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More on cis and trans* outside of the West

(This was originally posted at Womanist Musings. Reprinting here for archival purposes.)

Part of this post is intended to highlight the importance of context for understanding certain topics. It is somewhat known in the trans* community that there are non-Western cultures that recognize more than two genders. What is generally unknown (or at least unexplored) is what implications this has for the trans/cis distinction.

I know that some people cut this distinction along the lines of experiences of body dysphoria. This can be a fairly easy way to make a fairly clear distinction between who counts as cis and who counts as trans*, since it often appears to be a large part of the trans* narrative (or, at least, those narratives which are heard). There are, of course, problems with using body dysphoria as the divider, since it emphasizes the more medical aspects of transition and puts a strange emphasis on the body. This latter is important because it is also part of the trans* narrative that gender is best understood as being unrelated to bodies.

Other people will demarcate this distinction using dis/agreement with your (coercively) assigned gender. To a certain extent this means that being trans* becomes somewhat more of a function of how *other* people perceive you and not about how you understand yourself. Because your (coercively) assigned and the gender role that accompanies it (and what you don't agree with) is a product of external factors it fits within the notion that gender is socially constructed and not a property that inheres within certain types of bodies.

What I find interesting about the notion of a socially acceptable third gender (like bakla is sometimes thought to be) is how it troubles these easy distinctions. There is much discussion in the trans* community about the binary (and those beyond it, like genderqueers). This binary results from the fact that, in Western societies at least, there are only two cis genders, creating a binary of man and woman.

Transitioning is generally conceived as going between one of these two cis-genders, or going beyond/outside of them if you are a non-binary trans* person. But, this whole framework of gender depends on there only being two cis genders. While it may be the case that cultures with third genders will tend to still assign their children either man or woman, the presence of other options means that, if you fit one of these other options, you’ll have another gender to move to with relative ease.

Of course, there are still people who will not fit any of the recognized genders, perhaps feeling dysphoria as well. This person in that culture would be properly considered trans*. But this is why context is so important. It means that I could live in the Philippines and consider myself cis but live in the US/Canada and be trans*. This rather strange possibility highlights exactly why we should be wary of any discourse that attempts to set itself up as the hegemonic authority.

Are there places with more than two cis genders? What would this mean? How does it function? What are the implications? How does it trouble the usual narrative? What are the experiences of those outside of the western, hegemonic discourse of gender? What are their stories?

I have personal answers to some of these stories, based on my own experiences (which I may share later). But I also just want to know more, since my inability to competently read in any other than english somewhat prevents me from participating in the discussions happening outside of the west. And since the west continuously marginalizes any story/discourse that does not easily fit or challenges it’s supremacy.