Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ignoring Gender Variance in a Binary System

The following is a paper I wrote for my English Compostion 1020 course. I apologize for the formatting issues. It really has been a pain to get this posted, which is why I am posting it a year after I wrote it.

             Instances of individuals not fitting into the dichotomies of male and female gender assignments are stigmatized within American culture as being gender deviants. Although gender variance research is on the rise, more information is needed in order for social views on gender variance to change favorably. In order to allow room for gender variance within our binary gender system, more research needs to be done on intersex, trans, gender queer and other such individuals who do not fit within the narrow categories of male and female.
            The article, “Intersexuality and Alternative Gender Categories in Non-Western Culture,” written by Claudia Lang and Ursula Kuhnle discusses western culture’s binary gender system and compares it to cultures that support gender variance. The article emphasizes that in many of the cultures mentioned, the discussed individuals rarely have a disorder which effects sexual development. The article concludes from anthropological literature on these cultures, that a category of peoples exist beyond male and female.
            There is a notable difference between the terms “sex”and “gender.” Sex is defined by biological factors, whereas gender is a reflection of social influences and mental attributes. Gender identity  is how a person feels about their gender. Gender roles are the presentation of these feelings, and gender status is assigned to a person by their culture based upon the other two terms. Gender variance is a term for those who present their gender outside of typical male and female boundaries (Lang and Kuhnle).
            In the article, Current Concerns: “Dangerous Presumptions: How Single-Sex Schooling Reifies False Notions of Sex, Gender and Sexuality,” by Janna Jackson, it is argued that there is a distinction between a person’s sex and their gender presentation. Gender is a system of symbols, conventions and privileges, and punishments that reflect a person’s power and sexuality. However, our gender does not always match our sex. In our culture we require that our bodies fit the labels that we assign it instead of the other way around (Jackson qtg Wilchins 229).
            “…what counts as a standard male or female is subjective, there are no hard and fast numbers regarding the number of intersex individuals. But doctors have difficulty assigning sex in about one in 1500 births...” (Jackson 231). This number is not well published, and society’s misconceptions about the number of intersex individuals within it often leaves them on the outside or ignored (Jackson).
            An increasing number of transgender people are identifying as gender queer a term that defies the binary gender system (Jackson rfg Nesle et al). “Patriarchal gender arrangements are so difficult to abolish because they are embedded in our language…” (Jackson qtg Connell 231). Youth are creating new terminology to identify themselves, such terms as, “In the middle of fem and butch, a tom boy with a  princess stuck in side of me, andro, fem-androgynous, in-between, boi, and birl” (Jackson qtg Driver 231), are used by gender-bending students challenging the binary system (Jackson).
            We see examples of this in pop culture. In the Popular Press article, “Johnny Depp’s Adventures in Gender-Bending” by Eric Hynes, the author discusses Depp’s career in ambiguous roles. Hynes points out that Depp, who has been awarded “Sexiest Man Alive,” by People Magazine and has played a variety of gender-fluid characters without being perceived as a homosexual by his audience. “From hetero cross-dressers and goth-chic beauticians to swishy pirates, mop-topped reclusive bachelors, and flighty Victorian dandies, Depp’s character’s accentuate the ambiguous. They mess with Mr. In-between” (Hynes). Apart from the costumes, Depp’s characters often defy socially mandated gender roles. In many of his films, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp forms close relationships with other men, while not playing a homosexual character. Hynes points out that Johnny Depp’s career has exceptions to gender-varying characters. Hynes further goes on to say that Depp most recently played the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, “…one of the fruitiest characters in the history of Western literature…” (Hynes).
            Gender within the queer culture is under researched. Heidi Levitt and Sharon Horne discuss female gender roles within the queer community in their article “Explorations of Lesbian-Queer Genders: Butch, Femme, Androgynous, or ‘Other’”. Children express their gender identity sometime around age three. However, the options are limited. Identifiers such as butch, femme, or androgynous are often not presented as possibilities to children. Because of this, children tend to see atypical gender expression as wrong. Boys tend to take on typical male gender roles and females adopt female roles. Young girls who identify more with a butch-style gender, may express distress in having to express feminity for their gender (Levitt and Horne).
            Another common example of gender variance is the transgender community which faces many challenges in our culture. “For individuals who don’t fit into conventional categories for sex, gender, and sexual orientation, there are barriers and challenges that are difficult for most people to imagine” (Wood 182). Julia Wood poses a hypothetical situation in which she asks her readers to imagine themselves in a body in opposition to how they have lived their gender all of their lives. If you are male, she suggests that you consider that you have just been told that you are medically female and asks what you might do in this situation. Wood’s goal is to get the reader to see that there are challenges in overcoming this dysphoria (Wood). Some of these difficulties include fear for an individual’s personal safety, self-hatred from internalized anti-transgender socialization, and separation from communities. Transphobia is the fear of trans individuals and the “hatred, discrimination, intolerance, and prejudice that this fear brings” (Laframboise and Long par 3). This fear can lead to harrassment, violence and ostricization. Transgender people are often discriminated against in terms of health care, employment and social services (Laframboise and Long).
