further musings on third gender
November 1, 2014
(before i start, now that this old post of mine is going around again i want to note that it used the massively problematic framing of west/east, with ‘west” literally used interchangeably for ‘white”. it is possible that it is after i originally posted that something like a year and a half ago, i first got called out for my participation in the erasure/genocide of the Indigenous ppls of the ~west~. i was sorry then and i”m sorry now. i”m leaving the post as is bc i don”t really believe in removing past stuff like that, for the sake of accountability. moreover, given that the resonance of hurtful shit you say lasts far longer than the moment in which you expressed it, any Indigenous person who calls me out for that post has a right to it. and i”ll listen and apologize every time)
The thing that really can get to me about how white non-binary people use the term is just how much history, bullshit colonialism, and outright erasure goes into their ability to happily and without much thought, use the term to describe their gender.
As an anthropological term, ‘third gender” is already, always embedded within a white supremacist and orientalist discourse. For those unfamiliar with Orientalism as a theoretical framework, I”m not using this term to speak of specific areas of the world, rather in this particular post, it applies to any iaopoc culture where ‘third genders” are said to exist. What I”m reference in using this term is the way that white academics/scientists/researchers set themselves up as ‘authorities” over the discourse they claim is ‘knowledge” about the peoples they study.
As an example, one of the more prominent scholars on ‘third genders” or ‘transgender” in the Philippines is Jack Winters. He is a white cis man working at the University of Hong Kong. If you attempt to do any amount of English language research on trans/gender in the PH, you bump into his work. I think I even read something by him in the HuffPo recently. He is an acknowledge ‘expert” or ‘authority” on the subject.
I”m sure you”ll note how ‘authority” in this is doing double the work, since it is purposefully meant to mean ‘academic authority” but also ‘colonial authority”. This is, above all, about relationships of power. And how colonial powers have continuously sought to ‘know” and ‘understand” its subjects in order to control us. This is the sort of thing that is captured or contained by the term Orientalism.
So this is what white nonbinary people are doing when they decide that ‘third gender” is the right word to describe themselves… they are putting on themselves this term that was specifically designed by to construct a representation of a certain group of peoples as inferior and that facilitated our subjugation under colonialism.
This isn”t to say, though, that white nonbinary people are then othering themselves as subject of the colonial gaze…
Rather, what this signifies is the completion of the colonial project. Under colonialism there can be only two genders, just as heterosexuality is compulsory. That a term steep in violence and oppression like ‘third gender” comes to be sanitized and neutral sounding to colonists is precisely the point. Academics (and anthropologists for a long time) sat around in their ivory towers thinking that their work was the objective and neutral creation of knowledge. Many of them still think this is what they do.
And since the one of the goals of colonialism is to ensure that a binary gender system is the only gender system, we who are third gender must not exist. Must not be allowed to continue to exist. Since many of the gender systems are part of what exists of the pre-colonial, indigenous culture, third genders (and the gender system under which they are coherent) must disappear along with the natives themselves.
Which brings us to today. Where I can open a white anthropology textbook1 to read about how I no longer exist. The textbook boldly claims that bayot and asog (bakla) no longer exist in the Philippines. An interesting claim given that ‘third gender” beauty pageants are something big, visible, and fairly popular in many areas in the PH. Also an interesting claim given that I”m able to sit here and read about how I, in actual fact, don”t exist.
Actually, scratch that, the situation is far worse. Being told you don”t exist is painful, but it isn”t something entirely unique to people with indigenous cultures2. What is unique to us is being told that we once existed but are all gone now. Reading in a textbook that the Spanish (then American) colonizers where successful in entirely eradicating you and all the people like you. This is a trauma and pain unique to those of us who live under colonialism.
‘Third gender” is really just white nonbinary people getting in on that colonial action by erasing the violent past of the term (and its theoretical framework) while also ensuring that the myth of our demise stays entrenched in the minds of all white people. Just so that I know I”m being very, very clear: the violence that white nonbinary people do by calling themselves ‘third gender” is just erasure. It is active and willful participation in a 500+ year old project to ensure that people like me cease to exist. And even that sounds bloodless, ‘cease to exist”. No, they are participating in the actual material conditions that kills people like me.
Don”t be fooled. White people claiming ‘third gender” is an act of violence and power.