The sex binary is not a ‘Western construct,’ gender identity is

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Among the many incoherent or indefensible arguments made to support the concept of “gender identity” and associated demands for legislative and policy changes, the coopting and misrepresentation of sexual minorities and gender non-conforming people in Eastern and Southern cultures may be one of the most egregious.

Arguments in favour of gender identity ideology often include assertions that the sex binary is a “white supremacist colonialist construct” and that ancient/indigenous/colonized cultures acknowledge and recognize “transgender people.” This is generally accompanied by the claim that this proves “transgender people have existed for thousands of years,” followed by throw away citations of the Indian subcontinent’s Hijras, two-spirit people in Native American cultures, the Fa’afafine of Samoa, or the “ladyboys” of Thailand. According to trans activists, these examples demonstrate that sex is a Western/white supremacist construct, that older cultures recognized the authenticity of “transgender people” and that, therefore, categorizing people only as either male or female is wrong and should be junked (along with legal systems built on such identities).

Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), Western progressives who make these claims do not bother with accuracy nor do they attempt to really understand the people or cultures they use to advance their arguments — these identities and cultural complexities are just convenient tools that serve their political narrative. Their attempts to dump various cultures, identities, and concepts into one postmodern umbrella and force non-Western cultures into a Western context result in cultural identities being erased and misunderstood, while simultaneously accusing others of doing just that.

Native writers carrying out extensive and detailed historical and ethnographic analysis, such as Serena Nandy, author of Neither Man nor Women, the Hijras of India, define the Hijras as “a religious community of men who dress and act like women and whose culture centers on the worship of Bahuchara Mata, one of the many versions of the Mother Goddess worshiped throughout India.” Academics like Sandeep Bakshi, who lectures on postcolonial and queer literature, and Renate Syed, author of numerous academic articles on the Hijras, have pointed out that “transgender,” as we understand it in the West, does not accurately describe the Hijras

In Gender and Violence in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, Syed writes:

“The Wikipedia article on Hijra (South Asia) gives a false definition, stating in its introductory sentence, ‘Hijra is a transgender individual who was assigned male at birth.’ To subsume Hijras under the Western and modern umbrella term of transgender is to deny their cultural specificity and historical singularity, and is contrary to modern Indian legislation…

… Hijra is a term in the languages of North India and has no equivalent in any other language as there is no translation at hand. Hijra is an antonym or endonym, while Western terms describing Hijras is a xenonym or exonyms that do not hit the target and miss the point. The false equivalent of ‘transgender’ cannot describe the Hijra which is thereby lost in translation.”

While “Hijra” is the commonly used term by Westerners attempting to draw parallels, Hijras are sometimes known as Kinnars or Aravanis depending on the region. There are also similar communities, like the Kothis — a heterogenous group described as biological males who show varying degrees of femininity in certain situations, some of whom may have bisexual behaviour and marry women — and the Jogtas, a subset of males who adopt feminine gender roles and do temple work.

Not only are a variety of communities lumped in together as “Hijra,” writers regularly mislabel them as “trans,” “India’s lady boys,” drag queens, a third gender, “India’s third sex,” and a whole host of other English terms that fit Western conceptions of differently-gendered subjects, instead of using accurate descriptions. The Hijra see themselves as “neither man nor woman,” but have been described or classed in wildly different ways by those who study mythology and history of the region, anthropology, religious history, and cultural studies, and use the term “Hijra” to refer to many different groups, including eunuchs, transvestites, people with ambiguous genitalia, or sexually “ambivalent” men who dress up as women. While some Hijras are born with intersex conditions, this is rare. Most are men who undergo voluntary castration and penectomy and consider themselves to be sexually impotent.

The word “Hijra” is derived from an Urdu word, which in colonial times meant something closer to “eunuch” or “hermaphrodite,” though this is an imperfect translation. As a result, they were previously considered to be a kind of “third sex” (when intersex conditions were not well understood).

Because English-speaking writers and Western policy makers have forced Hijras into the postmodern Western framework, the more complex reality has been almost erased.

Syed points out that while Hijras could be described as a “third gender,” this is not the same as transitioning to the “opposite sex.”

“… According to their own theory of being Hijra, they do not represent an intermediate state between man or woman or the state of being both, or androgynous. They are seen as ‘different’ from men and women…

… If Western Academics and activists define Hijras according to the Western two sex model as transgender, transvestite, transsexual, eunuch, homosexual and so on, this can be seen as an example of outlandish discrimination, Eurocentrism, or even mental neocolonialism and cultural imperialism.

Calling Hijras “transgender” is a historical and cultural misunderstanding and imposes modern Western concepts on traditional Asian culture. This approach treats Western history and concepts as absolute and ignores how Hijras define themselves. To subsume Hijras under the modern Western concept of “transgender” denies their history of having a semi-sacred status (they were called upon to bless newborn babies), living in hierarchical communities with their own rituals of induction by gurus, having partially revered status due to their invocation of identification with Goddesses in the land, and dancing in certain ceremonies.

A 2019 paper explores the conflict brought about by the conflation of “transvestites” with terms used by the transgender movement, which notes that the postmodern concept of gender identity finds stiff opposition from those who view themselves as part of the Hijra community. In fact, people belonging to Hijra communities have expressed fear of the modern concept of “transgender,” maintaining that this does not describe their community or identity.

American writers execute intellectual gymnastics trying to fit these identities into the Anglophone framework, using inaccurate and illogical language like “gender assigned at birth,” even while they are forced to recognize that the communities of Hijras, Kothis, Aravanis, etc. do not fit neatly into the category of “trans.” Attempting to interpret these identities through the Western lens inevitably leads them to incorrectly surmise that these groups were adopting some kind of “gender identity,” rather than engaging in alternative presentations, sexual activities, and body modification.

More than just a cultural affront and another example of young progressive activists picking up a concept they don’t understand and misrepresenting it for their own purposes, this distortion has far more egregious consequences. First: Indian children born with intersex conditions or ambiguous genitalia, in communities with less understanding of sexual development disorders, are unceremoniously dumped and absorbed into this amorphous third category, separated from their families, and raised as a “third sex,” much to the dismay of intersex rights activists, and in violation of children’s rights. This, despite the fact that current medical science is generally able to determine the sex of babies with intersex conditions. Second, these communities include men who undergo voluntary castration, men who behave and present in feminine ways, and homosexual men. In cultures where aggressive, macho masculinity is prized above all in men and boys, these identities serve to absorb all the men who don’t “fit” — particularly effeminate gay men. Misrepresenting and romanticizing these identities results in a social climate where important nuances are lost or buried in service of the larger transgender movement.

There is undoubtedly a problem of self-definition when these communities struggle to align with legal systems that use English or Romanic terms, and to translate words they use for gender and sex (these cultures don’t recognize “gender” as a distinct concept, separate from “sex”). Attempting to collapse these communities into the Western concept of  “gender identity” or “transgender” compounds the problem. While these communities deserve full legal and social protection, they do not support or demonstrate a need to reject sex as a legal category or associated rights.

Activists in anglophone countries have not only misrepresented the Hijras. They toss around the “two-spirit” people among Native Americans as “examples” to support their narrative, failing to acknowledge that the “two-spirit” concept refers to movement between gender roles, and not identities. As usual, young progressives have mangled the uniquely cultural concept of “two-spirit” people to demonstrate that “trans people exist so our arguments for the destruction of sex as a political category are valid.”

The same goes for the oft-distorted concept of the “third gender” in Samoa. In an extremely ironic twist, while hordes of young self-styled progressives deplatform and silence women who point out that biological sex is real and matters, people from the cultures they cite in their defence are vehemently opposed to the excesses of trans activism’s demands. Samoan PM Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi criticized the decision to allow Laurel Hubbard, a trans-identified male, to compete in the women’s 87 kg and over weightlifting category at the Pacific Games. The PM of course recognizes the Fa’afafine in Samoa, but told the Samoa Observer he was shocked when he heard, saying, “This Fa’afafine or man should have never been allowed by the Pacific Games Council president to lift with the women.”

“Fa’afafine” translates as “in the manner of a woman.” The Fa’afafine are Samoan biological males who behave in a range of feminine-gendered ways, and have been an integrated part of Samoan communities for centuries. There may be equivalent identities for females who adopt masculine social roles in Pacific cultures, but evidence is scarce. Personal accounts show that the Fa’afafine “identity” is mostly about taking on the tasks of women or acting feminine, not necessarily bodily modification or castration, like the Hijra. Western terms don’t adequately describe them and there is a translation gap between “female,” as a sexed term in English, and as a gendered term in other cultures and languages.