            Social ideals towards gender create transphobia. In a gender binary, there is no room for gender crossover or fluidity; in fact, individuals who challenge the gender binary are considered deviant and unacceptable within our culture. Transphobia can present itself in many ways, some of which include assumptions such as that transgender individuals have mental disorders, are untrustworthy, are inherently disugsting or “sick”, or being unwilling to assist a trans individual in medical situations (Laframboise and Long).
            Professor Doan of Florida State University writes of personal experiences with transphobia in the public sphere in his article, “The Tyranny of Gendered Spaces-Reflections From Beyond the Gender Dichotomy.” Doan describes being taunted on public transit. In one instance he was almost assaulted outside of an airport. He goes on to talk about the dangers trans people face in even semi-private spaces like bathrooms. In this situation, trans people are forced to choose which public restroom they are going to use, the male or the female. This decision can have serious consequences. If an indivdual is perceived as a gender other than how they identify and are therefore considered to be in the “wrong” restroom, the reaction of other individuals can be strongly negative (Doan). In an interview I conducted with  a non-op trans woman named Cara Holmes, she described her fear of being outed in public restrooms. “I’m afraid of getting the police called on me or getting harassed” (Holmes 2011). A situation as Cara described does not seem impossible with the prevelancy of transphobia in our culture. Matt Kailey, author of Just Add Hormones, further comments on this issue in his book, Just Add Hormones: “A transwoman whose papers are not yet changed to reflect her new gender can risk arrest, and even those whose identification has been corrected can be subject to harassment and complaints from other female patrons” (Kailey Hormones).
            In order to combat transphobia some actions are being taken including educating people on transgender issues and providing resources for trangender individuals. Additionally, making an effort to include transgender individuals and to provide necessary services to them is an important step toward ending transphobia (Laframboise and Long). An article written by Karen Auge that appeared in the New York Times in 2009 titled “Transgender World Sees Hope,” suggests that transgender people are coming out earlier in age by coming out, trans people risk relationships and careers, getting beaten up on dates and at school, or even murder (Auge).
            Angie Zapata, an 18-year old from Greeley, Co, was murdered by Allen Andrades upon the discovery that she was transgender. This danger is a reality that kept the older generation in the closet and is at the heart of the younger generations’ fears. Andrades conviction for first degree murder may be a positive step for transgender acceptance (Auge).
            According to Late Bowman of the Gender Identity Center of Colorado, “…we’re making significant progress regarding basic understanding and education on transgender issues” (Auge qtg Bowman par 13). Part of that education includes understanding what it means to be transgender. Being transgender is not an indication of sexual preference, but instead the idea that one’s concept of gender does not match one’s biological sex (Auge). However, that is not to say that a trans identity does not reflect biological influences:
            ‘It certainly is biological,’ said Dr. Marci Bowers, who performs 140 to 160 gender-          change surgeries each year… ‘What has not been clarified is where the biological effect is coming from,’Bowers said. ‘Is there a component of nurturing? Is it all genetics? Is it hormonal?’ (Auge ref Bowers par 19-20).
Some people, particularly in religious circles, argue that being transgender is making a choice. To some, transgender remains a curable affliction (Auge).
            The Gender Identity Center exists to assist transgender individuals who are susceptible to substance abuse problems as well as suicide. ´The GLBT’s Movement Advancement Project estimates that as many as 51 percent of transgender people have considered killing themselves; 26 percent have tried” (Auge par 38). Stacy Kilpatrick, 29 at the time of Auge’s article, was attempting to find a job after her legal name change. The unemployment rate for transgender people is estimated at 40 percent. Kilpatrick was turned away from a law firm after disclosing her background (Auge).
            The article goes on to say that, “The first time Kilpatrick went out as a woman, on Halloween in 2006, she wound up in the hospital, with a concussion and a shattered wrist” (Auge par 50). Kilpatrick pressed charges against the perpetrators and is hoping to win enough money through the settlement to pay for her reassignment surgery, which is rarely covered by insurance (Auge).
Despite the fact that research has shown that trans individuals are capable of living healthy and meaningful lives, it is still common practice for western medicine to label these people as mentally ill, or biologically deformed. “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categorizes transsexuality as a ‘Gender Identity Disorder’…psychiatric literature reduces transgender identities to a binary, transsexual experience” (Bilodeau 30-31). This line of thinking overlooks the individuals who identify as gender queer, drag kings or queens, or those transsexuals who are not interested in, or cannot afford, surgery.
