Gender Diversity Crosscultural Variations by Serena Nanda; Chapter 4 & Chapter 5 Notes

Chapter 4

Liminal Gender Roles in Polynesia

Gender relations in Polynesia are complementary

2 important widespread gender norms

1)      Respect relationships between brothers and sisters

2)      The division of women’s roles into the more positively valued virginal “girl”, and the less valued mature wife, who has had at least one child.

Gender Liminal male roles

The practice of males adopting attributes associated with women is traditional and deeply imbedded in much of Polynesia.

Location Term for Male Gender Variant
Tahiti and contemporary Hawaii Mahu ( translated to “half-man, half-woman”)
Samoa fa’afafine (which literally means “like a woman”)
Tonga fakaleiti (the root leiti is borrowed from the English word “lady”)
Tuva in the Gilbertese islands Pinapinaaine

There is no uniformly consistent ideology, a man can move in and out of this role throughout his life

In Polynesian social life, behavior and identity are generally a matter of appropriate situational context

In Tahiti social acceptance of gender variant roles is significantly legitimized by an individual’s long-term participation in these roles.

Polynesian gender diversity is not associated with religion not does it have a sacred meaning, therefore it is functionally integrated into some Polynesian societies.

The Polynesian gender liminal individual crosses genders in acting “like a woman” but not viewed as becoming a woman. He is suspended between being man and woman but being neither.

Appropriations of the Feminine

The defining criterion for the mahu is that he publically engages in the occupations and the activities of women.

In Samoa males do the “heavy” and instrumental work of directly providing food while women are linked with the “light” work that is largely decorative and associated with the household and the village. Gender nonconforming males do the light work of women.

Polynesian gender distinctions of dress are important gender markers. Men leave the front of their lavalava (sarong) flopping in the front while women tuck the ends inside the waist.

A man can convey a gender transformation by consistently tying his lavalava in a feminine style.

Although gender variants are often referred to as transvestites they generally do not cross dress on a permanent basis.

Male gender variants adopt women’s speech patterns and their high pitched tone of voice. They also adopt their manner or walking and feminine gestures.

The mahu is generally described as “natural” and thought to “have been born that way” in contrast to homosexuals who are believed to choose their roles when they are adults.

Sexuality and Gender Liminality

-Men who have sexual relations with a mahu are not considered in any way gender variants themselves

While no stigma or shame is attached to their sexual partners, there is a potentially negative connotation that a person who seeks the mahu or his equivalent for a sexual partner does so because he could not obtain a woman.

Polynesian liminal genders are not the same as Western homosexuals.

In Tahiti homosexuality is called raerae and is considered a foreign import and is differentiated from sexual relations with a mahu.

Gender liminal roles are not in any way imposed on men perceived ad effeminate.

In Samoa gender conformity might well begin in childhood, a family with few girls may bring up a boy child as a girl, though most gender liminal boys transvestitism voluntarily.

In Polynesia, sexual relations with men seems to be a possible consequence of a nonconforming male gender status, rather than its cause, prerequisite, or primary attribute.

-Same sex sexual behavior is expected and frequently occurs in other contexts such as boarding schools or prisons and sexual experimentation among teenaged boys appears to be a normal part of Polynesian life.

-Gender liminal adult males are not presupposed to have a history of or an identifyable preference for same sex sexual relationships. The assignment of gender liminal status frequently takes place in childhood, before the awakening of sexual desires.

Besnier notes that mahus take the “female role” in sexual relations “as recipient rather than inserter”

Gender conformists do not have sex with each other.

Sexuality and Social status

Today these roles do carry some social stigma

This stigma as well as the harassment and even the violence sometimes directed at gender variant individuals in some Polynesian is closely associated with their sexuality

Gender liminal male sexuality in Polynesia contains some contradictions.

-Gender liminals are significantly defined by their sexuality yet also traditionally are known by their feminine occupations

-They are considered as both falling outside the range of normal adult male eroticism yet also are considered sexual predators

-and they are like women in their sexual practices but are unlike women in that they pay for sexual favors.

Performing Gender Diversity

Gender liminal roles in Polynesia are closely associated with secular performances and entertainment

Polynesian cultures are characterized by an emphasis on decorum, emotional restraint, and respect behavior, these norms apply to discussing or expressing sexual matters in gender mixed cultures.

Gender liminality is associated with lack of restrain and decorum, particularly regarding sexuality, this makes gender liminals particularly suitable for secular entertainments

Only in a gender liminal abandons his gender nonconformity by marrying and becoming a household head can he participate as a meaningful male member of Polynesian society.

Gender Liminality and the Polynesian Concept of the Person

In Polynesia the “person” is a multifaceted identity and occupying a gender liminal status is not the basis of a totalizing characterization

Chapter 5

Transgendered Males in Thailand and the Philippines

In both societies today gender diversity primarily refers to transgendered males who take the receptor role in same-sex sexual relations and who appropriate feminine attributes and engage in feminine behavior, particularly transvestitism.

The kathoey of Thailand and the bayot/bantut/bakla in the Philippines are sometimes referred to as a “third sex” but are more widely understood to be effeminate homosexuals.

Currently in Thailand and the Philippines attitudes toward gender diversity are complex and ambivalent and include hostility and ridicule.

