Beyond the Binary: Question Twenty-Four

July 10, 2013 § 3 Comments

Our last question (or, rather, linked questions) – it’s been a total delight. Round-up to come – panel bios here.



Question Twenty-Four:

In Leslie Feinberg’s book Transgender Warriors, there are examples of indigenous people and cultures which respect and honor trans people. Are there also examples of this for non-binary or neutrois folks anywhere? 
Do you know of any religious or spiritual beliefs which speak to this?


 Do you have any NB heroes, modern and historical?


Answers after the jump because of length…


Jennie: There are lots and lots of different gender options available to people across different cultures. Interestingly, though, relatively few of these are available to people assigned female. I suspect this is because, in prehistory, people able to bear children were too precious a resource; they could and did take on other social roles but their societies would have relied on being able to conscript them back into a childbearing role in times of population decline. Anyone who menstruated or looked mostly female would likely have been assumed capable of childbearing until, in some cases, they got old without it having happened. So we see, for instance, hijra cultures which welcome male-assigned people and people with clearly intersex genitals but have no room for people whose unmodified appearance is more feminine. Of course, this might also be seen as an aspect of male privilege – that male-assigned people have more freedom to define themselves differently, at least until they lose that privilege after the adoption of a different gender presentation.

I don’t really do heroes. History is full of the stories of non-binary people but they’re mostly tragic, sooner or later. My hope lies in those anonymous kids for whom things will be different.




Nat: I think it can be problematic to try to interpret the beliefs and cultural practices of indigenous peoples and cultures through the lens of specific western identities and experiences. A great deal of caution is needed as the risk of cultural appropriation and erasure is high. From my reading, I’d say that in many cases there’s as much of an argument that many of the examples claimed as ‘trans’ could be claimed as ‘nonbinary’, or as some other GSRD (gender, sexual and romantic diversity) label, but the reality is that they do not map to our own cultural or subcultural categories.

The tendency in anthropological study of these roles and identities has been to cast them as ‘third genders’. But that is problematic in its own way. However it does seems that in many cases the accepted role for those we would recognise as being of some form of transgender experience is as limited as binary gender roles are, or tied with other expectations such as primary or secondary sexual characteristics, sexual orientation, undergoing castration or genital cutting, ‘failure’ at coming of age, or being a warrior, a carer or a priest. So it could be argued that many examples represent respect and honour of nonbinary people within those cultures, but it could also be argued that in cases where the culture offers a gender ternary or a path to respect and honour, this is prescriptive, restrictive or coercive and not something our cultural or subcultural lens would recognise as progressive or respectful. 
Recognition that not all cultures follow the same gender and sexual roles and beliefs as the dominant culture is extremely important, but this shouldn’t come with romanticisation of or appropriation from those cultures.

As for spiritual beliefs speaking to nonbinary experience. I’ve seen people cite the first part of Matthew 19:12 from the Christian New Testament as supporting their nonbinary gender or transition; “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” However I’ve also seen this used to support all variety of experiences, including asexuality and ex-gay therapy. Again, it’s often problematic to take a two thousand year old religious text outside of its cultural and historical context and apply it to the modern western world.

My heroes are mostly those people who were visibly nonbinary, genderqueer or gender nonconforming and speaking in the media or writing about their experiences in the mid-to-late 1990s in the run up to my transition. Most notably Raphael Carter who wrote the Androgyny Rarely Asked Questions, writers and activists Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein, and the ‘transgenderists’ featured on the BBC One 1995 Q.E.D. documentary ‘Sex Acts’ including Christie Elan-Cane, who I saw talking about being nongendered on prime time TV in my middle teens.
I was also for years aware of a near legendary appearance of Toby, a neuter person, on a 1989 episode of the Sally Jesse Raphael which I’d heard and read so much about but only finally saw on YouTube this year –
A mention should also go to travel writer Jan Morris whose 1974 memoir of her binary transition ‘Conundrum’ contained an inspiring chapter about mid-transition androgyny and how people saw and interacted with her, which when I read it in the late 90s first made me feel it was possible to feel comfortable and to some degree recognised as who I am.



GrrlAlex: Not personally other than those covered in the various literatures around gender and transgender – and Kate Bornstein – she talks about moving from binary identites to a broader more congruent identity – I respect that.