The medical world works towards establishing a transgender/transsexual individual as either male or female. This end goal often overlooks the individuals who identify as something else (Bilodeau). Within the study "Beyond the Gender Binary: A Case Study of Two Transgender Students at a Midwestern Research University,” an interviewee, Jordan, described their attempt to avoid supporting the gender dichotomy in their identity. Jordan discusses that within the trans community, a spotlight is placed on transsexuals. Bilodeau’s study in some ways shows the deficit of research on gender-variant individuals. His case study of only two people is hardly a reflective sample of the trans community.
            Trans-liberation is relevant to more than just the trans community. “Trans liberation has meaning for you-no matter how you define or express your sex or your gender” (Feinberg 189). A gender binary system can be suffocating for all involved. Our society puts strict boxes around what is masculine and what is feminine. Gender liberation is about making these roles more fluid so that all of us can be ourselves and embrace all aspects of our humanity. The stereotypes surrounding men and women seem shallow on the surface; however, within our culture, those stereotypes run deep. Society embraces those who conform to gender norms and ostracizes those who would challenge them.
            People are more than just male and female. Gender variant people, such as masculine women, feminine men, gender queer individuals, intersex individuals, and many more are victims of a strict binary gender system. Even if someone identifies within traditional male and female roles, they are denied the acceptance of others if they violate gender norms. Women who seek to be assertive and successful are labeled not just unfeminine, but bitchy, harsh, and cold. Men who wish to be caregivers are seen as weak, soft, and ultimately feminine, something our culture frowns upon. The trans-movement seeks to break down these concrete gender roles and allow everyone to be more fluid in their presentation of their gender (Feinberg).
            I conducted an Interview with Matt Kailey and asked him for his thoughts on whether or not trans people were gaining acceptance in our culture. He responded that he thinks in some ways the situation has gotten better, but not in others:
            Laws are changing for the better, although very slowly because there is no federal             law that protects transgender people or gender variant people with regard to accommodations, housing, restrooms, eating in restaurants. There is no federal law that    protects trans variant people in employment, but there are local laws in various places that do. Some of the bigger corporations now are adopting health insurance policies that   cover medically necessary transition surgery. A lot of the big corporations have  protections. The business community is realizing that trans people are important contributors to their business and they can use their skills. It’s getting worse in that there is always a backlash when you see progress. The physical attacks on trans people are not    decreasing. The conservative political right wing cares more because trans people are now more on their radar, because we are seeing this progress. (Kailey 2011)
Kailey makes an interesting point when he discusses the lack of federal protection that trans people have. It is important to realize that a lack of federal laws leaves trans people vulnerable to acts of transphobia.
            A condition that in some ways can be related to a transgender identity is called intersex. In western culture, individuals seen as intersex are often treated for a medical condition. This treatment can extend so far as corrective genital surgery. Within western society, individuals may be forced to “…choose either a male or female role, whereas other (non-western) societies consider their condition special, and give them a special gender role often associated with a high social status” (Lang and Kuhnle 240). The study, “They Did Not Have a Word: The Parental Quest to Locate a True Sex for Their Intersex Children,” conducted by Brendan Gough, Nicky Weyman, Julie Alderson, Gary Butler, and Mandy Stoner, was created to look at how parents of intersex children react and come to terms with the intersex condition. Through interviews of a diverse group of parents of children with equally diverse medical diagnoses of intersex conditions, the researchers comment on the binary sex system. Furthermore, they relate this to a two-gender system. After conducting the research, the authors discuss societies need to further understand sex and gender and to become more excepting of its diversity (Gough, Weyman and Alderson 493).
            Intersex refers to someone “…born with ambiguous genitalia, sexual organs or sex chromosomes” (Gough, Weyman and Alderson qtg Preves 494). Within medicine, an importance is placed on infants being born with clearly defined genitalia. This line of thinking also promotes a child being raised as either masculine or feminine to promote psychological health and a clear sense of gender identity. As a result of this emphasis, genital correction surgery is often suggested for babies with unclear genitalia (Gough, Weyman and Alderson 494).
            According to the Intersex Society of North America, he number of children born with notably abnormal genitalia results as about 1 in every 1500-2000 births. However, there is debate on what counts as intersex. The number of individuals born without XX or XY chromosomes is roughly 1 in every 1,666 births. The number of children born with bodies that defy the typical male and female expectations are as many as 1 in 100 births. The number of genital appearance surgeries are about 1 in 1,000 births (Intersex Society of North America).
