Trans People and Their Experiences of Transphobia in Indigenous Cultures

  • Joanna JamelEmail author
Part of the Palgrave Hate Studies book series (PAHS)


Hate crimes recorded by and reported to the police are as diverse as the trans people affected by them. In addition, transphobic hate crime research favours an Anglo-American focus ignoring this type of crime in non-Western societies and their differential acceptance of trans people. This neglect of indigenous cultures is addressed here and the notion of a homogeneous transgender community is deconstructed. Lessons may be learned from these societies in order to be more gender flexible and accepting of non-binary gender identities. However, some First Nation Native American tribes and the Samoan community accept transgender or third gender people, but on closer examination of anthropologists’ accounts (Lang 1998; Nanda 1990) this is superficial, as violence is sanctioned against those who transgress binary gender identities within traditional community life.


Transphobia Gender flexible Indigenous Non-binary Violence Colonisation First Nation 

In the following section, the reader will be introduced to a varied group of transgender communities from a global perspective. This aspect is considered in order to raise awareness of the gender and ethnic diversity of trans people which is not often reflected in the available literature. Furthermore, the essentialist view which pervades research on transgender issues reinforces the ‘Interplanetary Theory of Gender’ that assumes women engage in a gendered behaviour via their biology or socialisation, whereby women will act like women and men like men irrespective of geographical location (Kimmel 2008). This essentialist view is challenged by discussing the gender identities and gender performances of the xaniths of Oman, the hijras of India , the fa’afāfine of Samoa, the fakaleit̄i of Tonga, the  māhū of Tahiti, the sistergirls of Aboriginal Australia and the alyha , hwame , winkte and lhamana of the First Nation Native Americans , for example. Wherever information was available, it was then used to highlight the varying types of transphobic abuse experienced by some of these trans people which was socially sanctioned within their respective societies.

The Xaniths of Oman

Xaniths are of Omani origin and are considered to exhibit a distinct ‘third gender’ identity but are equated with women. Wikan’s (1982) anthropological research focuses on the xaniths of Sohar, in northern Oman. Xaniths wear distinctive pastel coloured clothes combining male and female styles in their mode of dress and hairstyle. If legally permitted, they would dress as women, but this is banned and there are severe negative sanctions which are imposed such as flogging or imprisonment if they transgress this rule. The reason not being due to their male anatomy but because they are socially female and engage in prostitution , by dressing as women they would dishonour them, as female prostitutes are not considered to exist in their society. Nevertheless, xaniths’ non-verbal behaviour is feminised, from their facial expressions, voice, laugh, mannerisms, and deportment. However, under Islamic Law they also possess all of the rights as a man, worship in the mosque with men and support themselves financially unlike females who are not financially independent. They also have male names and are referred to using male pronouns. Their varying occupations include homosexual prostitution (which is not due to economic necessity or ‘survival sex ’), as singers—which has a spiritual aspect at weddings, and they also work as domestic servants. There is a flexibility with regard to the xanith’s identity, in that, they may assume the identity of a female for several years and later revert back to a male gender identity for the remainder of their life, he may then live as a xanith until old age or he may alternate between female and male gender identities throughout his life (Wikan 1982). This fluid gender identity of xaniths is permitted amongst males only. Females must retain their gender identity throughout life and hence an intermediate third gender role is inaccessible to them. Xaniths are neither men nor women so may again like the hijras be described as an alternate gender; however, they differ from the latter as they possess male and female characteristics and are not emasculated.

