Author Archives: kgontarc

Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality

In Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality, Wesley Thomas discusses Navajo gender systems, gender adaptations, relationships, and politics of location.

To begin, Thomas explains multiple genders as part of the norm in Navajo culture before the 1890s. Following this time, exposure to pressures from Western culture and the imposition of Christianity caused individuals who deviated from Christians norms to be discrete about their identities. The acculturation and assimilation of the past still cause pressure to persist today.

Navajo culture recognizes five genders:

1. Woman: the primacy gender of the Navajo is asdzaan, meaning woman. The female gender is primary in Navajo origin stories, and it is considered to be the most important gender.

2. Man: the next gender is hastiin (man).

3. Nadleeh: the third gender category is nadleeh/hermaphrodite. Nadleeh is a Navajo term, and hermaphrodite is a Western medical term. Western definitions of hermaphrodites have been applied to Nadleeh. The Navajo view nadleeh as individuals who demonstrate characteristics of the opposite gender. Individuals who identify as nadleeh are further classified as female-bodied nadleeh or male-bodied nadleeh. The third gender category of nadleeh reflects the Navajo tradition of accepting gender diversity and rejecting the concept of gender dysphoria or a dyadic system of gender.

4. Masculine female: the fourth gender category is masculine female, or female-bodied nadleeh. Navajo culture views masculine females separate from other female-bodied people because their role in society is difference from primary gender women. Today, masculine females occupy some roles usually associated with men. Historically, female-boded nadleeh had specific ceremonial roles.

5. Feminine male: the fifth gender is the feminine male, or male-bodied nadleeh. Feminine males identify with gender diversity, and they typically performed work also performed by women.

Navajo culture has adapted ideas from other cultures including the Euro-American concept of gay and lesbian identities. Many young Navajo individuals identify as gay or lesbian and do not connect with traditional cultural concepts such as nadleeh.

Within Navajo tradition, relationships are viewed as gender issues first and sexual issues second. For example, a relationship between a female-bodied nadleeh and a woman or a male-bodied nadleeh and a man are not considered homosexual relationships. However, relationships between two women, two men, two female-bodied nadleeh, or two male-bodied nadleeh are considered homosexual. Navajo cultural constructions maintain how the gender relationship system functions.

The five gender categories described above arrive from an emic understanding of the Navajo gender system. Thomas develops a heuristic device to analyze Navajo cultural from an etic perspective with the creation of five categories that characterize gender diversity across a continuum:

1. Traditional: a traditional individual lives on the reservation matrilocally. They are also usually involved in religious ceremonies, and they are defined on the basis of their occupational position or social role.

2. Transitional: a traditional individual lives on or off the reservation but maintains strong family ties. Transitionists retain some religious beliefs, but they are not as involved in traditional culture. Some transitionists associated with Euro-American gay and lesbian identities. They have more exposure to Western culture, and they have more Western education.

3. Contemporary: a contemporary individual has some or little knowledge of Navajo culture, religious beliefs, and occupational positions. A contemporary individual has some or little connection with reservation life, and he/she identifies with urban gays and lesbians. Some contemporary individuals who identify as gay or lesbian might also identify as two-spirit.

4. Acculturated: an acculturated individual has lived away from the reservation for several generations and has little to no knowledge of Navajo language. However, they are aware of their Navajo tribal heritage.

5. Assimilated: an assimilated individual has lived away from the reservation for several generations and has little to no knowledge of Navajo language. Unlike the acculturated individual, assimilated individuals are not aware of their tribal heritage and do not acknowledge it.

One of the things I found most fascinating about this reading was how it related back to Adrienne Rich’s concept of the politics of location. One’s connection with or proximity to the reservation has a profound effect on how they will navigate the Navajo gender system, is at all. The environment of someone’s location often determines how they negotiate their identity, and one’s negotiation of their identity effects how well they will relate to their immediate surroundings. I found it interesting that the cultural continuum of gender diversity in Navajo tradition influences what can be called situational gender identity. A Navajo-identified person might identify as gay, lesbian, or even two-spirit if they grew up in an urban area, and they would probably refuse a nadleeh identity because they do not relate to that concept of gender identity.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang. “Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality.” In Two-spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality, 156-73. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Paper Dolls Background Information and Follow-up

After watching Paper Dolls, I was interested in learning more about the movie. Specifically, I was interested in how Tommer Heymann decided on documenting the Paper Dolls, and how the experience changed (if it changed) any of his outlooks and views regarding gender, sexuality, and immigration.

