The Downfall of “Third Gender”

In Romancing the Transgender Native:  Rethinking the Use of the “Third Gender” Concept, Evan Towle and Lynn Morgan describe how popular American writing problematically romanticizes “third-gender” acceptance in non-Western cultures (667).  By looking at “successful” cross-cultural experiences elsewhere, people often try to advance imagined transgender movements within their own Euro-American contexts.  This envisioned ideal of the “third gender” native is not without flaws.  First, the experiences of the hijra of India, the berdache of indigenous North America, and the Sambia boys of Papua New Guinea—just to name a few—often end up getting lumped together to form a singular “third gender” status.  This ultimately fails to recognize the complexity/diversity and culturally specific experiences of non-Western gender categories.  Additionally, adding-on a “third gender” category doesn’t disrupt or dismantle the current binary gender system.  Instead, it allows for the categories of  “male” and “female” to go largely untouched and unquestioned. Furthermore, while Western writers often praise the non-West for their concept of the “third gender,” they often present the non-West as static and having culture, while the West as dynamic and having history.  This then paints a strained power relationship between the West as superior to the inferior non-West.  Clearly, the idea of “third gender” is really messy—a part of me wants to stand up and support it because it is trying to expand the current gender system in some shape and form.  However, after reading Towle and Morgan’s article, I simply can’t (at least as it’s being utilized now), because it is highly flawed and helping to reaffirm (rather than challenge) binary gender categories further.  So, what can we do to become a more gender-equal and neutral world – perhaps radically deconstructing the existing gender binary is the solution?

I found an article on Sweden, which appears to be one of the more progressive and radical countries in the fight for gender-neutrality.  (Obviously, the methods used here are historically and culturally specific and can’t transfer over into other places.  However, I think it’s good food for thought.)  In recent years, Sweden has been challenging traditional gender ideals and stereotypes by creating more legally recognized unisex names, removing gendered sections in clothing departments, and pushing for more gender-fluid magazines (i.e. boy models pushing pink strollers or girl models riding tractors).  Additionally, many preschools have banished gendered pronouns, like “boys” and “girls,” and instead refer to the children either by their first names or as “buddies.”  Last year, Sweden also added a gender-neutral pronoun, “hen,” into their National Encyclopedia, which has been used in children’s books and lifestyle magazines.  The article explains how one preschool adapted to the new agenda for gender-neturality:

At Christmastime, the Egalia staff rewrote a traditional song as “hen bakes cakes all day long.” When pupils play house, they are encouraged to include “mommy, daddy, child” in their imaginary families, as well as “daddy, daddy, child”; “mommy, mommy, child”; “daddy, daddy, sister, aunty, child”; or any other modern combination.  [I wonder if the “any other modern combination” of familial systems includes trans people and/or families without children…]

While I applaud Sweden’s gender-neutral push, its not without rules or regulations.  Children are still being subjected to norms and societal standards, except this time children are taught to be more inclusive and accepting of diversity.  So, maybe it’s not all that bad…

-Anna Sekine


Genderless Uproar

            I’ve been consistently wondering why many normative people who respect pronoun choices of gender normative trans individuals don’t respect gender neutral pronouns and continue to misgender a person based on what they believe that person’s birth sex is.  Many use the excuse that the pronouns are hard or unintuitive sounding, but let’s get real: the pronoun “they” has been used in the English language for centuries, and it’s ridiculously easy to start using “they” with people who claim it.

            Maybe I’m biased, but I consistently get “she” when I tell trans*-friendly allies that I prefer “they,” and yet these same people correct themselves when they misgender my other friends.  I’m starting to seriously doubt the “difficulty” of mastering gender neutral pronouns since my well-intentioned friends take little action to even correct themselves when they don’t get it right.  Yes, I’m ranting, but my identity continues to be masked behind this justification of using the wrong pronoun from my birth sex, and it I think comes from mainstream’s detestation of polygender and agender identities.

            Take a look at this video, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  (  A Canadian family is attempting to rear their child genderless.  Whether or not this can be achieved as a result of intense socialization of gender norms outside of personal identification does not matter here.  It is the “firestorm of controversy” this decision has brought about from the voices of normative citizens that makes me believe “genderlessness” is hated.

            I’m going to start with what slightly bothered me about the video.  First, responders attempted to claim that these parents were putting their child through a “social experiment” to spite mainstream society, as if that were their real goal instead of trying to raise their child in the way that makes the child feel the most comfortable. 

