For people who claim to be against colonialism or appropriation of others’ cultures and lived experience, it seems like pretty much all they ever do. It’s amazing such a house of cards built on contradictions ever gained any traction.
Have you seen headlines like these? At first I thought that they were satire, or at the very worst a small minority of outspoken yet naïve writers who merely sought to garner attention with a controversial headlines. Unfortunately, statements like these have become common amongst certain activists attempting to promote the idea that the sex binary was a colonialist construct imposed by the force of white supremacy and European imperialism. They muddy the water further by intentionally conflating sex and gender. The modern gender binary as we know it (encompassing the sex role stereotypes of masculinity and femininity), in places like North America or in Europe, are culturally specific and restricted to a relatively recent period of time, but there are certainly analogous social concepts in many, if not most, historical, pre-colonial cultures around the world. There are in fact a variety of social conceptions of gender in historical and modern cultures that would be deemed “non-binary”, “third gender” or simply “other”, but it is crucial to note that binary systems of SEX existed historically in every community throughout history, all around the world.
All cultures are complex, nuanced, and possess good and bad elements. Pre-British contact, Indian widows (only widows, not widowers) practiced sati or suttee, in which a widow killed herself by sitting atop her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. In Aztec society, women had limited leadership roles within the empire and were not allowed to be warriors. Foot binding was the Chinese custom of breaking and tightly binding the feet of young girls in order to change the shape and size of their feet, popular because it was believed to tighten the women’s thigh and pelvic muscles and heighten the sexual pleasure of the men who possessed them. The idea that societies who hadn’t contacted Europeans were utopias of progressive behavior, where women were unbound by patriarchy, their reproductive capacity not controlled entirely by men, where female sexuality wasn’t strictly policed, is ludicrous. People around the world knew how babies were born prior to the white man coming to let them know. To imply otherwise is to embrace an ahistorical eurocentrism.
The central flaw in the argument that whiteness brought forth the sex binary is that encourages the idea that a practice is good and worth defending by virtue of simply being non-white and non-Western. This notion is preposterous, not to mention foundationally racist, and pure Noble Savagery. The Noble Savage is an archetype, an idealized concept of humanity which symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of Western (colonial) civilization.(1) The original Noble Savage myth was a tool which enabled racists to promote the centrality of race while simultaneously advocating violently racist modes of ordering society. There is now a new Noble Savage myth 2.0 concerning the immateriality of gender, and it is no less dangerous and no less a tool of the uninformed.
The concept of the Noble Savage was first invented by the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in the mid-eighteenth century in order to glorify the “natural” life of original man.
While I agree that in many cases the gender binary, masculinity and femininity as we have it imposed upon us in the Western world, was forced upon other cultures via European colonization, the sex binary was not. In fact, extra gender identities, like gender in general, rely heavily (if not entirely) on the sex binary to exist in the first place. And far from being progressive, “third genders” are patriarchal nonsense and simply a way for people (historically, almost entirely all male bodied people), to find a place in society when they did not conform to that particular society’s vision of what manhood should be. The prevalence of “two-spirit” or “third gender” identities, far from being a measure of progress, actually correlated with the rigidity of gender roles within a society(2). If you study history, you’ll find that more egalitarian societies with less gender socialization had an absence of ‘two-spirit’ people due to their lack of emphasis on sex-assigned gender roles(3).
There is a phrase on the Enmetena and Urukagina cones (Mesopotamia)— the earliest known law codes from circa 2400 BCE — that says, “If a woman speaks out of turn, then her teeth will be smashed by a brick.”
Samoan culture is often lauded as progressive for its cultural acceptance of fa’afine, the social category of effeminate males. ‘“Fa’afine are identified at an early age by virtue of their propensity for feminine tasks”(4), and so the concept is wholly dependent upon the sex role stereotypes. There’s only one acceptable way to “be a man” in Samoa, and if you don’t fall in line, you’re “othered”. Historically, fa’afine do not deny their sexed bodies as men. In fact, there are several professional athletes who are fa’afine, and they play on men’s teams. We can find similar examples of this within the Native American Lakota tribe. Winkte were generally homosexual or effeminate men who couldn’t find a place within their society where sex roles were strictly enforced, and thus were given a “third gender” identity(3). Why were no Lakota women “two-spirit”, while the men were? There is little to zero historical evidence that women in any society were allowed to upgrade their positions and “become men” or “live as men”. I have not found a single example of a society in which the notion of any sort of third sex is not influenced by patriarchy and proscribed/prescribed gender roles. The vast majority of these third sex categories apply to effeminate or gay males but not to masculine or lesbian women. Whilst third gender categories have historically been created to accommodate gay men, no such categories have been created which would allow lesbians to exist outside of heterosexual society. In Hawai’i, where I am originally from, we have māhū. Māhū in Native Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures are “third gender” people (similar to Samoan fa’afafine), who were, historically, all male at birth.
American Samoan fa’afafine footballer Jaiyah Saelua (far right) is a member of the American Samoa national football team (a men’s team).
Let’s look at things another way. Let’s take into account that it’s men in power throughout history who impose gender roles, and that these patriarchal societies had to have somewhere to put “men who don’t ‘act like’ men” because of masculine male gender policing and social control(3). In cultures where aggressive, macho masculinity is prized above all in men and boys, these identities serve to absorb all the men who don’t “fit”, especially effeminate gay men. Why do we continue to promote this? Misrepresenting and romanticizing these identities results in a social climate where important nuances are lost or buried. Every variation of socially-constructed gender throughout history (including masculinity and femininity) has existed to enforce the nuclear reproductive family and to ‘other’ those who do not conform to or partake in it; particularly homosexuals. Societies around the world, throughout history, have consistently created separate social categories and stereotypes for men, women and homosexuals. And this isn’t a good thing.
In the modern world, this is playing out in countries like Iran where homosexuality is a crime, punishable with death for men and lashings for women(5). In Iran, both lesbians and gay men are often coerced into undergoing the radical procedures such as sex reassignment surgery, so as to “cure” them of their homosexuality, which is outlawed in the Islamic Republic. Everyone must adhere to rigid gender roles and stereotypes, the fixed beliefs and assumptions of how men and women “should” behave, or they’ll be punished.
Does all this mean that men and women cannot or should not break the hold that gender has over us? Of course not. There have been fabulously different, creative, and expressive people flying across gender lines for centuries. But, that does not make biologically born men and women capable of changing their sex…which was something we once knew but seem to have forgotten along the way.
Ironically, there is nothing more Western than modern gender ideology, starting from the blatant appropriation or outright theft of “third gender” concepts from other cultures. Gender roles are a prison, and the significance of biological sex cannot be disregarded, in spite of recent efforts to reframe gender as an identity rather than a hierarchy. Depoliticizing gender, adopting an uncritical approach to the power imbalances it creates while trying to rewrite history, benefits nobody…least of all women. Only the abolition of gender will provide liberation from the restrictions it imposes. The shackles of gender cannot be re-purposed in the pursuit of freedom. In the end, gender ideology is the ultimate colonizer.
(1) Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism (New York). 1928.
(2) Jeffreys, S. Gender Hurts. (NY: Routledge). 2014.
(3) Bell,Deirdre. Toward an End to Appropriation of Indigenous “Two Spirit” People in Trans Politics: the Relationship Between Third Gender Roles and Patriarchy. CulturallyBoundGender. 2014.
(4) Schuerkens, Ulrike. Global Forces and Local Life-World Social Transformations. Sage Publications. 2004.
(5) Hamedani, Ali. The gay people pushed to change their gender. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29832690 BBC Persian. Published 5 November 2014.