The Hijra of India

The term ‘hijra’ (of Urdu origin) translated into English is ‘eunuch’ or ‘intersex’ (Nanda 1990). ‘Emasculation is the dharm (religious obligation of the hijras, and it is this renunciation of male sexuality through the surgical removal of the organ of male sexuality that is at the heart of the definition of the hijra social identity’ (Nanda 1990, p. 15). They identify with a female gender identity and role, but have masculine secondary sexual characteristics; however, some males undertake this role who do possess external male genitalia (and fear their discovery). The hijra also identifies with a predominantly homosexual orientation (see Kahn et al. 2009; Kalra 2012). Hijras self-identify as an ‘alternative gender’ by not identifying as a man or a woman. There are three modes of recruitment for males with genital abnormalities: (i) parents give them to the hijras; (ii) the hijra s claim them; and (iii) on reaching adulthood, children with these deformities will join the hijras (Agrawal 1997; Nanda 1990). Hijra s’ explicit and ‘…exaggerated use of feminine cultural symbols in their self-presentation through their mode of dress, hairstyle, names and kinship terms was in considerable dissonance with their apparent bodily status which was clearly not biologically female’ (according to Nanda, p. 287). The primary role of the hijras is their performance at the birth of a male child or wedding ceremony to bless them and bestow fertility. Although hijras also engage in sex work when they are unable to find other job opportunities, some may be self-employed or work for non-governmental organisations (UNDP 2010). Monro (2010) differentiates between the hijras who have been castrated and the Kothis (who have not) but who self-identify as female and are homosexual. ‘Hijras are akwas (not castrated) and nirvana (castrated)—some hijras are akwas, so biologically they are men—they are also predominantly homosexual though they may be married with kids, but this is due to convenience, they are not bisexual. Kothis, are a heterogeneous group, who may exhibit bisexual behavior and marry women; they are of a lower socioeconomic status, and may engage in “survival sex” work. Some hijra-identified people may also identify themselves as “kothis”. But not all kothis identify as transgender or hijras (UNDP 2010).

Regional variations of other transgender identities include the Kinnar s (Delhi) and Aravanis Hijras (Aravanis) in Tamil Nadu, where the Aravanigal Welfare Board defines them as biological males who self-identify as a woman trapped in a male’s body (UNDP 2010). Jogtas or Jopgappas are devoted to and serve the Goddess Renukha Devi (Yellamma) in temples in Maharashtra and Karnataka. “Jogta” and “Jogti” refer to the respective male and female servants of that Goddess. To become a “Jogta” (or Jogti) it must be a family tradition or they may identify a “Guru” (or “Pujari”) who will receive them as a “Chela” or “Shishya” (disciple). The term “Jogti Hijras” may be used to denote trans females who are devotees/servants of the Goddess Renukha Devi and part of the hijra communities. Whereas “jogtas” are heterosexuals who may or may not dress in women’s clothing when worshiping the Goddess. They are also differentiated from “jogtis” who are natal females dedicated to the Goddess. However, “jogti hijras” may self-identify as “jogti” (female pronoun) or hijras, and sometimes even as “jogtas” (UNDP 2010). Shiv-Shaktis are males considered to have a relationship with a Goddess and who identify as female. “They are inducted into the Shiv-Shakti community by senior gurus, who teach them the norms, customs and rituals to be observed. Shiv-Shaktis are married in a ceremony as the bride to a sword that represents male power or Shiva (deity)” (UNDP 2010, p. 13). Shiv-Shaktis may occasionally cross-dress and use  female accessories. In the main, they are of a low  “...socio-economic status and earn their living as astrologers, soothsayers and spiritual healers; some also seek alms” (UNDP 2010, p. 13). Next, there is a brief discussion of the  socially sanctioned levels of violence experienced by the hijra when in public spaces.

The hijra inhabit an institutionalised role that has spiritual elements within Indian society (Kalra 2012) and whom are venerated when hired to bless newborn infants, and wedding grooms with fertility. However, they are also treated with a combination of ridicule and fear when walking around in public. Hijras may be referred to using the derisory term ‘kaurika’ (an old penny with a hole in the middle which is obsolete, like an ‘empty shell’ which has no purpose) by small and adolescent boys (Nanda 1990). Although this verbal harassment is stated as being carried out by young boys, it could be speculated that they may also experience harassment from adult members of society especially when engaging in sex work as there is the double stigmatisation (i.e., being a sex worker and hijra) and the possible conflict experienced by clients. They may be internally conflicted as they hire hijras but despise their desire to have sex with them. Thus, this self-hatred of clients of the hijra may have parallels with that experienced by those who perpetrate transphobic violence directed at transgender sex workers described in research later in this book. Therefore, it seems there is a level of hypocrisy with regard to how these trans people are treated. Whereby, they may be subject to verbal violence and censure despite their socially ascribed role in the community, these double standards where violence is socially condoned against trans people are also evidenced in other cultures and indigenous communities discussed below.