           Next, the biased news cast kept subtly trying to gender the child, emphasizing “he or she” and “his or her” whenever possible.  While one could argue “he or she” is a valid mainstream language choice, the news cast did a few other problematic things like using biological sex and gender identity as interchangeable words, implying the illegitimacy of genderlessness as a result of the assumed impossibility of sexlessness since the parents “won’t be able to [hide the sex] for very long,” and suggesting that it is the parents’ job to reveal their children’s gender identities to them (via the implied justification of gender identity through biological sex) rather than the other way around.

            The parents themselves presented some contestable claims.  They’re trying to advance the claim that individual choice in the face of intense socialization is both possible and something to strive for.  This “tribute to freedom and choice in a place of limitation” (despite their limiting expectation of their child to “finally choose” their gender identity someday) is ridiculous since individuals rarely have an actual say in their own presentations of their identities resulting from intense pressures from family, friends, and mainstream media.  In addition, championing individual freedom cannot be possible in a world where disciplinary power works to degrade individuals who don’t conform, and biopower works to enforce the norms and expectations of disciplinary power on the level of populations.  We cannot actually choose our own gender, genders, or lack of gender if we are presented with only two options, ridiculed if we do not choose the option that mainstream culture claims matches our “true sex,” and targeted for violence on the basis of lack of conformity.

            And now for the part that really ticks me off.  Some privileged psychologist “expert” (see to get an idea of his white, cis, het, male, economic privilege) claims that this child nonconsensually suffers or will suffer from their parents’ decision to rear them without gender: “the parents are imposing this role on the child.”  Let’s back up here.  Is “forcing” a child to be reared genderless really nonconsensual when mainstream parents continually force their children to conform to gender roles that are justified by their biological sex?  I continually heard “boys do ____, and girls do ____” from parents, friends, and mainstream media throughout my entire childhood.  I was, and continue to be, nonconsensually shoved into a gender box “girl” because I have “girl parts,” and this psychologist somehow seems to think that that’s ok and that giving the child some sort of choice over the matter (whether it is really individual choice or not) is not consensual?  What?

            To continue with this nonsense, the “expert” also suggests that those who pursue genderless identity are objects: “this child is not asking to be this thing” (my emphasis added).  He then goes on to use military language to describe what the child’s parents hoped was a phenomenon of choice: “this kid’s being drafted into a war that may hurt him or her terribly.”  This enormous disrespect for humans without gender, no matter how ridiculous the metaphor sounds, parallels mainstream implications that agender or polygender identities do not or should not exist.

            No wonder my pronouns are never respected.  This implicit assumption that genderlessness is akin to the level of objects rather than beings appears every time someone I know continues to “she” me after I explicitly told them that “anything but ‘he’ or ‘she’ is fine.”  I’d like to think that it’s the inconvenience of gender neutral pronouns rather than implicit disgust that motivates most of my friends’ desires to continue to (mis)gender me, but I’m starting to think that if they really cared about getting someone’s pronouns right, they’d respect mine, no matter how inconvenient it is for them. 

           As I start to move toward a more agender and polygender identification, I fear the expectation to either gender myself or let myself be normatively gendered according to the heterosexual matrix.  I cannot stress how frustrating it is to still be expected to fit a female/feminine/het role or a male/masculine/het role within ally spaces or even queer spaces.  For instance, many continue to shove me into a “she” pronoun and therefore a “woman” role justified by the “female” parts I have, while at the same time they respect someone else’s male pronoun and desire for a “man” role despite his “female” parts.  Both my more normative trans* friend and myself, in this case, deserve the pronouns we want, regardless of what identities, normative or otherwise, we take on with those pronouns.  When a person justifies a pronoun I don’t want from my sex, and when that pronoun justifies a normative “woman” role I cannot take on, while at the same time that person respects a pronoun my friend wants that somehow justifies a normative “man” role he may nor may not want, that person works to reinforce the matrix of normative identities relying on the conformity to strict roles of masculine aggression by “men” and feminine submission by “women.”  

          When people ask for different pronouns, they don’t always automatically ask to be seen under different roles or identities.  Justifying a specific gender role with a certain pronoun is as bad as justifying a pronoun from sex, and both of these things work together to degrade the lives of those who seek gender neutral pronouns but are continually gendered “he” or “she” on the basis of their “true sex.”  Only respecting a person’s pronouns if they conform to the strict matrix conception of masculine aggression and feminine submission roles of the het matrix is unacceptable.  Defining me because I’ve left myself undefined is unacceptable. 

-Ash Kulak