studies of cross cultural sex/gender systems have made such an important contribution to understanding human sex/gender diversity. Special thanks to Jasper Burns and Joan Gregg for their insights and support.
Sam Winter, director of Transgender Asia web site (2006) suggests that treating gender disorders as a mental illness, as in DSM-IV, while useful for Western transsexuals in obtaining medical services, extracts too high a price in substantially contributing to transphobia. Winter perhaps best summarizes the views of contemporary trans- people when he says, “transgender is one aspect of human diversity….It is a difference, not a disorder…If we can speak to any gender identity disorder at all, it is in the inability of many societies to accept the particular gender identity difference we call transgender. It is in this spirit that I write on transgenderism in its cultural context and I thank Sam Winter for his important contributions to this discussion.
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