First Comes Cultural Context…

The essay “Transgender Theory and Embodiment” by Katrina Roen takes a look at the “Risk of Racial Marginalization” facing trans* people transnationally. Specifically, Roen chooses to discuss trans* people of different races and cultural identities who live in New Zealand.

In the case of Don, a 45-year-old Samoan fa’afafine, culture precedes sexuality. By positioning his Samoan identity before his sexuality, Don point out the importance of cultural context and its effects on subject hood. Approaching identity and subject hood this way, scholars, academics and anyone studying trans* individuals can avoid the western/nonwestern binaristic thinking that does not necessarily or accurately asses one’s subjectivity. 

The summer after my freshman year I lived in New Zealand and can say from experience that these same sentiments are shared by many of the people who live there. Upon a trip to parliament, I realized how freeing it must be to live in a country where your cultural identity surpasses the other aspects of identity, created a shared sense of unity.  This is not to say that the intricacies and differences that create subjectivity are over looked. Oppositionally, they are simply not treated as a determining factor in one’s ability to live, work, and run the country of New Zealand. Members of parliament include gay men and women, trans* individuals as well as individuals with religious and spiritual beliefs that could be considered on the fringe, including a Rastafarian member of parliament. Just as well, a certain number of office and parliament positions are reserved for Maoris.

It is the cultural familiarity of the members of New Zealand’s parliament that allow them to negate discriminatory office policies, just as Don’s hopeful narrative insists. In attempting to remove one’s own cultural bias (which, essentially can never fully be eradicated), and position oneself at a cross sectioning of relative culture, gender, sex, and sexuality, one might be able to address theories pertaining to transnational, trans* embodied folks with less western/nonwestern undertones.

-Sally Stempler


Identity Hierarchies

A few questions posed in Katrina Rosen’s Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalization are “How might queer be theorized to better take into account Don’s perspective of putting culture first and gender/sexuality second?” and “Must there be such a prioritizing for issues of racism, homophobia, and transphobia to be effectively combated?” These questions are really striking to me in that they deal with making a sort of hierarchy of self-identification. While these questions are very specific to trans* theory, they could easily be expanded to a greater understanding of intersectional identities in a more generalized sense.

A 45-year-old Samoan fa’afafine named Don is one of the examples that Rosen uses in her essay. It is Don that causes Rosen to ask the questions previously stated. This is because he wants people to view him as Samoan before they view him as anything else, including fa’afafine. His prioritization of his identity in such a manner is interesting because people often ignore issues of race or ethnicity when talking about sexuality, making the assumption that one’s sexuality is of greater personal importance and effectively ranking another person’s identity without knowing much about them at all. This could work in the opposition as well, where one would assume that race informs a person’s identity more than their sexuality when the person in question feels the opposite. However, it’s more interesting to think of how sexuality overshadows race because race is a more easily identifiable trait visually than sexuality.

Don believes that “cultural identity precedes gender/sexuality identity in political importance,” but it also important to note that he acknowledges that the two are linked and inform one another in relation to his identity (Roen 660). Rosen notes that Don’s reclaiming of fa’afaine as an identity that does not need to be medicalized is similar to “queer and transgendered critiques of psycho-medical discourses on transsexuality.”

This video is titled “What is a Fa’afafine” and in this video a fa’fafine named Phylesha discusses how they interpret their identity in relation to how other view them. Phylesha says, “I don’t identify as a man. I don’t identify as a woman. I identify as who I am, who I know to be and that is a human being.” When asked if there is a space between a man and a woman, Phylesha says, “That’s up for you to decide.” It is that line that really spoke to me and that I think really relates back to Don’s prioritization of his identity. Don has actively formed a hierarchy of identity, where he is Samoan and then fa’afine. Phylesha has formed a hierarchy as well, where they are first and for most a human being and a fa’afine second. Both are similar approaches to taking control of one’s self-identification, but how they would interact with the world on a social and political level would be very different.


– Kris Krumb

Fitting in Race and Ethnicity to Gender Theorizing

When examining transgender theory, Katrina Roen challenges her audience to view certain theories in a more critical view. Roen writes about the lack of focus on race and ethnicity when it comes to theorizing transgender. By interviewing three different gender liminal people, Roen writes about their beliefs and thoughts the three have on politics and their own identities as transgender (or third gender) people. (Excuse me if I misuse the term third gender with transgender, I am still a bit unclear on the differences between the two.) By purposefully choosing participates with diverse cultural backgrounds, her participants Don, Tania, and Pat all give varying opinions on transgender theories. As said in the text, “Don provides an example of reclaiming a traditional sexuality/gender specific position which is very distinct from, but in some respects resembles, transgenderism” (659). I really enjoyed reading what he had to say about the difference between being identified as fa’afafine compared to other Palagi (English) terms like gay and queer. “[Those terms] actually tell you how that society views that person. My culture just views it ‘like a woman’” (660). His cultural identity is what he wants others to view him first as, which is Samoan. But yet, the two do not relate without the other.

Moving on to Tania, her interview is focused on her critical views of western conceptions of the medicalization of transsexuality. When we discover that she is opting for sex reassignment surgery, her reasoning is “partly to the current legal situation of non-operative transpeople in Aotearoa/New Zealand” (662). But again, her race (Maaori) is brought into view and the importance it holds over her identity. She does not wish to lose her transsexual identity, for doing so would “denigrate her entire ancestral line” (662). The last interviewee, Pat thinks uncritically of the medical discourses on transsexuality. But Pat also found a way to maintain his Maaori and transgender identity through the kapa haka group he belongs to. Here, both identities are respected and acknowledged. I was moved by this group that he spoke of. When speaking about his transgender identity, Roen said that Pat talked about it “as something to be held in high esteem when he talked about it in conjunction with his Maaori identity in the context of the kapa haka group” (663). In conclusion to her writing, Roen focuses on this very thing. She suggests that it “provides an illustration of how transgender and racial politics do not need to be approached in an either/or fashion, but can be worked together” (664). I also liked that she ended her writing with a numerous amount of questions, showing that she herself still does not have the answer to correct views on transgender people and gender liminal ways of being.

After reading Roen, I decided to look into people who identify as fa’afafine. I found this video on Youtube (!) where a fa’afafine woman from New Zealand tells the interviewer how she identifies herself and how others view her. I was very happy to see that a support group called I.N.E was developed for all fa’afafine girls to find there voice and support each other.


– Colleen Griffin

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