Hel: So, I’m intensely uncomfortable with the framing of the first question, for a number of reasons. Firstly, ‘trans’ is a term that has had its meaning shaped primarily by white/Western discourses, and I don’t think it can be unproblematically imposed on gendered experiences from cultures outside white/Western hegemony. Secondly, I think Transgender Warriors is a very valuable book indeed, but I don’t think “there are indigenous people and cultures which respect and honour trans people” is the right thing to take away from it. Although in its very title Transgender Warriors is indeed grouping the people it discusses together under the umbrella of ‘trans’, throughout the text Feinberg tries to complicate that idea and avoid imposing a hegemonic idea of ‘trans-ness’ on the people sie discusses. Since not everyone reading this necessarily has access to a copy of the book, here are some illustrative quotes from the introduction:

“‘Transgender Warriors’ is not an exhaustive trans history, or even the history of the rise and development of the modern trans movement. Instead, it is a fresh look at sex and gender in history and the interrelationships of class, nationality, race, and sexuality.

… as a white, transgender researcher, how can I avoid foisting my own interpretations on the cultures of oppressed peoples’ nationalities?

I’ve… included photos from cultures all over the world, and I’ve sought out people from those countries and nationalities to help me create short, factual captions. I tried very hard not to interpret or compare these different cultural expressions. These photographs are not meant to imply that the individuals pictured identify themselves as transgender in the modern, Western sense of the word. Instead, I’ve presented their images as a challenge to the currently accepted Western dominant view that woman and man are all that exist, and that there is only way to be a woman or a man.”

So – I don’t think Transgender Warriors actually does identify particular indigenous cultures as venerating ‘trans people’ as such, since Feinberg takes care to avoid slapping a blanket label of ‘trans’ on the various types of gendered experience that Feinberg discusses. What Transgender Warriors does do is highlight that the white/Western binary gender system is by no means the only one, and that variation from this system under which Feinberg grew up can be found by looking in other time periods and cultures. (That said, it’s also worth noting that some consider Feinberg as having failed in hir efforts to avoid appropriating or misrepresenting the cultures sie discusses – there’s a critique of Transgender Warriors to this effect in Towle and Morgan’s article “Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the ‘Third Gender’ Concept”.)

Secondly, I’m also rather confused by the framing of the question, in that there seems to be a false opposition set up between ‘trans’ and ‘non-binary/neutrois’? When Feinberg uses the term ‘trans’, they are very clear that sie uses it ‘in its most inclusive sense’ – to mean all sorts of gender-nonconforming identity, expression, or behavior, and certainly including gendered experiences beyond the binary, given that Feinberg is hirself someone who prefers neutral pronouns and exists on the genderqueer/non-binary/etc spectrum.

Thirdly, I can’t help wondering about the agenda behind this question. While obviously I don’t know the context in which this question is being asked – gender across cultures and belief systems is certainly a very interesting topic! – I am wary of spirituality where a mish-mash of beliefs are adopted (or rather, appropriated) from a vast number of religious traditions, without respect or understanding of their cultural context. While I can understand the desire to see oneself reflected in one’s chosen spiritual/religious tradition, I don’t think that sifting through the beliefs of marginalised peoples in search of non-binary/neutrois heroes is the way to go about it.

… which leads me, I suppose, to the broader remit of the question: are there any religious/spiritual beliefs which speak to non-binary/neutrois experiences? Quick answer: yes. Slightly less quick answer: yes – both in the sense that this question seemed to be asking about, and with regards to religions that are often considered to be socially-conservative. I’m not a person of faith myself, so my answer is (inevitably) an ‘outsider’ response, and I don’t think I can answer this one at all comprehensively – but I have a number of trans friends and acquaintances who have found places for themselves in their various religious traditions. The first thing that springs to mind was the recent Hidden Perspectives event in Sheffield, which focused on ‘sexuality, gender and the Bible and intersecting issues relating to identity, diversity and representation’ – it had at least two genderqueer/non-binary speakers, CN and Reubs J Walsh. In discussion a while ago, a trans Jewish friend sent me some interesting links: rituals and blessings related to coming out and transitioning, varying Rabbinic interpretations of Adam’s gender/sex, the Talmud recognizing six different genders. Via other friends, I’ve also run into things like the Queer Muslim Masterpost (which seems a little focused on sexuality, but some of the links from it do have trans content as well!), and I know someone who is working within their subset of the UK pagan community to make it more inclusive for transgender and genderqueer people. (As I have very little knowledge of e.g. the First Nations and Native American religious traditions which include two-spirit identities – or rather, as what I think I know has come from search engine results and a few books and articles – I don’t feel able to usefully link to resources, especially as I don’t know anyone from those communities who can give me an idea of how accurate (or not) the things I’ve read are. (Further reading about gender across different cultures with is very much on my to-do list – if anyone reading can recommend some starting points, written by people from the culture in question rather than white European/American anthropologists/psychologists/etc, that would be awesome.) )

