Whenever I write about transgender people and understandings of gender and sexuality around the world, I tend to criticize those who tack Western terms on to other understandings of gender. But could I be going too far in the other direction? Are kathoeys, fa’afafine, two-spirits, hijras, and other culture-specific gender identities unique to their cultures, or is there just one spectrum of transgender identity that’s understood in different ways in different cultures? How much do discrimination and negative aspects of culture play into those specific identities? I’ll be exploring those questions for the next two days.
In 2011, fa’afafine in American Samoa made the news when a fa’afafine player led the American Samoan football (soccer) team to its first victory on the international stage. The New York Times wrote a story on the player, Johnny Saelua, referring to fa’afafine as “biological males who identify themselves as a third sex in Polynesian culture.” To its credit, the Times then immediately cited the definition of a fa’afafine leader: “To be fa’afafine you have to be Samoan, born a man, feel you are a woman, be sexually attracted to males and, importantly, proud to be called and labeled fa’afafine,” according to Alex Su’a, head of the Samoa Fa’afafine Society. In my next post, I’ll talk a little bit more about the interpretation of colonizers and historians regarding Polynesian gender and sexuality identities, but suffice it to say the fa’afafine are one of the groups a history student is most likely to encounter when researching sexuality around the world, and that student is unlikely to encounter a definition like Su’a’s.
Of course, fa’afafine are not the only group that gets a lot of voyeuristic attention from Western press from time to time. Thai kathoeys were also in the spotlight last year, when PC Air announced plans to hire kathoey flight attendants. I wrote about kathoeys for the Tsk Task: Stigma, Shame, and Sexuality series last September here at GAB, and I very carefully did not refer to kathoeys as women, transgender people, MTF, or other Western terms. However, many articles about kathoeys do use the word transgender, and some kathoeys describe themselves in terms like “woman born in a boy’s body.” There is a risk of paternalism in suggesting that these terms are merely Western imports mapped onto a distinct cultural experience, as the right to self-determination is not mutually exclusive of the ability to find oneself in foreign terminology. As we say time and time again in the queer movement, someone’s identity is whatever they say it is.
Hijras are perhaps the most well-known group when it comes to non-Western cultural understandings of transgender identity. There’s a lot that’s problematic about Indian culture’s treatment of the hijra. Like kathoeys, hijras are frequently sex workers, often discriminated against not only by wider society but by their own families, and denied the opportunity to live a full and meaningful life. On the other hand, some hijras describe a rich, vibrant community and, like Western queers, speak of the importance of sisterhood and chosen family. It is impossible to divorce Western academic writing or journalism about hijra identity from a distinctly colonial gaze or the role of sex tourism.
Obviously, a big part of the problem here is the Western gaze–that much of what those of us who are educated in the West and speak English primarily learn about other cultures’ understandings of gender are filtered through the words of American, European, or Australian historians, anthropologists, NGO workers, journalists, lawyers, and others. There is always a danger of exoticizing other cultures, of over-simplifying cultural understandings of gender, or of painting an exaggerated positive picture.
The following first-hand accounts are still problematic as the quotations are chosen by Western journalists and translated into English in some cases, but they give a basic understanding of some of the gender identities in question:
“I always felt like a girl. My parents were conservative but I did not want to play a double role for long. I became a hijra when I was about 17. I was castrated in Bombay.” —Priya, Indian hijra
“Many times strangers have called me a hijra without even knowing what this means. People in India are insensitive and jump to conclusions easily. At times people ask me when this happened to me. How should I explain them that I have always been this way? I was a woman born in a man’s body. People think it’s a conscious choice you make to draw attention to yourself, but the reality is completely different. I am a transgender as I identify myself solely as a woman despite having a male body. The day I will opt for a sex change surgery I will become a transsexual. It will be a million steps closer to being a complete woman as my body will be aligned with my soul and my desires.” —Maria Mehra, Indian transgender woman
“When I was young, my parents looked at me and the way I am…and they think, Oh Hazy, she must be not a boy, but something else. And then, they never accuse me…they really accept me. They understand what I am, in my body. I think there’s a little bit difference between fa’afafine here in Samoa and overseas, because here the fa’afafine can help the mother [by] doing the same job… and they can do the men’s job as well. I think that’s why the fa’afafine here are so popular, because they are hard working people.” —Hazy Pau Talauati, Samoan fa’afafine
They need to know about what kind of people we are and … because some people, they, I think they don’t really understand the kind of people that we are. Only our family, that, they know us. But some of the people, they just really don’t understand us. They think, some of them, they think that we are sick people or something like that, you know, it’s a disease, but I can tell you, in my view, you know, I don’t have a disease in me or anything like that. I was born like this. Right from when I was young, I was like this. When I grow up, I just … my brain, I think my brain works as a woman’s brain, you know, not a man’s. —an anonymous 50-something fa’afafine
“My mother is Maori and dad a Cook Islander. Because of my family connection, I identify as Takataapui (gay and Maori) as well as Akava’ine (gay and Rarotongan).” —Rua’ine, a health promoter in New Zealand who also identifies as a “queen”
When I read these first-hand accounts, I’m reminded of how much gender is determined by culture. Whether transgender identity is described as a third gender or a transition from one gender to another, whether transgender people are stereotyped as workers or healers or sex workers, how gender identity relates to sexuality, are all questions rooted in a cultural framework. It’s impossible to know what impact the colonial export of transgender terminology has had on different countries, and maybe it doesn’t matter, as it is an individual’s experience within the present context that is most important to that person’s welfare. Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that all of these examples are people born into “male” bodies, which I’ll address in my next post in the context of the colonial (paternal) gaze.
Tomorrow, I’ll continue this discussion with some thoughts on non-binary identity, cultural appropriation in the context of academic and popular writing, and the Catch 22 of a (not yet) post colonial world.