            According to Sharon Preves’s article in Intersex in the Age of Ethics, children born intersex receive genital assignment surgery in an effort to help them avoid stigma later in life. There are three parts to social deviance, “(1) The existence of a shared social expectation; (2) a marked violation or deviation from the prevailing social expectation; and (3) the social response to such a deviation” (Preves qtg Garfinkel 52). In the case of intersex, this social deviance appears in violating the male/female binary. Human reactions to this infringement on what society considers the norm result in corrective surgery. Hormonally and surgically altering humans to fit the binary sex system fulfills a strong purpose in American society. The thought process behind the alterations revolves around preventing social stigma and identity uncertainty. By “normalizing” the child, society hopes to prevent future suffering for them. Along with medical treatment, parents of intersex children are advised by doctors to give clear gender role expectations on their child that match their assigned sex (Preves).
            Samantha Murray raises the question in her article, “Within or Beyond the Binary/ Boundary?” whether it is appropriate to subject intersex children to  a surgery which are dangerous or if it would be better to wait until the child is old enough to decide for themselves if they want to go through the process of “normalizing” their genitalia.  Murray suggests that, instead of acting out of fear of the unknown in making this decision, parents should make sure that they are putting their children’s best interests up front. Parents describe feeling alone in their decision process with little resources to guide them. It is difficult to determine what the best route for a child may be if the information on the effects of genital assignment surgery are unknown (Murray).
            This surgery is encouraged in order to prevent feelings of shame in intersex individuals; however, by stigmatizing intersex, that shame is reinforced. The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) works to politically combat genital correction surgery on infants. Many members of this group who underwent surgery claim feeling “mutilated.” Conversely, those who avoided surgery identify strongly with the label intersex (Gough, Weyman and Alderson 494-495).
            Parental reactions, influence, and acceptance are at the heart of this study. Parents play a key role in the development of their children. “…parents communicate a sense of shame to their children as they grow up, which makes for a fraught relationship plagued by issues such as rejection and guilt (Gough, Weyman and Alderson referencing Howe 495). Apart from this study, only two others are known to exist that emphasize parents of intersex children. In these studies, the first by Slijper et al in 2000, uses words like “…shock, grief, anger, and shame,” (Gough, Weyman and Alderson qtg Slijper et al 495), to describe the reactions of parents. The second study conducted by Le Marechal in 2001 offers similar findings, including strong feeling of grief within parents. This grief was associated with parental concerns about the future sexual relationships of their children and in many cases their infertility (Gough, Weyman and Alderson 495-496).
            Gough et al’s research consisted of a series of interviews with eight participants (Gough, Weyman and Alderson 498). The results illustrated two main themes of parental reactions: …bewilderment upon detection of a ‘problem,’ and an ensuing climate of pervasive uncertainty about the sex status of the child…the second core then refers to the parents’desperate (and in some cases ongoing,) quest to discover the ‘true sex’ of their  child. (Gough, Weyman and Alderson 498-499)
            This confusion comes most obviously from a lack of knowledge about intersex conditions. Many parents identified a struggle with “categorizing” their child’s sex. The idea of ambiguous genitalia is alien to most people in western society:
             A basic, natural ‘truth’ was shattered, that is, that all humans are either male orfemale…The               uncertainty engendered as a result of this discovery seemed to rock parents’fundamental sense of the world. It appeared that somehow having a child that was not clearly male or female, who did not fit neatly into the ‘truth’of the two-sex  system, was akin to their child having no status… She, (one mother from the study) seemed to imply that her child was somehow something other than human, or possibly even less than human. (Gough, Weyman and Alderson 499)
In western society, sex is so closely linked with humanity that without a clear sexual assignment, a person is barely recognizable as human. If a child cannot be labeled as male or female, the otherness is considered dehumanizing (Gough, Weyman and Alderson).
            Adding greater confusion and concern to the experience of having an intersex child is the lack of knowledge from medical professionals. Doctors are seen as all-knowing authority figures. When a doctor cannot determine the sex of a child, parents are likely to panic. This lack of information reinforces the idea that intersex children are grotesque (Gough, Weyman and Alderson).
            In order to come to terms with having an intersex child, parents tried to heavily gender their children’s appearance. By dressing their children in gender stereotypical ways, parents were able to associate a sex with their child. A father began over-feminizing his child to help “remind himself” of their female assignment. Parents showed paranoia that passerby would mistake the assigned sex of their child if they did not present their child’s sex in obviously gendered ways (Gough, Weyman and Alderson).
            When the identification of the child’s external genitalia failed, parents and doctors looked to internal genitalia and chromosomes for answers to their child’s true sex. For some, these findings were embraceable, but for others the ambiguity still left confusion. Those that found assurance in medical results would be willing to consider surgery as an option. Surgery is recommended to avoid social stigmatizing and to relieve parents’ worries. For some, the concern was that their child would be unable to be accepted as intersex.
