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Re: Indonesia, third gender, etc.

From:Johnson, Anna <ajohnson@...>
Date:Wednesday, December 12, 2001, 14:54
Nik Taylor asked, "What is this third gender?  How is it used and what does
it mean?"

Well, a waria is what Will Roscoe referred to as a THIRD GENDER. While all
human societies probably have had a minimum of two genders, many
historically and today have more than two.

In the case of Indonesia, the waria I met were what we Westerners would call
'transgendered' (like me). But I hate the term transgender and find the
third gender model more useful - like the waria I met, I was born with male
genitalia (but, like everyone, has no idea about my chemical makeup and
genetic set-up except to assume I am XY) but do not conform to the cultural
standards for being a boy.

Gender in the West means 'how persons of a sex should act, and sex is
invariable and ultimate'. But this isn't true in all parts of the world,
where people believe, for example, that even biological sex can change over
time due to interactions with the divine, dreams or simply time. In certain
times and places, cultures may develop third or fourth genders, which are
different than the first two. So if men do X and women do Y, thirds/fourths
may mix the two (as we might expect) but also have their own behaviors.
Third genders may specialise in healing or religious work in some cultures,
for example; they might lead war parties or town councils or have other
duties restricted to third gender persons. Among the River Yuman peoples of
Native America, for example, women did not fight, but we'rhame [fourth
gender, i.e. gender 2 for bio-females] and males did; warriors were
considered unsuitable mates for procreation, but sexy; they might die at any
time, but in the meantime, they were attractive and might be someone to
date, and this was true of we'rhame and male warriors alike.

I don't know so much about waria - I met quite a few but didn't conduct life
histories. ;-) However, my experience was that in (non-Aceh) North Sumatra,
waria were independent, credited with wealth-making (they often ran inns),
and were considered different from men and women. In addition, they were not
heavily stigmatised - they participated in village life like anyone else
without anyone blinking. They wore a wide variety of clothing, from total
'drag' to 'effeminate' male dress, and some identified with Western ideas of
transgenderism in that they wanted to save up and go to Thailand for a sex
change and hormones while others were happy as is, beard and all. They may
also engage in specialised trade items as well such as weaving and dying
traditional cloths and carving wooden items. Interestingly enough, the
famous 'Navajo rugs' were invented by a third-gendered Navajo (they are
called nadleehi whether biomale or biofemale).

At the time, I was still male, but was considered a bit of a curiosity by
locals because I had long hair (foreign traveling males had short hair and
women usually long hair, while locals pretty much all had short hair
regardless of sex), so usually my conversations (with old men a lot, since
they have time to kill) went as follows:

Hi. What is your name?
Are you American? (I lied and claimed to be from Canadia to avoid occasional
ugly political diatribes)
Are you waria? (I said no.)
What are you doing here in Sumatra?

The waria question was considered minor. Imagine some old US dude talking to
a foreigner and considering it polite to ask whether they are a boy or a
girl or maybe if they are a homosexual. Clearly, there is no equivalent in
terms of social weight.

Some of these categories still remain in the US: Fred Martinez, Jr., a young
biomale who was murdered recently in Colorado, self-identified and was
identified by his (Navajo) mother and his (white) friends by the Navajo term
nadleehi. Fred used the male restroom, kept his male name, and looked like a
beautiful young woman and socialised nearly exclusively with women, and
called himself not male or female, but nadleehi.

Anna J. Johnson
Mystif & Scrat Inscrutable
Somtyme one of mankynde is both man & woman & suche ... in englyssh is
called a scrette.
- Caxton, Trevisa's Higden (1482)