I may shut the world out, but this does not make it go away

In “Boys of the Lex,” Gayle Salamon discusses the ways in which gender and gender expression are perceived. Salamon states, “To offer the category of real gender in an attempt to discipline what are perceived as the excesses of theoretical gender is to domesticate gender as it is lived and to deny its considerable complexity, which often outpaces our language to describe it.” (72) In other words, gender is both internal and external, and usually the social is inextricably linked to the personal.

This chapter is an attempt by Salamon to discuss the difficulties of labeling gender a ‘social construct’ while simultaneously showing that it is. Salamon quotes Jason Cromwell: “’If gender were only important in social situations, then transpeople would not know that their gender is different than what societies dictate they should be according to their bodies.’” (80) The idea of gender as a social construct that is only relevant when other people are present does not take into account what happens when we are alone. We do not stop presenting when no one else is around. Some of us may act differently under public scrutiny than we do at home, but this does not mean we become nothing.

One of Salamon’s and other trans* theorists’ problem with gender as construction is the fact that it only allows for men and women. Gender is not thought of in terms of language, because it is seen as a personal, political, or social decision. But without looking toward language, we can only ever have two allowable modes of gender expression. Queer communities across the globe have been attempting to gain recognition for third gender pronouns such as sie and hir, but generally speaking they have not been taken up. When Sweden attempted to add the gender neutral “hen” to its online dictionary, not even the official print dictionary, it was lambasted as “feminist activists who want to destroy our language.”

Salamon says in this chapter, “A reading of gender…that focuses exclusively on the agency of the individual misses this entire matrix of power in which gender takes shape.” (80) Individuals choose in which way they express themselves and their gender, but this expression happens in conjunction with the society surrounding them and the very language with which it is expressed.

-Caitlyn Smallwood

Trying to understand the concept of a third gender in a society where the concept doesn’t exist.

“Anthropologists make an important contribution to contemporary discussions of gender by pointing out that the two-gender system is neither innate nor universal.” This is a quote from Evan B. Towle and Lynn M. Morgan’s “Romancing the Transgender Native” that stuck with me.  This is something that obviously, many of those who have taken some sort of gender studies course should know, but I don’t think it’s something that most people really think about.  Our society is surrounded by binaries, to the point where a non binary system seems way too out of reach for us to even think about accomplishing. 

Maybe this is why people seem to blur these third genders altogether in the same category.


This article talks about the travestis of Brazil. What struck me while reading this article is how difficult it is to compare this idea of the third gender because we have no basis for it here (or in the UK which is where this article was written.) The article is really long, but it deals with something that I wouldn’t have even have thought about before reading it- the addiction to silicon injections in order to gain an idealized body form. Now I’ve seen the episode of “My Strange Addiction” where the woman is addicted to silicon injections, but I’d never thought that this could affect a whole group of people.

This article obviously is focusing on the phenomenon of silicon injections and the dangers that these people put themselves through in order to gain this idealized body, but the idea shouldn’t be ignored. The third gender concept is difficult to grasp because it’s such a different idea than what we have in the States. 

“ THERE IS no word for travesti in Britain; over here; there is no need for one. But in Brazil, medical science has empowered the travesti to define her its own identity, and the travesti has, in turn, evolved into a species: a manufactured hermaphrodite of sorts, an aching parody of a woman with a masculine core. ‘I was born to be a travesti, I wasn’t born a boy or a girl,’ says Luciana, who started taking hormones at the age of nine. ‘A travesti is neither a man or a woman. Everyone knows what we are.’ “

This quote describes a lot of what I’m trying to say. A similar situation is that hijras of India. The hijra is also the only third gender of different cultures that I had been exposed to before this class. And I’m not sure I would call that a complete success because I don’t remember the professor being able to explain the hijra culture successfully. My point is- how are we supposed to be able to understand a concept that most people are never exposed to? As a society we understand things in reference to things we already know, so the idea of the third gender might be a difficult concept to grasp, but it’s important to remember that the rest of the world isn’t defined by what we know from our location and that each culture is unique and should be observed as such. 

-Jalyn Phifer

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

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

Why Third Gender?

Towle and Morgan make multiple interesting arguments in their article, “Romancing the Transgender Native.” They discuss the concept of “third gender” and its implications. They look at how this concept has been used in the U.S. to talk about transgendered people. They explain, “Over the past decade there has been an increase in the popular use of cross-cultural examples to provide legitimacy to transgender movements in the United States,” (Towle & Morgan, 666).  Social movements and political activists have taken this term and employed it in their practices in order to prove there are people outside of the two-gender system. Towle and Morgan explain how transgender activists use “third gender” to blame culture for their oppression rather than having to use the “born into the wrong body” argument.

 A news article I found, which you can look at here: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/nepal-issue-gender-ids-article-1.1245786

This article discusses Nepal who is offering “third gender” ID’s to citizens who don’t identify as male or female. Activists have been supporting this decision, saying it will help these people receive jobs, own property, and enroll in school. I however, disagree, especially after reading “Romancing the Transgender Native.”          

Although anthropologists have helped encourage people to think outside of a two-gender system, there have also been flaws after using this concept. One of the things this concept has done is that it lumps way too many non-normative genders into one small category. It ignores the diversity and variations within genders. Therefore, I feel that people in Nepal having “third gender” ID’s, simply reinforces yet another gender category, instead of expanding it as we should be. What is going to be next? Having people carry around fourth and fifth gender ID’s as well? The cycle will just be endless. The only solution is to completely take away having to put “male” or “female” on ID’s because the reality is, these categories do not exist. Also, what makes these activists think that carrying this ID will allow for more acceptance? I feel as if this would just make matters worse for them in the end.

Another compelling argument Towle and Morgan make is how the third gender concept creates problems with how we view non-western societies. They say, “The ‘third gender’ concept encourages Westerners to make poorly informed assumptions about the meaning and significance of gender dynamics in non-Western societies,” (681). They instead, encourage us to think about gender in terms of how it is different in each individual culture or society. This is something I think should be done even further, on an individual level as well. Gender is an individual concept for each and every person, which is another reason why I don’t think third gender ID’s should be implemented in Nepal. If we truly want to understand gender, we need to examine it individually, rather than among groups. 

– Miranda Fencl