Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.1 (2001) 122-126
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Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices across Cultures
Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices across Cultures. Edited by Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Pp. xvii + 348. $52.00 (cloth); $18.50 (paper).
This collection makes a major contribution to sexuality studies, addressing a still-neglected area. Evelyn Blackwood's involvement as coeditor is no surprise, as she may be said to have initiated the study of female same-sex or "lesbian" relations in anthropology, with her M.A. thesis, her article in Signs, and a much-cited essay in her earlier edited collection,1 all produced in the mid-1980s. Fourteen years later, the present collection reaches far beyond the usual matrix of homosexual research--Europe, the U.S., and Latin America--to Africa, Afro-Surinam, Tahiti, Indonesia, and Malaysia. While there are some pedestrian essays, most are illuminating and many are important theoretically. [End Page 122]
The Introduction provides an overview of previous work on nonconforming female sex/gender identities, emphasizing the limitations of such inherited categories as "homosexual" and "lesbian." Rightly insisting on the need for formal ethnographic research, the editors warn that to assume that only natives can speak of their own societies "is another form of essentializing" (p. 6). However, I wish that the long discussion of the problematics of labeling had more consistently maintained the distinction between labels emergent from the society under study and those employed by analysts. The sooner we move to descriptors emerging from our research, the sooner we will develop a mature science of sex/gender. This rationale underlies the editors' choice of "female same-sex" rather than "lesbian" in their title and discussion.
My comments on the articles are organized in terms of their shared structural features, rather than their sequence in the collection. Gita Thadani employs Hindu sacred texts to argue for a historic evolution from the independent goddesses of pre-Vedic times, with their suggestions of same-sex sexuality, to later demonization of goddesses as threats to male dominance. It is interesting that Ayurvedic texts conceive of homosexuality as cross-gendered, as have many other societies prior to the rise of modern gay identities.
Sabine Lang's discussion of Native American variant-gendered females compares traditional identities and roles with those of the modern "two-spirit." Traversing a minefield of emotional investment and romantic reconstruction, Lang, the foremost authority in this area, notes that traditional cross-gendered individuals sometimes (but not always) cross- dressed and sometimes (but not always) had supernatural roles, but usually because those roles were appropriate to the gender of choice and were not specifically delegated to third-gender individuals.2 Though most were "heterogenderal," they generally manifested a greater range of sexual relations than are tolerated today. A clear division of labor was the ground from which cross-gendered occupational choices emerged. In contrast, modern two-spirits put emphasis on a spiritual identity believed to be innate, rather than on cross-gendered roles. "[T]he self-identity of present-day two-spirit people is shaped by a variety of factors" (p. 91), including Western accounts of traditional roles, the homophobia of the modern reservation, and contact with urban gay/lesbian communities and ideologies. This is a superb, nuanced, honest yet respectful treatment of a complex and sensitive topic.
Also addressing transgenders is Deborah Elliston's paper on the Tahitian mahu. The female form of the mahu has been shaped by changing [End Page 123] concepts of sex/gender variance, under the impact of French culture and transnational gay/lesbian notions. This complex scene is analyzed by Elliston through the variety of terms, both Tahitian and borrowed, that designate these people. As in native North America, mahu have sexual relations with individuals of the same sex but of normative gender, though there is individual variation in sexual histories. Similarly, mahu status, which is tolerated, is seen as emerging naturally in childhood and is expressed through...