Paper Dolls won three awards in the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival: the Panorama Audience Award for a Feature Film, the Manfred-Salzgeber Prize, and the Siegessaule Reader’s Jury Award. Also in 2006, Paper Dolls also won Best Cinematography and Best Music at the Israeli Documentary Film Forum in, the Audience Award at the Pink Apple Film Festival, the International Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and Best Documentary at Cinemanila International Film Festival in Manila, Philippines. In 2007, Paper dolls received the International Jury and Audience Award at the Identities Queer Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 22nd Turin International GLBT Film Festival.

By following some of the award information, I was able to find an interview with Tommer Heymann by AVIVA-Berlin. The interview discusess Heymann’s experiences with the Paper Dolls, his outlooks on their situations, and how he got involved in this project.

He first heard of the Paper Dolls from a friend of his, producer Claudia Levin. She suggested directing a documentary about the Paper Dolls, and Heymann was surprised that he never heard of them. When he first started working with them, he was not completely comfortable. He explains, “I was born and grew up in a village with quite strict roles about how you should behave as a man and how you should behave as a woman. That is why I felt a distance to these men who mixed things up.” He explains that even though he is gay, he was never confronted with the issue of transsexuality. His feelings changed over the course of the documentary, and he says, ” Five years later, I am hugging them, we are having fun together, kissing, I don’t care about the attitude I grew up with anymore.”

The interviewer asks Heymann if he sees the Paper Dolls as men or women, and Heymann replies, “None of them have had an operation. One of them took hormones for a while. When I talk to Sally I see her as a woman, a woman born as a man. To Jan and Cheska I talk more like I would talk to men. But it’s not that important to them. They told me I could see them as masculine if I am more comfortable with it. They just want me to be true. And we didn’t take that too serious, we started to make jokes about that. I think humour is a good way to handle these things.”

The interview goes on to discuss the dangers, prejudice, and injustices of the Israel immigration system, the differences between Filipino and Israel care for the elderly, and follow-up information about the Paper Dolls.

The follow-up information in the interview was limited, so I did some further research. Chiqui, Giorgio, and Jan moved to London, where Chiqui became a head nurse, and Giorgio and Jan continued providing care for elderly individuals. The three performed as the “Paper Dolls from Israel.” Cheska was deported to the Philippines, where she works with her mother. Sally returned to the Philippines to take care of her mother and eventually moved to the United Arab Emirates to work as a hair dresser. On November 19, 2007, she was murdered. Tomer Heymann dedicated the proceeds of the screening to Sally’s family.

For follow up information, see: http://www.docnz.org.nz/newsletters/2007-10.html

For a transcript of the interview, see: http://www.aviva-berlin.de/aviva/content_Kultur_Film.php?id=6175

Paper Dolls

Throughout the semester, we have watched a lot of films pertaining to the topic of gender variance. The films have been especially beneficial because they have contextualized and humanized the topics of this course. It is easy to get wrapped up in the theoretical frameworks and academia surrounding gender variance and forget that we are discussing people. Each of the movies we watched underscored the personal elements and struggles beneath all of that formalistic theory, and they helped established a real-life context for what we learned in our readings and lectures. Of all the films we watched, I think Paper Dolls did this best.

Paper Dolls is a 2006 documentary by Israeli director Tomer Heymann. It explores patterns of global immigration and social tolerance through a group of Filipino transgender individuals who live in Isreal. You get to know Chiqui, Giorgio, Cheska, Jan, and Sally through not only the work they do on stage as the Paper Dolls, a drag performance troupe, but also the work they do as caretakers of the elderly. Chiqui, Giorgio, Cheska, Jan, and Sally all came to Israel from the Philippines seeking greater acceptance toward their sexual and gender identities. While Israel allowed them certain freedoms they did not have at home, it was not without harsh working conditions, prejudice, and the constant threat of deportation.

Since we all watched this film, I’ll stop the plot synopsis there and delve into what I found most interesting about this film. The first thing that struck me about this movie was the director’s emotional involvement with the Paper Dolls. In most documentaries, the filmmaker establishes a distance between him/herself and the subject of the film. In Paper Dolls, the director, Tomer Heymann, allows himself to get involved with the subject. I found this to add a lot of poignancy and intimacy to the film. After doing some research and learning that the film is actually an abbreviation of 5 years and 320 hours of filming, it makes sense that Tomer Heymann would become so entrenched in the lives of the Paper Dolls. If just watching the 80-minute film and the brief glimpses into the lives of the Paper Dolls that it offered made me feel somewhat connected to them and invested in their lives, I would imagine that five years would form an inseparable bond.

I also appreciated how this film touched on many of the topics we discussed regarding transgender immigration and the circle of care. In Paper Dolls, a bomb exploded in the street of an immigrant neighborhood, and the police encouraged residents to seek medical attention, promising them that they would not get deported. This scene brought to light the delicate struggle of being an illegal immigrant and having to chose between your health and where you live.

