Towle and Morgan’s piece, “Romancing the Transgender Native…” is an ambitious argument to first emphasize the importance of cultural contextualization, and secondly disrupt certain anthropological arguments which employ conceptual imperialism, whether consciously or not, in their study of trans* subjects outside of the Western world.
As the writers very importantly signify, “Anthropologists are not immune from the temptation to use the word transgender as a shorthand gloss” (Towel& Morgan 668). For those of us in Gender 215 this is an ironic understatement in regards to question 5 of our midterm exam, where we were asked (in a class on global understanding of gender from their cultural contexts) to compare the identity category of Indian hijras to the “all too specific” identity of “Western Transsexual.” Indeed it seems very obvious that in our research of other cultures we (western academics) almost seamlessly impose our conceptual understandings onto non-western bodies, reading them through our narrow lens while attempting to use them as discursive subjects to unveil the troubling nature of our gendered system. I am not attempting here to critique entirely the impetus behind our research of gender out-side our system as a means of widening the discourse circulating within our own; this as Towle & Morgan point out is as its beginning a valiant attempt (670). These studies at their heart are trying to uncover cultural evidence of other gender practices as a means of denaturalizing homophobia, transphobia, and other western racial/sexist ideologies, however if not carefully approached more often than not these “third gender categories” are still contextualized from a western lens, one that understands these persons as enacting gender other than or outside of our two-gender, two-sexed system.
I have included a link above to a very helpful youtube video which gives voice specifically to the two-spirit belief system in certain native-American tribes. This video of personal accounts and researched understandings of the two-spirit cultural phenomenon give voice to the importance of cultural context in the discourse of “alternative means of ‘doing gender.” Many different subjects in this piece talk of two-spirit people as having a greater breadth of sight, holding a unique place in their culture between the material world and the spiritual world. This contextualization is absolutely necessary in understanding those peoples operating within a different socio- cultural framework. For most native tribes two-spirit people are identified by the women in their family as a result of the performance of gender and their active involvement in women’s roles and activities, not their sexuality (youtube ~ 8min). To align or parallel homosexuality with the two-spirit person is not only a discursive erasure but problematic because it emphasizes an appropriation of a particular people into an identity category they might not self-identify. Only from positioning these subjects in their cultural contexts and using their own discourse of how they describe their roles and identities within their community can we begin to reflect or deconstruct our society’s dominant understandings of gender and sexuality. We must never make this comparison explicit that would be as productive as comparing apples within a community of oranges; instead we may understand the community of apple in their own orchards and apply some of what they teach us to our own groves of oranges.