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


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