The Downfall of “Third Gender”

In Romancing the Transgender Native:  Rethinking the Use of the “Third Gender” Concept, Evan Towle and Lynn Morgan describe how popular American writing problematically romanticizes “third-gender” acceptance in non-Western cultures (667).  By looking at “successful” cross-cultural experiences elsewhere, people often try to advance imagined transgender movements within their own Euro-American contexts.  This envisioned ideal of the “third gender” native is not without flaws.  First, the experiences of the hijra of India, the berdache of indigenous North America, and the Sambia boys of Papua New Guinea—just to name a few—often end up getting lumped together to form a singular “third gender” status.  This ultimately fails to recognize the complexity/diversity and culturally specific experiences of non-Western gender categories.  Additionally, adding-on a “third gender” category doesn’t disrupt or dismantle the current binary gender system.  Instead, it allows for the categories of  “male” and “female” to go largely untouched and unquestioned. Furthermore, while Western writers often praise the non-West for their concept of the “third gender,” they often present the non-West as static and having culture, while the West as dynamic and having history.  This then paints a strained power relationship between the West as superior to the inferior non-West.  Clearly, the idea of “third gender” is really messy—a part of me wants to stand up and support it because it is trying to expand the current gender system in some shape and form.  However, after reading Towle and Morgan’s article, I simply can’t (at least as it’s being utilized now), because it is highly flawed and helping to reaffirm (rather than challenge) binary gender categories further.  So, what can we do to become a more gender-equal and neutral world – perhaps radically deconstructing the existing gender binary is the solution?

I found an article on Sweden, which appears to be one of the more progressive and radical countries in the fight for gender-neutrality.  (Obviously, the methods used here are historically and culturally specific and can’t transfer over into other places.  However, I think it’s good food for thought.)  In recent years, Sweden has been challenging traditional gender ideals and stereotypes by creating more legally recognized unisex names, removing gendered sections in clothing departments, and pushing for more gender-fluid magazines (i.e. boy models pushing pink strollers or girl models riding tractors).  Additionally, many preschools have banished gendered pronouns, like “boys” and “girls,” and instead refer to the children either by their first names or as “buddies.”  Last year, Sweden also added a gender-neutral pronoun, “hen,” into their National Encyclopedia, which has been used in children’s books and lifestyle magazines.  The article explains how one preschool adapted to the new agenda for gender-neturality:

At Christmastime, the Egalia staff rewrote a traditional song as “hen bakes cakes all day long.” When pupils play house, they are encouraged to include “mommy, daddy, child” in their imaginary families, as well as “daddy, daddy, child”; “mommy, mommy, child”; “daddy, daddy, sister, aunty, child”; or any other modern combination.  [I wonder if the “any other modern combination” of familial systems includes trans people and/or families without children…]

While I applaud Sweden’s gender-neutral push, its not without rules or regulations.  Children are still being subjected to norms and societal standards, except this time children are taught to be more inclusive and accepting of diversity.  So, maybe it’s not all that bad…

-Anna Sekine

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