Asserting the Third Gender

Katrina Roen begins her article, “Transgender Theory and Embodiment,” with a critique of transsexual and queer theories as being ethnocentric and all-in-all “too white.” These theories, as we know them, usually tell stories of trans* or queer people from an American or European viewpoint, taking into account only the American or European views on gender, sex and sexuality. In these stories anyone who is perceived as gender transgressive or non-normative is punished for it, and people who choose to present as either strictly male or female are given priority over those who choose to inhabit the more complicated middle ground. Roen shows that this is indeed a very European view of the world, and that this viewpoint puts much too much focus on medicalization when the medical community is part of the reason this ethnocentric viewpoint exists.

The European view of intelligible gender is extremely narrow, relying on two diametrically opposed sets of sexual and gendered characteristics that are defined against one another. To Americans and Europeans, these two sets of characteristics can never exist simultaneously in the same person or the illusion is destroyed – literally an illusion, created by preconceived notions ingrained into the collective societal consciousness. We know that this is, of course, a false assumption, and that everyone can and does frequently break gender barriers in everyday life. But these people are frequently called out for their perceived misdemeanor of not conforming.

Roen interviewed three people who would be considered non-conforming by American standards but who, in their native Samoa and New Zealand are considered very normal.

This is an interview done with Phylesha, a fa’afafine, which is a Polynesian term for a “third-gendered” individual. Phylesha speaks with transgendered groups but does not consider herself to be transgendered necessarily. She does not identify as either a man or a woman; rather, she wants to identify as “who I am and who I know to be.” 

-Caitlyn Smallwood


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