            It is true that these parents found the idea of intersex unacceptable. “…it radically unsettles established taken-for-granted conceptions of sex and gender and marks one’s child as ‘other’” (Gough, Weyman and Alderson 504). A more fluid comprehension of sex and gender may help alleviate many of the problems parents face with intersex children. Ideas about sex and gender in western culture need to be questioned, and most importantly more research needs to be done on sex assignment variances within the medical profession. Being more informed as doctors could help parents understand their child. With this in mind, resources should be made accessible to parents of intersex children. Counseling and support groups were examples of resources for parents.
            Sex assignment criteria is varied between medical professionals and in some cases undecideable. However, sex assigment continues to be binary:
            The patient’s gender is always read as either male or female. There is no discussion of        the possibility of both, neither, or a third gender, despite the sustained discussion of these    possibilities in the intersex, transgender, feminist psychoanalytic and social psychology          literatures’. (Gough, Weyman and Alderson qtg Hird 505)
Futhermore, Gough et al references Hester in arguing that by attempting to enforce a binary sex system, medicine has opened the flood gates to variance. With all of the ways sex is determined: “…genetics, chromosomes, gonads, hormones, internal phenotype, external phenotype…it is no exaggeration to suggest that there are not two sexes, not even five sexes, but literally hundreds of possible sexes that humans can inhabit” (Gough, Weyman and Alderson qtg Hester 505).
            Gough et al’s study concludes with an observation that more research in this faculty is needed, especially on intersex individuals who did not undergo genital assignment surgery. If such research were done, a better understanding of intersex, other sex, and gender variance examples could result meaning that individuals in these circumstances can make informed decisions and have resources at their disposal.
            In 2004, Lisa Greene gave birth to an intersex child and faced the difficult decision of whether or not her daughter (diagnosed with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a condition which makes female genitals appear male) would undergo genital surgery (Navarro). Lisa Greene had to consider both arguments in her choice. Members of the intersex community are publicly challenging the surgery, asserting that physical and emotional problems were caused as a result of corrective surgery. Some individuals say they lack sexual sensation in their genitals and compare the operation to mutilation. Others argue that the surgery was unnecessary and that they now “feel like freaks when nothing was really wrong with them” (Navarro par 5).
            Doctors are starting to shift their ideas about surgery as well. “‘Everyone’s rethinking this,’said Dr. Bruce Buckingham, associate professor of pediatric endocrinology at Standford University. ‘We’re probably a little less aggressive than we used to be. There’s a lot of opinion” (Navarro qtg Buckingham par 7). The down side to new opinions is that parents may be even more confused in their decision due to inconsistency between practices and a contined lack of education on intersex available (Navarro).
            Because there are no “comprehensive long-term studies showing how patients fare as they grow up, with or without genital surgery…” (Navarro par 10), parents have little information. Furthmore, some parents say that doctors told them of the option to do nothing, and some doctors insisted on surgery.
            Lisa Greene was unsure of the medical implications of her daughter’s intersex status. Initially, concerned for her daughters future self-esteem, she intended to go through with a  full clitoroplasty, (a clitoral size reduction) but this was not her only concern. Her daughter also had no vaginal opening. Eventually, Ms. Greene decided to only go through with the vaginoplasty in order to make sure her daughter could menstruate safely in the future (Navarro). For a lot of parents, concern for child’s psychological well-being is at the forefront of their minds. The concern for their children living “normal lives” is evident. In many cases, doctors who recommend genital surgery suggest that cultural acceptance is difficult without it.
             Katrina A. Karakazis, a medical antrhopologist interviewed parents, doctors, and people who had undergone early surgery of the clitoirs, vagina, and testes…Most of the adults       who had undergone the surgery as children, however, told Ms. Kakazis they were         unhappy with the results and complaiend of  lack of sensation or pain, or the need for           repeated surgeries and of the fact that they had thick scarring and genitals never looked             ‘normal.’Few were in intimate relationships, she said (Navarro ref Karkazis par 23).
            Another concern for parents of intersex children is that as their children mature they may find themselves identifying more with the gender opposite of the sex assignment. This is cause for putting a hold on the surgery until the child is older and can make the choice themselves. There is little scientific data on intersex people, which may be another reason to wait. The Intersex Society of North America suggests raising intersex children in a specific gender without surgery. The group’s executive director suggests that doctors themselves learn of alternatives to surgery. Included in these alternatives is the necessity of coming up with a plan for psychological support for families (Navarro).
