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Romancing the Transgender Native
Rethinking the Use of the "Third Gender" Concept
This essay offers a critical examination of how "third gender" concepts are used in popular American writing by and about transgendered people. Over the past decade there has been an increase in the popular use of cross-cultural examples to provide legitimacy to transgender movements in the United States. Descriptions of the "transgender native" are often drawn from ethnographic portrayals of gender variation written by anthropologists for American audiences. Introductory anthropology textbooks commonly cite the hijra of India, the berdache of native North America, the xanith of the Arabian peninsula, the female husbands of western Africa, and the Sambia (a pseudonym) boys of Papua New Guinea who engage in "semen transactions." 1 Such examples are often glossed together under the "third gender" rubric.
"Third gender" roles and practices were once regarded by most Western readers as exotica, with little relevance to our "modern" societies. These days, however, anthropological accounts of "third gender" variation are used frequently by popular writers such as Kate Bornstein and Leslie Feinberg, and by contributors to periodicals such as Transgender Tapestry and Transsexual News Telegraph, to buttress the argument that Western binary gender systems are neither universal nor innate. Paradoxically, this rise in popularity comes just when some anthropologists are finding serious fault with the "third gender" concept. 2 This essay explores its appeal as well as recent critiques of it. We illustrate the critiques with excerpts taken from several popular academic and nonacademic works whose authors write about transgender theories and experiences, and we point out some of the analytic paradoxes, contradictions, and dangers inherent in invoking the transgender native. [End Page 469]
We come to this discussion from anthropological experience as well as from personal transsexual experience. As the self-conscious subjects of our own inquiry into how anthropologists and trans-identified individuals alike use transgender-native models, we are ultimately invested in ensuring careful, responsible representation of individuals outside our culture. We are simultaneously committed to supporting transgender/transsexual scholarship, representation, and activism. If a common complaint among trans individuals is that their lives and identities are violated and misrepresented for the goals of scholarship, then it behooves us to make sure that we do not commit the same offense against others for the goal of political advancement.
Although our examples are drawn from popular, widely read texts about transgenderism, our purpose is not to criticize the authors' intentions or even the products of those intentions. We understand that these texts rise to popularity because they are immeasurably helpful and meaningful to many readers searching for support and guidance. They carry weight because they inform not only the trans individuals themselves but also their therapists, doctors, family members, partners, and coworkers. One text that we discuss briefly, True Selves, is commended in numerous glowing reviews, such as the following:
I've read a number of books describing transsexualism, hoping to find the right one to give to people as I tell them about my own transition. When I read this one, I knew this was it, and I told my parents about myself within the week. They have since told me that this book was essential to their understanding of my condition. I believe the authors have provided an invaluable resource for anyone whose life is touched by knowing a transsexual person. 3
Twenty-seven similar reviews on Amazon.com, as of this writing, attest to the book's value to its wide readership. Our goal in this essay is to facilitate constructive critical inquiry into how we imagine ourselves and the place and time in which we live. In the process, we ask about the ramifications of such inquiry for the cultures considered to offer positive gender models as well as for the cultures (especially our own) implicated in the critiques.
Disagreements among anthropologists about using "third gender" concepts...