The Problem of Third Gender

The Concept of a “Third Gender”

What struck me the most while reading this week’s readings, especially Katrina Roen’s “Transgender Theory and Embodiment,” was the amount that third gendered people of non-western countries are used solely for the benefit of western transgendered people.  Roen says, “A romanticized version of third-gender acceptance within non –western cultures can provide images of hope for transgendered people fighting gender oppression” (657).  In my other gender studies classes, this is exactly what non-western transgendered people have symbolized:  an alternative acceptance.  However, by using these groups of people as an example and basically objectifying their bodies as an inspiration, the west is yet again colonizing and having an adverse effect on non-western societies.  One thing that bothers me is how the west is pushing their gender dichotomy onto these non-western societies.  For example, they are classifying these people as a third gender when that might not be how they envision themselves.  The west sees the body as the most important thing because that is how we recognized sex and gender in the west; however, in some non-western cultures the body is not the most important thing.  For example, Roen talk about the fa’afafine in Samoa.  One of the fa’afafine that she talks to, Don, she says, “Don sets himself in sharp relief to queer and transgender stances which often highlight gender and sexuality to the point of obscuring race altogether” (660).  Don places his culture before his sexuality  saying, “any interaction I have with anybody, the two things I want them to find out about me is the fact that I’m Samoan first and foremost and…[secondly] that I’m fa’afafine” (660).  The west is taking their conceptions of how one identifies and placing that on societies that may or may not agree with that statement.

This reminds me of an article I read for another class which talked about how the west romanticizes the hijra in India without looking at the actual situation Indian society places the hijra and the problems that they continue to face.  The west uses the hijra as a kind of “look and see what’s possible” in an accepting society while not actually getting to know the true situation of the hijras and showing the discrimination that they still face.  I feel that by doing this we are telling the hijras that their situation is more perfect than ours and so they should not worry about the discrimination that they are facing.  By using non-western, gender non-conforming individuals as a beacon of hope for western transgendered people, it is no better than Hottentot Venus and using them as a marvel for western people to gaze at. 

Nicole Amodeo


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