            Navarro concludes her article by saying that open communication with intersex children is a vital part of their future health. A lot of intersex children have grown up without knowing that they are intersex. This lack of information can lead to confusion, secrecy, and shame. Children’s questions need to be answered about themselves, and families need to know that intersex is not something to be ashamed of.
            According to Lang and Kuhnle, gender variances are found in a number of cultures. Limited medical research exists on these individuals and “…hormonal or genetic defects have neither been sought, nor identified” (Lang and Kuhnle 241). From this, it is Lang and Kuhnle’s assumption that in the majority of instances, individuals have no medically defined sexual developmental problems. The authors note that within their article, “The term ‘disorder of sex development’ has been used only when a medically proven condition was present” (Lang and Kuhnle 241).
            A 5cx-Reductase-Deficiency is a “…medically defined form of intersexuality for whom a separate and defined gender status is reported…” (Lang and Kuhnle 241). The deficiency presents itself in individuals as an XY karyotype resulting in inner male genitalia, but outer female genitalia. The phallus is either underdeveloped, or the clitoris is bigger than in a typical female. In Papua New Guinea, these individuals, who begin life as female but develop into males around puberty, are not unknown. These individuals are placed into a third gender category. They will be initiated through the first two of three steps to becoming a man, but in the end are considered neither male nor female (Lang and Kuhnle).
            Within the article, “Intersexuality and Alternative Gender Categories in Non-Western Culture,” many types of gender variance within non-western cultures are discussed. A great deal of emphasis is placed on cultures that support additional gender roles for non-medical reasons. Despite the fact that medical anomalies can result in gender variance within a culture, there are many examples of social gender variance. In the Navajo culture, Nadlehee embody an in-between gender category who can act as mediators between male and female identified individuals. Hijra are an example of a gender variance group who are outcast for their identity as a third gender. However, the Hijra are also asked to perform in important ceremonies. For an example of religiously motivated gender variance, Lang and Kuhnle describe the shamans of Siberia. The shamans, influenced by ghosts, change sex from male to female and will begin having sex with men in the final stage of the process. Each of these examples brings to heart the question of gender variance acceptance within our own binary-gender system (Lang and Kuhnle).
            As an example of gender variance that is not explained by medical conditions, Lang and Kuhnle describe the Nadlehee (berdache) in the Navajo culture of North America. Nadlehee take on the opposite gender roles from what their anatomical sex suggests. They do so in mannerisms, sexuality, and costume. Primarily biological males, the Nadlehee represent a gender identity between male and female. Motivation for this gender swap seems to rely less on sexual preference than preference for the opposite gender’s assigned work (Lang and Kuhnle).
            Though Nadlehee are almost extinct in modern times, these individuals formerly held a high status in Navajo culture. It is interesting to note that within Navajo culture there were once “five genders and three sexes” (Lang and Kuhnle 243). The Nadlehee’s role was often as a mediator between men and women. Because of this, Lang and Kuhnle suggest that Nadlehee were not individuals with a medical condition, but rather a third gender category of  neither male nor female (Lang and Kuhnle).
            Nadelhee, or as they are referred to in Walter William’s “The Berdache Tradition,” Berdache, were a third gender within many Native American tribes. Berdache are neither male nor female, but they are considered androgynous. Their status in Native American cultures was not one of discrimination. Instead, they were highly respected and played an important role as the mediators between men and women (Williams).
            “The Berdache Tradition” explains a possible origin for the acceptance of the Berdache. Many Native American creation stories describe a “man-woman” spirit (Williams 101). In Navajo culture, the story of “First Man and First Woman” also includes the notable “Changing Twins.” The twins use their ingenuity to make tools to help the people. The story implies the natural necessity of the Berdache. As Williams writes, “They were part of the natural order of the universe, with a special contribution to make” (Williams 101).
            A person becomes a Berdache at a young age. Walter William’s, “The Berdache Tradition,” references how a child may become a Berdache in the Mohave culture. A young male enters a ring where someone sings to him. If the boy dances in the way of a woman through four songs, he becomes a Berdache. As a Berdache, they will be given a woman’s skirt and a feminine name (Williams). A person does not choose to become a Berdache, they are compelled. “If the boy is unwilling to assume alyha status, he would refuse to dance. But if his character-his spirit- is alyha, the song goes right to his heart. And he will dance with much intensity” (Williams 103).
            Within Native American Culture, Berdache are seen as mediators. They are the bridge between two polar opposites: men and women (Williams). In sexual relationships, Berdache assume the opposite role of their partner. Male Berdache can marry men and female Berdache can marry women (Williams). Within Native American culture, the Berdache are respected. As a third gender, they are mediators between men and women. A Berdache is born, not made. This is obvious in their character or spirit from a young age (Williams).
