Today I’d like to continue the discussion of how transgender terminology and colonialism intersect by focusing on who’s usually focused on and who’s ignored in this conversation, and how Westerners tend to describe unfamiliar gender and sexuality identities. Again, I’ll try to tackle the issue of “authentic” versus “Western” language to describe gender, and in particular how those of us in the Global North who write about global transgender identities can be responsible journalists.
I want to first return to the example of Polynesian societies, particularly Samoa, because these are the cultures that kept coming up as I first studied global ideas of homosexuality and transgender identity in legal and historical sources. Polynesian societies are frequently used as the starring example for the idea that homosexuality is not a Western invention, because European explorers stumbled upon these societies and found that there were respected members of the society practicing homosexuality.
The texts I’ve read that are critical of this “discovery” focus on the context of what the explorers were seeing–acts might be interpreted as homosexual when they aren’t read that way in the culture being studied, they might only occur in a specific context such as a coming-of-age ritual, or they might be misunderstood because the observer is using a Western gender/sexuality framework. Similar arguments are applied to the interpretation of a particular identity as “transgender,” taken out of context, and I’ve tended to support those arguments.
Is it fair, though, to assume that people who are born into “male” bodies and live in a unique third gender role in their society would not identify as MTF transgender women if they had that option in their culture? And when globalization does spread the concept of MTF transgender identity to a particular society, isn’t there a danger that those who identify as MTF will unfairly be misgendered by well-meaning scholars obsessed with a kind of exoticized understanding of third-gender identity?
There is no doubt in my mind that cultural context matters. And perhaps it is irrelevant whether someone is “really” female or third-gender out of context–individuals find an identity authentic to them based on how gender is understood where they live their lives. Though colonization is a terrible thing, it is a reality, and it looks a lot like re-colonization for white outsiders to try to define a colonized person’s gender identity according to some culturally “authentic” standard rather than allowing that person to identify with a Western model.
This idea of exoticizing unfamiliar identities and trying to preserve them is not only culturally appropriative but also makes a statement about gender. Historically, the observers of these cultures have been male, and even now there is a distinct flavor of the male gaze to stories about Samoan fa’afafine, Hawaii’an mahu, Maori fa’afafine, and Tongan fakaleiti. As with stories on kathoeys or hijras, the gaze of the journalist and of the consumer is clearly turned towards the female-attired brown body. Photos accompanying stories about third-gender people tend to show “male”-bodied individuals in brightly colored traditional garb, posed either as a victim or in celebration. Noteably absent from these photos, and from the stories about third gender, are those born into a “female” body. Is this because “female” bodied third gender or transgender identities don’t exist in these cultures, or because they tend to be ignored by outside observers?
A big element of seeking global gender justice is recognizing the different meanings that gender can have in an individual’s life, from how gender helps us form community ties to its meaning in the world of work or family to how it shapes our behaviors and personalities. We can’t fight for equality without understanding the meaning of gender, and we have to recognize that no one observer in one cultural setting can understand that meaning in every other setting. But what can we do? And how can we write about gender, particularly third gender or transgender identities, in other cultures without taking on this tone of appropriation or exoticizing unfamiliar cultures?
Of course, the cardinal rule is to rely on the exact language of those about whom we’re writing whenever possible. I’ve been frustrated by a lack of this in the American media when I read stories about non-binary supermodel Andrej Pejic, who will often self-define as neither male nor female in one sentence, and then in the next a journalist is saying that Pejic is a transgender woman, or more offensively, “dude looks like a lady.” But I need to challenge myself to apply the same inquiry to my own writing about gender identities in cultures with which I’m unfamiliar–rather than analyzing the meaning of gender in a society, it’s better to present whatever first-hand accounts are available and rely on those individuals’ interpretations rather than my own as observer. It is important to recognize and sit with the discomfort of not knowing everything, because even in this information age, it is not our inherent right to know and be able to interpret everything we observe.
Beyond this cardinal rule, it’s important that we both avoid talking about unfamiliar gender identities as exotic or strange and at the same time respect their specific cultural meaning and don’t try to appropriate. Often, an observer will describe a particular group in glowing and/or Othering terms, positioning that group as both completely unlike anything the reader has seen and sometimes better or more authentic than more familiar genders or sexualities. This is likely to lead to a desire to appropriate a “better” gender or even to self-identification as that gender by those outside the culture.
I find it very frustrating when white US Americans identify as “two-spirit” after reading about that identity in Native American cultures and deciding that their gender identity most closely maps to the “two-spirit” concept. Of course, this is particularly common when a society reveres a particular gender group, and the outside observer is struggling with misgendering or disrespect in their own society. But culturally specific identities aren’t just there for the taking. As Alex Su’a explains in the quote I used yesterday, the requirements for identification as a fa’afafine include not only being “born as a man,” feeling female, and being sexually attracted to men, but also being Samoan and being proud of one’s fa’afafine identity. These culturally specific requirements are important and shouldn’t be ignored by those writing about fa’afafine or other groups.
At the same time, it is important to recognize the common thread of humanity between all of us, and not to Other gender groups as exotic spectacles. Part of the desire to appropriate a foreign identity may be a misunderstanding of one’s gender in one’s own society, but this doesn’t mean one’s own identity isn’t valid or doesn’t exist. Third gender or third sex identities exist everywhere. The growth of the term “genderqueer” in modern English attests to this. Similarly, the desire of some members of traditionally “third” sex or gender groups to transition MTF shows that gender is not limited to what is culturally recognized. While the cultural terminology and the cultural meaning of what it is to be a particular gender may be specific, the existence of gender difference is universal.
Do you identify as one of the identities I’ve described in these posts, or as another minority gender in your culture? Do you have feedback on how those of us who write about transgender identity could do better? Please leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you and continue this conversation.