WELCOME TO PART TWO: MULTICULTURAL AWARENESS!
This week begins with perhaps one of the most influential books I’ve read. Transgender Warriors/Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman by Leslie Feinberg. I knew of their work because of an earlier book, Stone Butch Blues published in 1993. Both of these books made sense out of my experience in the world as a queer femme and gave voice to something many of us were experiencing at that time but not completely understanding.
I can still sit and read Transgender Warriors for hours. There is so much queer/trans/intersex history from throughout time, and across the globe, gathered in one place all being digested in real time by a real life trans/queer. It’s like entering an alternate universe where people I love exist and where I make sense. Each story feels like a precious secret uncovered, another truth revealed. Even now, over 20 years from my first reading.
We have always been here. Queereternal.
That’s why we’re here now, and forever. Gendernow.
Despite geographic and historical distance of many of Leslie’s stories, they didn’t feel far away. And they included contemporary stories. These informed and contextualized my present. My ex had begun transitioning in 1994 and I was one of his main supports. And when I traveled to India in 1996, the same year Transgender Warriors came out, I witnessed a community of Hijras board our train and lovingly harass the passengers with song and dance until they were tipped appropriately. I also saw a singular Hijra out at a restaurant in the evening in a district where Indian women were prohibited to be out alone. This woman was not only alone, she was quite nearly holding court in the back of the small eatery as man after man waited on her.
Even though I lived a very queer life, I felt Feinberg’s work initiate a reorientation, perhaps because of its scope. Slowly but surely history and culture queer’d in all directions at once. No corner was left untouched. Nothing could be seen from the same angle again, ever. And the world felt more like home. I had been researching bits and pieces since I came out in 1984, but having one resource where I could immerse myself in so much information coupled with queer perspective was significant. It led me deeper into my self and my work.
I don’t pretend to understand how folks in other eras, cultures and locales felt or feel, especially about their sexuality and gender or how it fit/s into their social structure. But by learning as much as I can about as many different kinds of experience as possible, I’ve at least confirmed that there are countless ways to feel about sexuality and gender.
“When I try to discuss sex and gender, people can only imagine woman or man, feminine or masculine. We’ve been taught that nothing else exists in nature. Yet, as I’ve shown, this has not been true in all cultures or in all historical periods. In fact, Western law took centuries to neatly partition the sexes into only two categories and mandate two corresponding gender expressions.”
“The paradigm that there are two genders founded on two biological sexes began to predominate in western culture only in the early eighteenth century,” historian Randolph Trumbach notes in his essay, ‘London’s Sapphists: From Three Sexes to Four Gender in the Making of Modern Culture.’
When a patriarchal system using violent aggression to colonize and eradicate a culture is present, physical safety, economic survival, and emotional trauma contribute to cultural shifts that otherwise might not have happened.
Perhaps one of the most important pieces I felt Feinberg retrieved through their scholarship was the spiritual aspect of queer/trans/intersex people in multiple cultures. In fact, the very act of transitioning was often seen as a spiritual act.
“In ancient China, the shih-niang wore a combination of female, male, and religious garb. In Okinawa, some shamans took part in an ancient male-to-female ceremony known as winagu nati, which means, “becoming female.” And trans shamans were still reported practicing in the Vietnamese countryside in the mid-1970s.
Female-to-male priests also exist—and most importantly even co-exist with male to female shamans. Among the Lugbara in Africa, for example, male-to-females are called okule and female-to-males are named agule. The Zulu initiated both male-to-female and female-to-male isangoma. While male-to-female shamans have been part of the traditional life of the Chukchee, Kamchadal, Koryak, and Inuit—all Native peoples of the Arctic Basin—Inuit female-to-males serve White Whale Woman, who was believed to have been transformed into a man or a woman-man. And female-to-male expression is part of rituals and popular festivals with deep matrilineal roots in every corner of the world-including societies on the European continent.”
Legal third gender status is currently available in 11 countries: Austria, Australia, Germany, India, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, United Kingdom and parts of the United States.
Although people who would be assigned female are also present everywhere that people who would be assigned male are, the vast majority of documentation focuses on queer/trans/intersex people who would be assigned male. This may be in part the effects of patriarchy.
Here are three reflections from Samoa, India and Pakistan, and Indonesia.