            Gender variance is not always as openly excepted as with the Nadlehee. In India, the Hijra are put in a separate caste of people who identify with neither male nore female constructs. A Hijra can be born or made. Hijra are found primarily in South Asia. In Pakistan there may be as many as half a million of them. “Hijra define themselves as being ‘neither men nor women’ residing in a location beyond dichotomous gender categorization” (Pamment 29-30). Male-born Hijra join communities of students and teachers who instruct them in the ways of the Hijra. Most Hijra begin changing around puberty when “they can no longer disguise that their ‘soul is female’ and ‘Allah has made [them] different’” (Pamment 29-30).  One can become a Hijra through surgery representing a third gender category. Medical reports on Hijra support the claim that to be a Hijra is usually a result of the individual’s desire to live as this third gender. “There is only a single medical report documenting physical and biological anomalies in six individuals claiming to be Hijra” (Lang and Kuhnle 244). Hijra are seen to be of low class, especially from the perspective of the wealthy, who often pity them. In contrast, lower-class individuals both revere and fear them. Often, Hijra are attributed with supernatural powers. Hijra work primarily as prostitutes, but also are asked to perform for weddings and and birth ceremonies (Lang and Kuhnle).
            The Indian view on Hijra seems hypocritical. Though Hijra are considered outcasts and deviants, they are given important roles in major ceremonies. The conflicting way that Hijra are viewed in Indian society brings forth the question of whether or not India is more accepting of gender variance than other cultures or less so. It would seem that in India, there is more room for gender variance with the existence of Hijra, but because the Hijra are seen as a low caste in India, gender identity may actually be more limiting (Lang and Kuhnle).
            In Siberian culture, another kind of gender variance exists. Shamans reportedly have the ability to change sex in what has been referred to as “religiously motivated transvestitism” (Lang and Kuhnle 245). This change is associated with the influence of ghosts. It is not considered to be the choice of the individual to transform. There are three steps within the transformation. In the first, the individual changes his hair style to a female’s. Then, the shaman begins crossdressing before the final step of becoming completely female, including having intercourse with men. After the transformation, the individual’s social status increases (Lang and Kuhnle).
            Gender variance is prominent on a global scale. However, gender variance is underesearched. A lack of mainstream information and research studies has caused transphobia to be an epidemic within our culture. Inconsistent medical practices, social stigmas, and misinformation on people with intersex conditions have led to dangerous genital surgeries at young ages. Individuals identifying as gender queer are misunderstood and not taken seriously in our culture. Further, queer genders, such as within the lesbian community, are presented negatively. In fact, a general assessment of how our culture treats gender variant individuals would show intense negativity.
            Such stigmas, misinformation and lack information, can result in intense fear of gender variance, hatred, ostracizing from communities, or murder. In order to better understand gender variance, and to then work on making it culturally acceptable, more research needs to be done and made public. Furthermore, misinformation needs to be corrected, and basic understanding of gender variant individuals needs to be commonplace. When I interviewed Matt Kailey about the acceptance levels of gender variant individuals, he explained that in order for such people to gain acceptance within society, they have to come out. However, the danger in coming out is that in a society that does not tolerate gender variance, these individuals risk not only ridicule, but their personal safety as well. Research has shown that people are more likely to be supportive of gender variant individuals if they have a personal connection within that community. It makes sense that, if more people come out, they would gain support in our culture. This cannot happen in an environment that puts these individuals at risk (Kailey 2011).
            Similarly, without further research parents of individuals with intersex conditions will continue to face the difficult decision of whether or not to put their child through genital surgery. The long-term effects of this process are extremely under researched. Although the number of these surgeries has been declining slowly, medical authorities remain inconsistent in recommendation to parents of intersex children. Adding further strain to the situation is the lack of resources available to parents. Few groups exist to help parents in their decision process and information on intersex conditions is incomplete.
            It is clear that a lack of understanding around gender variance in our binary culture leads to negative situations for these individuals. With further research, the social stigmas that come with gender variance can be challenged. As a result, our culture may become more accepting overall of gender variance and would inevitably become more fluid in gender roles in general. Researching gender variance is beneficial to our culture. Not only will conditions improve for the communities that fall directly in to gender variance, but as a whole society will become more accepting of variations within masculine and feminine genders.
            Gender variance is not exclusive to our culture. Examples of gender variance include Native American Nadlehee, Hijra in Asia, and Shamans in Siberia. Evidence of gender variance in other cultures should further stress the importance of additional research in this field. By studying gender variance and making the information from these studies public our culture will begin to see gender variance not as a deviance that should be challenged, but instead as a natural part of human identity. With this line of thinking, many of the challenges gender variant people may face can be reduced.  