The diffusion of Western biomedical models of homosexuality as inversion has negatively affected social attitudes, though, at the same time, the western-inspired “gay: identity has put a more favorable gloss on gender nonconformity.

Kathoey of Thailand

Until the 1970s males and females, (biological) hermaphrodites, and cross-dressing men and women could all come under the umbrella term kathoey. The term has been dropped from cross-dressing females, now referred to as tom.

Buddhist origin myths describe three original human sex/genders – male, female and biological hermaphrodite or kathoey.

Buddhist views that kathoeys were natural phenomena, whose condition was a result of karmic fate, preordained from birth and thus beyond their capacity to alter.

The Buddhist based Thai belief that kathoeys are not sinful because their behavior is beyond their control

Homoeroticism in Thai Culture

Popular Thai belief is that cross gender sexual relations (kathoey and a man) are less stigmatizing than same gender sexuality (between two masculine appearing males)

Same sex/gender eroticism was considered inauspicious, resulting in natural disasters, such as droughts, being struck dead by lightning, or becoming crazy. (did not apply to man/kathoey relations)

Transformations in Traditional Sex/Gender Ideology

Self-identified gay Thai men are equally or even more concerned with their masculine identity than heterosexual men and model themselves on the dominant masculine image except for their sexual orientation.

In the new construct of gay identity, insertive and receptive anal sex are no longer defining markers of gender identity.

In Thai popular culture today, the categories of man (including gay and heterosexual men) and kathoey are viewed as polar opposites.

Social Attitudes toward the Kathoey

It is not same sex sexuality that is stigmatizing, but rather the associated mark of femininity.

Both traditionally and currently, a Thai male who dresses, talks, and acts like a Thai man and who fulfills his social obligations by marrying and fathering a family is honored by being considered a man, even if his preferred sexual partner is male.

A homosexuality that does not breach other masculine gender norms need not be and is not viewed as a source of confrontation with society or a matter of social condemnation.

The kathoey’s cross-gender persona, which its assumed permanent sexual subordination in the receptor role, now makes him a kind of “deficient male,” not an independent sex/gender category

The kathoey are also derided because of his rejection of the strongly sanctioned expectation that all Thai men other than Buddhist monks should marry and become fathers.

Sex/Gender Diversity in the Philippines

Ritual and healing roles were associated with feminine attributes and were occupied by females or transvestite males who dressed and acted like women in order to perform their powerful and prestigious roles

In Southeast Asia, transgendered and cross-dressed males were associated with sacred personages, were guardians of state regalia and ritual healers, and were accomplished singers and dancers who performed at various celebrations and rites of passages.

Gender diversity in the Philippines was not relegated to the margins of society, but rather was symbolically central.

Contemporary Constructions of Gender Diversity: Transgendered Male Homosexuality

Contemporary gender diversity in the Philippines centers on male transgendering

Bakla are thought of as “psudo-women”

The term bakla has negative connotations of indecisive, weak, or cowardly

The term bantut has even strong negative connotations in Muslim areas of the Philippines, where it denotes male impotence and a “joke of a woman”

A Woman’s Heart in a Man’s Body

The bakla’s core gender identity or “heart” is feminine

For the bakla their inversion consists of a woman’s heart, spirit, or psyche in a male’s body

Bakla Sexual Relations

The bakla’s sexuality is important in his subjective identity and also affects social attitudes towards him.

The Filipino view that only the “feminine” partner in the sexual relationship is a homosexual reinforces the emphasis on the feminine loob (inside identification) as the core of bakla identity

Inversion theory presumes that only one partner in a same sex sexual relation is an invert (Nanda is arguing that this is essentially a Western notion that has been imported to the Philippines)

Bakla typically express their desire for a real man as deep longing

The Association of Transgendered Males with Beauty

Beauty in the Philippines is associated with successful performance, which includes, in a very central way, the ability to transform oneself successfully from one’s ordinary role.

The bakla, as males who display a highly successful ability to present themselves as women within certain contexts, are therefore closely associated with the concept of beauty in their own eyes and in the eyes of society.

The bantut are not merely imitating women but are “capturing” the power of femininity through beautifying their bodies and through their gender transformations.

Transvestite Beauty Contests

In transvestite beauty contests, bakla transform themselves by conveying a highly valued, global, and cosmopolitan image of glamour and style identified with the West, particularly America, and in the Philippines associated with the upper-class, educated elite and celebrities, themselves shaped by western cuture.

Beauty contests give status and pleasure to the bakla

“Beauty” is articulated by and associated with those institutions identified with the “knowledge power” of the Americans, and beauty is a primary idiom within which this “global other” is identified.

It is also a source of ambivalence, particularly to the Muslim areas of the south. In these areas the bantut identification with the global “other” generates ambivalence

In Muslim-dominated areas, buntuts are not only gender “deviants” – as neither men or women- but ethnic deviants as well.

During the 1970’s the bakla tried to improve their social position by identifying themselves as a “third” sex/gender in an attempt to become equal to men and women but because in the Philippines, same-sex sexual behavior is transformed through the concept of inversion into heterogender behavior and modeled on it, the “thirdness” of the bakla had little impact on their social status.


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