Rethinking “Third Gender”

Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the “Third Gender” Concept, was really interesting in that it discusses how “third gender” came about as a term and how it is constantly being overrun by the term transgender. This included a crisis of representation among anthropologists in which they criticized the Western construction of gender dichotomies (668). The term “third gender” was first employed to describe gender categories in non-Western cultures that did not fit neatly into a two-gender framework. According to Gilbert H. Herdt, an anthropologist and well-known proponent of “third gender” explained that this term “third” should not be taken literally but should be considered “emblematic of other possible combinations that transcend dimorphism”(669). This new term helped to formulate critiques of a two-gender system, pointing out that this type of gendered system is neither “innate nor universal” (669).

What I found interesting about this essay was that the term transgender has often replaced “third gender” in describing gender roles that are not definable in terms of gender normativity (669).Towle and Morgan argue that anthropologists that use the term transgender cross-culturally to describe any kind of non-normative gender variance are taking part in creating identities based on U.S. ideologies. They argue, “Valentine is interested-and deeply implicated, by his own admission—in the ways that anthropologists are complicit in creating the very categories they seek to understand and deconstruct.” The authors explain that many anthropological texts on “third gender” categories are popular because they can be used by transgender-identified people to talk about themselves and other trans-identified people. These readings are often popular because they resonate with U.S. identity based politics, leading to an appropriation of anthropological work in social movements (670) Towle and Morgan go on to say, “By the same token, when anthropologists use the ‘transgender’ concept to discuss ‘non-normative genders and sexualities cross-culturally,’ they ‘are complicit with those activists who imagine transgender as a universal category of gender difference’”(670).

In connection with this essay, I found an article discussing recent news for “third gendered” persons in the Middle East. In Pakistan it is now legal for a “hijra” or “eunich” to run for political office. The article explained the history of “hijras” in Pakistan, “Traditionally, the hijra (who are also numerous in India) have begged, sung or danced at weddings or worked as prostitutes to earn income. They have suffered enormous abuse and discrimination — not surprising, given that homosexuality is considered a grave sin and is, in fact, illegal in Pakistan.”

“For the past six decades, hijras in Pakistan have been isolated and denied any form of identity, along with basic human rights such as education, employment and health care. Disowned by their families and mocked and ridiculed by the rest, hijras find shelter among their kind under gurus — leaders of small, scattered transgender communities — who give them food and wage in return for their service and contribution to the group. With not many open doors in sight, they beg, dance and engage in prostitution as their only means of livelihood, becoming soft targets for harassment, violence, abuse and rape, mostly in the hands of the local police.”

“People don’t consider them as human beings. They don’t like to eat with them, drink with them or shake their hands,” Khaki told the Guardian. “But they are full citizens of Pakistan like everyone else.” 

“Homoeroticism you’ll see, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have a same-sex relationship,” Fatimah Ihsan, a gender studies professor in Pakistan, explained to NPR. “It’s just part of our culture. In the West, I think [sexual categories have] been boxed so strictly.”

-Casey Born


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