Another thing, perhaps the most prominent thing, that I enjoyed about this documentary was the resolute graciousness and optimism of the Paper Dolls. Even after bombings, discrimination, exploitation, and mistreatment from their employers, the Paper Dolls remained positive, kind, and respectful. In a scene where one of the Paper Dolls is accused of stealing from her former employer, she calmly reasons her employer’s accusation as a result of his anger about her leaving. Where others would react with resent, she reacted with compassion.

The only complaint I have about Paper Dolls is that it sometimes feels incomplete in its narrative of the Paper Dolls’ lives. This is understandable, of course, since it was originally filmed to be a six-part series on Israel TV. My other complaint, then, is that I don’t know where to find the miniseries! Overall, Paper Dolls is a moving portrayal of the pragmatic, sometimes dichotomous lives of trangender immigrants, and it truly connects the audience with Chiqui, Giorgio, Cheska, Jan, and Sally.

Link Sharing

http://www.ifge.org/index.phtml

This is a link I’d like to share to the International Foundation for Gender Education. The IFGE is a non-profit advocay organizition. It was founded in 1987, and its purpose is to overcome transgender and transsexual intolerance through outreach and education against restrictive gender norms. Merissa Sherrill Lynn, founder of the International Foundation for Gender Education, has written, ” The crossdressing and transsexual phenomena have been an integral part of human experience as long as there has been a human experience. These phenomena have manifested themselves in every society and in every walk of life throughout history, and continue to affect the lives of vast numbers of people. Yet, as common as they are, ignorance of them, and the resulting intolerance and fear, continues to cost good people their happiness, their jobs, their families, and their lives. It costs society its neighbors, its friends, and its productive citizens.”

The International Foundation for Gender Education is linked with Transgender Tapestry, a magazine, by, for, and about “all things trans, including crossdressing, transsexualism, intersexuality, FTM, MTF, butch, femme, drag kings and drag queens, androgyny, female and male impersonation, and more.”

The website is a host of resources, and one can find a resource directory that is organized into categories such as Academic Research, Events, Lobbying/Political Action, Educational Scholarships, Information/Education, and Support by State. There is also a book store where one can buy books about employment, politics, medicine, sociology, religion, and psychology pertaining to gender. The book currently being advertised on the front page of the foudnation’s website is Transgender Workplace Diversity: Policy Tools, Training Issues and Communication Strategies for HR and Legal Professionals, written by Jillian T. Weiss PhD. Dr. Weiss, founder of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute, Editorial Board Member of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, and a former Executive Director for the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, appears on the front page to advertise her book about transgender policy development in human resources.

The website also has announcements, columns, editorials, interviews, letters, and much more. Much of the information dates back to 2008 or later, and there have not been many new updates, but the site is still a valuable resource for anyone looking to learn more about gender education.

Transgender in Thailand, Part 2

These sentiments undercut the idealized notion of Thailand as a trans paradise. The implication of the importance of appearances and proper principles in the development of transgender bathroom facilities undermines the alleged transgender and transsexual tolerance of Thailand. If Thailand truly existed as a trans paradise, then schools and other institutions would recognize a transgender person’s identity as the gender they claim instead of relegating them to separate, transgender restrooms that ignore their agency in identifying as women.

One of the underlying proponents of trans discrimination in Thailand is the belief that one is born transgender as a retribution for sexual transgressions in a past life. This way of thinking enables people to believe that transgender individuals deserve the intolerance they experience. It perpetuates the idea that transgender individuals deserve the low social status they occupy, and it frees people from feeling empathy and compassion. In Thailand, transgender individuals are stereotyped, and their social mobility is limited by low-paying positions. As a result, many transgender individuals turn to prostitution to survive, and the world of sex work exposes them to danger and further discrimination.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission lists more injusticies against transgender individuals in Thailand:

“In 1997, the Rajabhat Institute—a nationwide group of teacher’s colleges—announced that “sexual deviants” would not be enrolled. Although the plan was defeated after public outrage, more subtle forms of discrimination continue in various educational institutions.

In 1999, the Government Public Relations Department issued a memo asking television channels to ban appearances by “sexual deviants.”

During 2005-6, transgender people who showed up for the compulsory military draft had ‘psychosis’ written on their military papers as a reason for their discharge. Prospective employees are legally required to see these papers, and as a consequence many transgender people have been denied job interviews.”

Sources:
Pakdeesiam, Saksit. Thai for Gay Tourists. Bangkok: Paiboon, 2001.
Sereemongkonpol, Pornchai, and Susan Aldous. Ladyboys: The Secret World of Thailand’s Third Gender. Bangkok: Maverick House, 2008.
Rojanaphruk, Pravit. “‘Transgender’ Activist Describes Discrimination'” Nation Multimedia. October 17, 2010. Accessed November 07, 2010. http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2010/10/17/national/Transgender-activist-describes-discrimination-30140247.html.
Sanders, Douglas. “Transgender Rights.” International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. December 14, 2009. Accessed November 10, 2010. http://ilga.org/ilga/en/article/mdO32ZR1AY.