And the final question – do I have any non-binary(/genderqueer/etc) heroes, historical or modern? Well, first, my standard caveat: modern identitarian terms can only be applied to historical figures on the understanding that it is anachronistic (while also a useful blunt-instrument tool for tracing and ‘recovering’ the presence of erased/marginalised groups – c.f. vast swathes of LGB academia, Jay Prosser on ‘transsexual historiography’, the amazing Secret Histories Project, my own work on genderqueer literary historiography, etc). So – without having any idea how they might identify themselves were they around today – two historical figures who stuck out for me in my early reading were George Sand and Mary ‘Moll Cutpurse’ Frith. They were both female-assigned people who transgressed gender in various ways, including cross-dressing – Sand in the 19th century, Frith in the 17th. I ran into some fragments of Sand’s writing about cross-dressing while researching something largely unrelated to gender, and they struck a chord. Frith is someone who we don’t know a lot about – she was something of a celebrity during her life, if ‘celebrity’ is the right word for a notorious cross-dressing criminal, and all the rumours, pamphlets, and plays that were produced at the time make it hard to distinguish fact from fiction, which is part of why I find her so fascinating. Maybe ‘heroes’ is the wrong word here – but fascination is probably the closest I’m going to get to hero-worship when looking into the past.

Finding contemporary heroes is much easier – Leslie Feinberg is a big one, as is Kate Bornstein – both people whose writings were revelatory for me. On a more local level, Elliot Evans (who doesn’t have a public online presence) was an invaluable mentor to me some years ago, and I still hold them in very high esteem. And finally, CN themself, who has been an incredible source of wisdom, support, tough love, and caffeine. (CN, you have to publish this, even if you’re blushing – ha!) 



CN: (Hel is right about the fact that I’m blushing – the sly bastard!)

I’m going to echo Nat and Hel in their answers to the first question. I adore ‘Transgender Warriors’, but really don’t think it’s about examples of indigenous people and cultures which respect and honor trans people” – 
I always found it more of a brief look into how every human culture will have its own unique understanding of sex and gender – that fact alone disrupts the idea that our current, predominately Eurocentric/Western/white, post-Victorian idea of binary of opposites is the ONE TRUE SYSTEM of gender and sex (can you imagine a spooky voice on the capitals? thanks). Included within and alongside that is the fact that some cultures have more than just binary options, that some cultures are more understanding of people moving from one category to another, and that there have always been people who’ve challenged/changed whatever system they’ve found themselves in. We shouldn’t grab from these accounts, but in learning from them I think there’s a great gift in how they can get us to challenge ourselves and think for ourselves – to position ourselves as critically as we can within our own culture/s. I would include, as Feinberg does, critical appraisals of sex/gender systems and roles within that Eurocentric/Western/white history  – ‘the past is another country’- it’s so often wrongly assumed that what we have now must have been in place, without notable exception, for a long time – nothing could be further from the truth. Just one example – Western Europeans (an ahistorical term, I know) created, exploited and, to some degree, accepted the castrati for an exceptionally long time, placing them in a ‘third sex’ category – the last castrato to sing in the Sistine Chapel died in 1922! There are new resources turning up all the time – I have a public bibliography on facebook that’s far from conclusive, but might be helpful.

As an atheist, I may not be the best person to ask about religious and spiritual beliefs! (My research into religious subjects is all on religious music). I know that there are many progressive Christians (my family are Methodists, and I’ve heard some amazing stuff from their churches) who embrace gender plurality and understands God in a way which moves radically away from a patriarchal, masculine idea. From casual conversation with acquaintances/friends from different religious backgrounds, I get the impression that there’s plenty out there about ideas of being neither/both male/female etc.

As to heroes – I’m going to be woefully unoriginal and say Leslie Feinberg and Kate Borstein – I owe them both the most enormous debt. Historical figures? Ignore the inaccurate hype that some websites have reported, and take Wikipedia with an enormous pinch of salt – musical histories certainly aren’t as salacious – but I adore La Maupin, and sometimes  fantasize about being her when I’m having a bad day.

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