Works Cited

Auge, Karen. "Transgender World Sees Hope." 28 04 2009. The Denver Post. 10 03 2011                  <>.

Bilodeau, Brent. "Beyond the Gender Binary: A Case Study of Two Transgender Students at a Midwestern Research University." Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education. (2005): 29-44

Doan, Petra L."The Tyranny of Gendered Spaces-Reflections From Beyond the Gender Dichotomy" Gender, Place and Culture. (2010) 636-650.

Feinberg, Leslie. "We Are All Works in Progress." Kirk, Gwyn and Margo Okazawa-Rey.           
             Women's Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. 187-192.

Gough, Brendan, et al. "They Did Not Have a Word: The Parental Quest to Locate a True Sex for Their Intersex Children." Psychology and Health (2008): 493-507.

Holmes, Cara. Personal interview. 3 May. 2011.

Hynes, Eric. "Johnny Depp's Adventures in Gender-Bending." Newsweek. Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC, 8 March 2010.

Intersex Society of North America. "How Common is Intersex." Intersex Society of North  America . 17 March 2011 <http://www,>.

Jackson, Janna. "Current Concerns: Dangerous Presumptions: How Single-Sex Schooling Reifies False Notions of Sex, Gender and Sexuality." Gender and Education (2010): 227-238.

Kailey, Matt. Just Add Hormones. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.

Kailey, Matt. Personal Interview. 15 March 2011.

Laframboise, Sandra and Long, Beth. "An Introduction to: Gender, Transgender and Transphobia." High Risk Project Society. 10 03 2011    <>.

Lang, Claudia and Kuhnle, Ursula. "Intersexuality and Alternative Gender Categories in Non       Western Cultures." Department for Anthropology and African Studies: Hormone Research (2008): 240-250.

Levitt, Heidi M. and Sharon G. Horne. "Explorations of Lesbian-Queer Genders: Butch, Femme,             Androgynous or 'Other'." Femme/Butch: New Consideration of the Way We Want to Go (2002): 25-37.

Murray, Samantha. “Within or Beyond the Binary/Boundary?: Intersex Infants and Parental Decisions”. Australian Feminist Studies. (2009): 266-274.

Navarro, Mireya. "When Gender Isn't a Given." 19 September 2004. The New York Times. 10 March 2011             <                                 sq=when%20gender%20isn%27t%20a%20given&st=cse>.

Pamment, Claire."Hijraism: Jostling for a Third Space in Pakistani Politics." TDR: The Drama Review (2010): 29-30.
Preves, Sharon E. "For the Sake of the Children:Destigmatizing Intersexuality." Dreger, Alice Domurat. Intersex in the Age of Ethics. Hagerstown: University Publishing Group, Inc,1999. 52-63.

Williams, Walter L. "The Berdache Tradition." The Spirit and the Flesh (1986): 100-105.

Wood, Julia T. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture: Ninth Edition. Boston,MA: Wadsworth, 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment