International Gender Bending

As I’m living out of a backpack these days, I frequently find myself appearing in public in a less than desirable state: faded harem pants, no makeup and slightly dirty hair. And since I’m toddling around Thailand in this harried states, it’s hard not to to be intimidated by the overwhelming hotness of Thai ladies. Those giant eyes! That shiny hair! Those tiny limbs!And sometimes the Thai ladies that are so much cuter than me? They’re not even really ladies.

You’ve probably heard about Thai “lady boys” – commonly held to be “the most convincing drag queens on the planet.” But it’s not nearly that cut and dry; in Thai culture Kathoey (that’s the Thai word used for these gorgeous creatures) are actually a third gender.

Whaaaat? Yes.

A lot of cultures outside the western world actually accept the idea that gender is a social construct and that, sometimes, a person can’t be stuffed into the cubbyhole of “male” or “female.”

Thailand – Kathoey (“Ladyboys”)

There are famous Kathoey singers, actresses and models and foreigners (myself very much included) flock to Kathoey cabaret shows. Men who date Kathoey aren’t considered gay, though marriage between a Kathoey and a man isn’t allowed, since Kathoey are legally considered to be male and gay marriage isn’t legal in Thailand.

Samoa – Fa’afafine

If a Samoan parent recognizes effeminate traits in their young son, they’ll raise the child as a girl – a Fa’afafine. Fa’afafines are considered to be a third gender, totally separate from men and women. They are known for their hard work and devotion to family. They can marry and date both men and women.Afghanistan – Bacha Posh

In families with no sons, one daughter is occasionally dressed and treated as a boy. When acting as a boy, it’s easier for the Bacha Posh to attend school, escort her sisters in public places and find work. However, once she enters puberty, the Bacha Posh is usually expected to return to female life. Bacha Poshes frequently find it difficult to readjust to constraints of traditional life as a woman.

India – Hijra

Hijras aren’t easy to define by Western gender standards – some see themselves as a third gender, some as women, some as feminine males. Unlike Ladyboys, Hijra aren’t usually concerned with “passing” as women. Men who date Hijras aren’t consider gay, though these relationships are usually secret.What do you think – is gender a social construct? How traditionally ‘feminine’ (or ‘masculine’) are you? I’ve got some traditionally masculine qualities (I’m decisive, gutsy, not incredibly emotional) and some traditionally feminine traits (I love pretty things, I’m quite intuitive and I love to dress my cat in vests)

27 Comments

Anonymous

If I recall correctly – which I may not do – There is a well known anthropological tract regarding the third gender in Oman.
Here there are both Men, women and a third gender – males who act as females, often these are younger men who work as prostitutes before returning to full 'male' life.

The really interesting thing is that not only do third gendes exist, but that there exists the ability to travel between the varying options. In the case above this is possible as gender is decided not on the physical attributes of an individual, but by the actions of the individual. In short, in a sexual manner; men penetrate, women are pentetrated, and the third gender is both penetrated and capable of penetrating. It is posited that females could equally be argued to be males through this route.

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Anonymous

This is actually a very interesting subject, wich I didn't know much about, specially the third gender definition… But I must admit all I see here are men trying to pretend to be women and vise versa. They can call it whatever they want!!
But really interesting thank you. 🙂

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Kiri

Gender's absolutely a social construct. Sex isn't, that's genetic, but gender can be messed with to whatever extend people want.

I generally identify as female, but I've cross dressed before now and been able to pass as male. In fact, doing door-to-door fundraising a couple of years ago, wearing our 'uniform' which consisted of a t-shirt with the charity's name on it, which was about 4 sizes to big, I was regularly mistaken for a boy, not that I minded.

Plus I work in theatre which is still a fairly male dominated industry, especially the rigging side of things.

I love that you've brought all this up though. I find the idea of a socially recognised third gender fascinating, and something I wish western cultures were more accepting of.

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Anna Raffaella

This is fascinating, I had no idea there were all these third gender options in so many different places… wow. Thanks!

Now to the serious question, sex isn't a social construct – like an above commenter said, it's genetic. Nevertheless, the traits and attitudes associated with sex are merely social. If a man wears something frilly he is considered efeminate, and yet we forget the old times when men were supposed to dress in flashier ways than women.

That's probably why I find the idea of a third gender extremely liberating. These people don't have to live according to any misconceptions or stereotypes associated with either men or women and that's amazing! What if these men actually feel like women? They should have the right to act as such. Personally, I accept gender benders as a third sex and I believe more people should too. We have no right, as a society, to interfere with the way people see themselves. 🙂

xx

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Beth

This is really interesting. I love hearing about things which make me stop and realise that the Western view of the world is not the only way of looking at things.

Personally I think I am a very feminine person, the things that I enjoy and the way I act are pretty stereotypically female. I can imagine that had I been born with a male body, but the same 'me' inside, it would be very difficult to conform to a male role, I think I would be miserable. So I am all for people who are brave enough to break out of the role that their body dictates and just be who they are.

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LynnieBee

Wow, this is fascinating, I had no idea! A very dear friend of mine is a genetic female, but lives her daily life as a male and also performs as a Drag King (female performing as a male). I also agree that gender is by and large a social construct.

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nova

I've also heard about the Ojibwe "berdache" or "two-spirit" people, but unfortunately all I can find is a Wikipedia article…everything else seems to be leading me to pornography, haha.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-spirit

From what I understand, they believe that a masculine and feminine spirit can be housed in one body. These guys seemed to get all the cool jobs like healer and fortune teller (?).
The Wiki page has a bunch more information, you should check it out!

