In the article Romancing the Transgender Native Evan Towle and Lynn Morgan examine the global representations of the “Third Gender” concept and provide criticisms for the use of “Third Gender” in comparing non-Western gender norms to that of Western societies. In addition to this they explain some of the most recent critiques of using the broad term “Third Gender” to describe culturally different groups of individuals.
In order to understand this article you must first understand the idea of a “Third Gender.” The term “Third Gender” closely resembles the American term transgender and is define by dictionary.com as a person appearing or attempting to be a member of the opposite sex. Scholars and transgendered individuals writing articles about the “Third Gender” are commonly referring to Non-Western cultures with a three part gender system in comparison to Western society’s gender binary. Some of the most popular “Third Genders” written about include the hijras of South Asia, the berache Native Americans, and the Brazilian transvestis. In this blog I will explain the roles of these individuals in their cultures and conclude by explaining the arguments made by Towle and Morgan as to why comparing these cultures understanding of gender to our own Western understanding of gender is illogical.
The hijras of South Asia are castrated men who don’t identify as male or female by Western culture’s understanding. These biological males dress and perform the same traditional gender roles which are given to the women of their culture. They are believed to have a religious calling from God. In this instance the hijras’ castration is seen as a rebirth and entrance into a new gender. There are many different religious ceremonies which they perform, one of which is the blessing of babies.
The berache, often referred to as “Two-Spirit People,” are found in certain Native American cultures and are also classified as “Third Gender” people. These individuals are men who take on female gender roles and sexuality. In many instances they are thought to be not male, not female, but completely in the middle of both. The berache often become a “Third Gender”person by self-recognition at a very young age. These individuals are seen as nurturers in society and known to cure others.
Travestis, living in South Asia, are also biological males who perform traditionally female gender roles and have sexual intercourse with men. These individuals often dress in women’s apparel, but insist that they are not women and keep their male genitals.
These are three of the key non-Western cultures that have “Third Gender” people. Often these groups of people are used in American literature to contrast Western culture’s binary gender system and develop an argument expressing the openness and acceptance that the individuals in these other countries have. Authors of such articles are often quick to avoid the flaws in such systems and only see them as an ideal utopian world.
Because of the utopian world set up by the authors of many scholarly articles regarding the “Third Gender” the authors of this article responded by providing a list of critiques.
- By categorizing all people not identifying as male or female into one category you lose the diversity. This in turn “simplifies the description” of each culture and further oppresses them.
- By using the “Third Gender” as a means for classifying people it begins to pigeonhole and allow for “prejudge” a culture.
- Gender is determined by culture. The idea of gender cannot be changed by acts of will, but only through social actions.
In an age when scholars and non academics are looking to the “Third Gender” as a way to explain the presence of transgendered individuals in the Western society we need to begin questioning why we need justification in the first place.