The same, regrettable pattern exists in English language discourse, with reference to the “ladyboys” of Thailand, particularly in online writing such as travel blogs, who are then used by Western trans activists and allies as “proof” that categorization by sex is a Western colonialist concept. In Thailand, where the term transgender is seldom used, the so-called “ladyboys” already have a name: “Kathoey,” which originally referred to hermaphrodites. Literature in peer-reviewed sources, like Marie-Theres Claes’ article, “Kathoeys of Thailand: A Diversity Case in International Business,” published in the International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities and Nations, do not support Western conflations, though, and clarify that the term “Kathoey’”is one that “gathers male-to-female trans-sexual people, as well as effeminate men, under its cover.” The authors of Ladyboys: The Secret World of Thailand’s Third Gender explain, “Kathoeys are biological men who have been born with distinctly female hearts and minds. Some choose to have their anatomy ‘corrected’ whilst others are content to dress in women’s clothing or simply give free reign to their effeminate mannerisms.” Kathoey can be found in all walks of life and occupations throughout the country, but are heavily represented in the sex industry. They gained visibility in mainstream society on account of Thailand’s popularity as a destination for sex-change surgeries, where they have been performed since 1972. The Kathoey are not viewed literally as women, but as “phet thi-sam” — a “third sex.”

The current use of “transgender” is purely an Anglophone phenomenon, as is clear from the articles and sources that use the term transgender. While simultaneously acknowledging that the “Kathoey” is used to define intersex people and those born with ambiguous genitalia, but then was expanded to include “effeminate men” and male-to-female transsexual people, Western writers and English-language writers will refer to the Kathoey as “transgender, even in Thai publications. But “transgender,” as understood in terms of “gender identity,” was never the concept at play in these Asian cultures. Instead, a complex mix of people born with intersex conditions, effeminate men, and predominantly male-to-female transsexuals have been recast, and their history distorted, in service of a narrative that relies on a nebulous sense of internal feelings for legal identity, unprecedented in cultures that were gender/sexually diverse.

Beyond coopting and misrepresenting Asian communities and indigenous cultures, anglicized narratives also distort the Aboriginal sistergirls and brotherboys of Australia, the complexity of their identity lost within the framework of Western concepts. Sistergirls describe themselves as being born biologically male, but are observed to behave in feminine ways, and so surrounding society treats them as having to fulfill the roles and tasks of girls and women, performing women’s dancing, ceremony, and other tasks. Personal accounts reveal that they live in the role of women, hunting, sitting, and talking with women. While their identity more closely tracks the current concept of “transgender” than the Hijras and Kathoey, they do not challenge the existence of the sex binary and categorization. Instead, sistergirls and brotherboys say they move into the roles of women and men, an acknowledgment by them of the sex binary that modern trans activism denies.

Undoubtedly, various gender non-conforming communities have existed in older cultures. But these identities are complex and shifting. Some include people with intersex conditions, highly effeminate men, and biological males who underwent a form of body modification to become transsexual (like Hijras and Kathoey), typically treated as a “third sex.” Others include people born male or female, who take on the social roles, mannerisms, and dressing habits of the opposite sex (the Sistergirls, Fa’fafine, and two-spirit people, for example), but do not claim to actually be the opposite sex. English written descriptions switch between gender and sex descriptors due to gaps in translation, but a thorough study reveals the groups merely adopt opposite sex roles, clothes, or mannerisms, and describe this as “living as a woman.”

Western trans activists and their supposedly anti-imperialist allies use these communities to score cheap political points, arguing that the “sex binary” is a colonial construct. The communities they reference did not intend to claim females did not exist or that men could literally be female. The incoherent ideology of “gender identity” and its attendant legal and social implications should not be forced onto other cultures, certainly not with the effect of harming women and girls.

If anything, it is the Westerncentric notions forced onto other cultures that are “colonial.” Academics, writers, and trans activists might be better off looking at their own ideologies, and seeking coherency in those, rather than altering non-Western cultures and histories to suit their desires and political purposes.

L. Beatrice is a feminist lawyer from the South of India who specialised in international human rights law and with particular expertise in laws and procedures against sexual violence. You can follow her on twitter @beacebets

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