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Katie, Interrobangs Anonymous

The museum work I do has focused on the American Indian "two-spirit" idea that nova mentioned above. The Lakota call it "Winktes," and the Navajo call it "Nadleeh." Many other tribes have names for the third gender.

What I appreciate is how that gender is seen as being necessary to the culture. Sadly, Western attitudes towards sexuality have strongly permeated many of these cultures, and being two-spirited is not honored and respected the way it once was. The movie "Two Spirits" is a sad but beautiful look at this change, focused on a boy who was killed for who he was.

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Erica

Wow, such a fascinating post! I knew about a few of these cultural gender norms but it's so interesting to see how different societies interpret and incorporate different points along the gender spectrum. And then, how rigid gender roles can be in western cultures. Thanks for the share!

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Kelly

I worked in a school in South Auckland where Fa'afafines were prevalent. It's really interesting (and something the Pakeha culture could learn from) that they are just seen as normal and are accepted by the families. They are what they are and that's okay. Obviously, this doesn't happen in all families but a lot of them are very accepting.

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michelle

gender absolutely is socially created. i've grown to dislike the ideas of gender norms and gender roles. i've never fit perfectly in my feminine role so i don't have expectations of anyone else

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Luinae

I love the idea of a third gender, and I think it's really wonderful, because it provides people more than one place to go in life. Personally, I'm cisgender (someone who is comfortable with the sex they were born into), but the opportunity to be something else is amazing.

And gender (& gender roles) are 100% socially constructed.

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Mylittlefetish

Coming from someone who identifies (In the US even!) as Gender Queer, Queer (and generally outside the norm anyway), yes, gender is a social construct. It is ingrained in most of us from a very young age what "boy" or "girl" is supposed to be even if it's not what fits us as individuals.

Your story also hits on another (SEPARATE) aspect of this..that sexuality (i.e. WHO your attracted to) is based on the gender construct and if your gay or not…not so. There are 3 aspects…Sex, Gender, and Sexual orientation (read here: http://gayteens.about.com/od/glbtbasicsforteens/f/sexsogender.htm) NONE of the 3 are as stuck on the binary as most in the Western world are raised to believe.

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leannebehrns

This is such an interesting post – it definitely gives me more to think about. It's interesting that in some cases, the children don't even get to decide their gender – the family chooses it for them.

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Anonymous

I have girl parts (physical sex female) and I dress as a girl and I use the women's restroom and I date men, but I'm not a girl (socially constructed gender). I'm just me. Not many opportunities for expressing that kind of gender alternative in the USA. Gender=n/a.

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SnapandPrint

I loved this post. It was freshing to read about how other cultures treat people who do not fit gender roles in a huge way. It is strange we live in western society and some of the eastern countries and asian countries are a lot more tolerant of this section of humanity. The US has a lot of catching up to do in so many ways.

Me, I am a very "girly" tomboy. I love dressing up, jewelry, fashion, men, love stories, romance, and make-up yet I am decisive, have trouble wrapping my mind around women who act gender role specific, get annoyed when treated as a "lesser, stupid, sex" by men, have a lot of boyish interest (sci fi, comic books, ect), and can get annoyed with too much "girly talk." "Look a my nail colour. Isn't it gorgeous?" or "Do you think John really really likes me? I mean really likes me?" type stuff. Ick.

Some, old-fashioned, men see me as feminist but I see myself as a lover of humans being treated with respect, manners, and decent human compassion. I see myself as very female and men as men. I just think there are not specific "gender role" lines that are written in stone.

Yet another great post by you!

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Anonymous

In some ancient Native American cultures, when children reached a certain age they were taken to a sacred space for their coming-of-age ritual and allowed to choose female garments or male garments without regard to their anatomy.

Some scholars believe that the Mayans had many gender classifications. They also revered a hermaphroditic god, among many.

It is not all that uncommon for a society to create space for people who are not easily classified. Unfortunately western culture seems hell-bent on strict classifications regarding sex and gender.

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Teleri

Very interesting post.. I didn't know about this "third gender" thing, but somehow I think I like it. As a child and in my youth I so much wanted to be a boy instead of a girl. I wore pants exclusivly, played only with boys and was delighted when someone mistook me for a boy (which happened regularly). The problem was that the boys didn't really accept me and the girls just thought I was crazy and.. different. Later they asked me frequently if I was lesbian or something and it was not in a nice tone.. Now I'm quite happy as a woman but there are times and moments that make me furious about this whole "you can't do that, you're a woman!"-thing..

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Between Laundry Days

This is a fabulous point, and an issue worth considering. I won't repeat what many commenters have already said, but it's important to note that while gender is absolutely subjective, non-binary, and flexible, so are the categorizations that define each gender. What one culture or person calls "feminine" may not be to someone else, and the same goes for supposed traits of "masculinity". So while dressing your cat in vests (yay!) may be something that only women (and AWESOME women) might do in the US in the 21st century, there may be a whole culture of male vest-cat-dressers in some other period of history or geography, making your "feminine" trait decidedly "masculine" as well. Remember that it is society that defines the genders, and society that creates the categories. When it comes down to it, there may not be anything "girly" or anything "macho" at all, just those things that we deem to be that way.

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Sarah Von Bargen

Between Laundry Days,

I think that's a *great* point! In the 1950s, enjoying cooking would have been considered 'feminine' but now it's a totally gender-neutral hobby.

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Tiara

I'd be careful about saying that the third gender thing is liberating. In cultures that have a "third gender" -like the ones in this post – there are still plenty of expectations and stereotypes heaped onto gender roles; they just happen to have more than two defined roles. People like hijra and kathoey still face immense discrimination, prejudice, and exotification in their countries and elsewhere.

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