Transgender in Thailand, Part 1

The issue of transgender and transsexual rights and tolerance in Thailand is very nuanced. Western perceptions and Thai reality are in opposition of one another, and the incongruence between how Thai transgender rights are viewed and how transgender rights are carried out only serves to further harm the people caught in the middle. Cross-cultural transgender perspectives are sometimes used by transgender activists and GLBT writers as a means of deconstructing and challenging domestic cultural norms. Evan B. Towle and Lynn M. Morgan explore this idea in Romancing the Transgender Native, Rethinking the Use of the “Third Gender” Concept. They write, “…the cross-cultural perspective provides a welcome alternative to the heavily psychologized, medicalized, and moralistic analysis previously invoked in the West to explain gender variation.” However, the use of ethnographic evidence of gender variance in other countries should not be used to perpetuate the idea that such countries only harbor acceptance and tolerance of transgender and transsexual individuals.

Thailand has been idealized by the West as a paradise for gender variance wherein transgender and transsexual individuals express their gender identity free from ridicule, prejudice, or discrimination. In Thai for Gay Tourists: A Language Guide to the Gay Culture of Thailand, Thai culture is described as “gay-friendly” and accepting of identities and behaviors deviating from what is considered normal.

The media’s focus on Thailand’s “trans-friendly” aspects also paints an unfair picture of the reality of transgender discrimination. In 2008, Kampaeng High School, a high school in Northeast Thailand, became the focus of international attention. The school installed transgender bathroom facilities after a school survey found that 200 of the school’s 2,600 students identified as transgender. Parisarn Likhitpreechakul of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, wrote about the development, “Media reports indicated that the facilities were built to alleviate their students’ discomfort—showcasing Thailand as a country with a unique tolerance for diversity that extends to gender identity issues. But if tolerance means a respect for equality despite difference, then that is definitely not the case here. On the surface, the existence of transgender toilets suggests that Thailand is tolerant of diversity and has recognized a “third sex.” But scratch beneath the surface and it becomes clear that the toilets are just band-aids for a burning issue: transgender inequality.”

Some have argued that transgender bathroom facilities were built to placate female students and maintain positive appearances. Male-to-female transgender students became using female bathroom facilities to avoid harassment, but female-bodied students began complaining about sharing restrooms with transgender individuals. Kampaeng’s new transgender facilities were built, perhaps, first to give female-bodied students their bathrooms back and second to accommodate transgender students.

Kampaeng High School director, Sitthisak Sumontha implied that the transgender restrooms were built for appearances when he said they were to “protect the school’s image” so that the school would not appear to be “lacking principles” if the public were to find out that ladies restrooms were used by both female and male-born individuals.

Politics of My Location, Part 2

My adult life experienced the greatest changes in my politics of location. After living in areas that lacked substantial diversity, I moved on my own to Portland, Oregon. Lauded as a city with a large network of GLBT-friendly businesses, entertainment spots, and events, it fine tuned my understandings of the nuances of sexuality and gender. I realized that both exist along a continuum, and rigid compartmentalization of either sexuality or gender is a futile process.

While living there, I did work with a number of political and GLBT advocacy groups, and I found my interest in macro-level policy work. I worked with agencies that dealt with GLBT homelessness, sexual health program geared toward GLBT teens, and social perceptions of GLBT issues. My work with these agencies solidified my desire to do related work, and I realized that in addition to doing GLBT/sexual health advocacy work, I want to be a sex therapist.

That brought me to Indiana University. I am working toward a Major in Social Work and Minors in Gender Studies and Human Sexuality with the goal of getting an MSW and MEd in Human Sexuality. Bloomington, Indiana, certainly has its own politics of location. Indiana University offers a wide variety of classes in the subjects of gender and sexuality, and Bloomington forms a socially liberal bubble that allows its politics of location to vary drastically from towns just 20 minutes away.

I have found Bloomington to be open and accepting, and I have been impressed with the amount of academic options one has in the study of GLBT issues. Even within the Social Work program, there are separate classes for developmental issues in gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and developmental issues in trans people. I appreciated this distinction because I do not believe a single 16-week course can properly discuss the developmental issues and differences in sexuality and gender identity.

The social and political climate of IU and Bloomington is different than many of the surrounding towns, and I have spoken with many of my friends who have said that they feel more comfortable expressing their sexuality or gender identity here than in nearby towns. Bloomington, Indiana, influences one’s politics of location by offering a relatively accepting space for individuals to practice their sexuality and gender identity openly, free of the auspices of stringent gender roles and normative sexual behavior.