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Third Genders

In the film Middle Sexes I was interested to watch how gender and sexuality is constructed differently in non Western cultures and how Western values regarding sexuality and gender have spread due to colonialism. It was however disappointing that the film spend a lot of focus on the nirwaan, the castrated members of India’s third sex, the hijra. In reality only a small percentage of the hijra undergo any type of sexual reassignment and many of its members are intersexed. I would have liked the film to have gone into more depth on how the gender binary is a modern construction and that through human history in various cultures there has been room for third genders and different sexualities.

A good example of this can be seen in the Two Spirit culture of the Native Americans. Currently I volunteer at the Tretter archive where I process materials donated by the Two Spirit activist Richard La Fortune. In Native culture prior to colonization different tribes had various forms of a third gender. Each tribe had different names and social norms pertaining to Two Spirit people. In many tribes it was not just crossing genders and wearing clothing of the opposite gender, or performing the work of the opposite gender, but blending of both genders to create something new. These members were often held in high regard in their tribal communities and were spiritual leaders, valued warriors, and mediators between men and women. There was an amazing rich history and diversity that was nearly wiped out by white settlers. The term Two Spirit was developed in response to the western term "berdache" which was applied to Natives by French settlers. It is part of the Native reclaiming of tribal culture and values. Paula Gunn Allen discusses this in her article Where I Come From Is Like This where she states “an American Indian woman is primary defined by her tribal identity. In her eyes, her destiny is necessarily that of her people, and her sense of herself as a woman is first and foremost prescribed by her tribe? (pg 31). Like Paula Gunn Allen who writes rejecting western concepts of womanhood placed upon Native women, Two Spirit people reject the negative status of LGBT people in connection with their own cultural heritage.
It is also interesting to note that modern western gender binaries and heterosexism are more modern constructions. In ancient Mediterranean societies, third genders and homosexual behaviors were common and an accepted part of society. In ancient Rome priests of Magna Mater were transgendered, and homosexual practices between men were considered normal. Even with the rise of Christianity third genders were found throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe and took on various forms ranging from natural born eunuchs in Byzantium, to the kocek in the Ottoman empire to the Sworn Virgin in the Balkans.

Comments

the film does continue with other examples... we missed a good portion of the film.

good post.