Trans People in Mainland and Maritime South-East Asia and Brazil

The bakla’ in the Philippines is a derogatory term used to describe males whose behaviour deviates from male gender norms, they self-identify as homosexual and their sexual expression includes fetishism and transvestitism. Their self-presentations are as effeminate males, ‘sissies’ or they may be perceived as being fearful or shy (see Winter et al. 2007). These males are therefore subject to social condemnation through their labelling as ‘bakla’ which is also a manner in which wider society is socially condemning their performance of gender role deviancy and attempting to reinforce the rigid gender role binary. In Thai, ‘ kathoey is an umbrella term in South-East Asia to capture all third gender categories, encompassing all alternative gender presentations and sexualities which deviate from the gender binary. However, in reality, kathoey seldom refers to those who are natally female irrespective of their gender identification. There are also regional variations, as in Bangkok, in the middle classes, kathoey only refers to Male-to-Female (MTF) transgender persons (Kang 2012). There are also variations in spelling in the Thai language such as ‘Kra Thoey’ which in the English language is translated into ‘ladyboys’ (Wetsiriyanan et al. 2016). In Bangkok, again double standards are present, whereby ‘ladyboys’ are socially accepted within society but are also stigmatised and it can be challenging for them to assimilate into mainstream society. In Brazil, there are the travestis who are transgender sex workers, they are homosexual men who cross-dress from an early age, identify their gender through female names, undergo feminisation surgery, undertake hormone therapy, and use silicone injections to achieve a physically feminine presentation such as pronounced hips, thighs and breasts. However, crucially they reject the notion that they want to be or wish to become female. Their gender is defined by their sexual practice not anatomy and thus they ascribe to a ‘third gender’. Their boyfriends must be quite masculine and be the active sexual partner never the receptive one. Although this is a homosexual relationship, the attraction is based on difference in that the boyfriend must desire women and the travesti desire males (Kulick 1998). In his research, Kulick does not document violence experienced by travestis at the hands of their clients; however, they may sometimes be financially exploited by their boyfriends, although it is described as an accepted practice that travestis may knowingly allow to happen depending on their level of emotional attachment to their boyfriend. When travestis are murdered, the term used to describe these crimes are ‘travesticides’ (Berkins 2015 cited in Radi and Sardá-Chandiramani 2016), whereas a more diverse approach to addressing such crimes defines them as ‘violence based on prejudice’ (IACHR 2015 cited in Radi and Sardá-Chandiramani 2016). These crimes are predominantly street-based, particularly within those areas which are quite isolated and are usually perpetrated at night. The level of transphobic violence that is inflicted on the bodies of travestis and trans women is evidenced by the explicit injuries and marks left illustrating the extent of brutality and extreme cruelty carried out by perpetrators. The perpetration of such violence demonstrates that the offender does not see travestis as human beings but objectifies them and imposes a death sentence for their non-conformity to the gender binary while also sending a threatening message to other travestis and trans communities. Research suggests that offenders frequently do not have any family connections to the victims; however, it was usually found to be members of police forces or persons with links to them (Bento 2014; IACHR 2015; Guadagnini, Antola, personal communication, as cited in Radi and Sardá-Chandiramani 2016). In addition, the challenges faced when bringing criminal cases to court include the negative discrimination and prejudices experienced by travestis and trans women when trying to achieve justice in an institutionally transphobic criminal justice system. They suffer secondary victimisation through their characters being discredited which negates their voices being heard. Thus, they are constructed as victims who cannot be empathised with unlike the attackers whose actions may be perceived as being morally justified. Thus, travestis and trans women are often constructed as being suspects as opposed to complainants or witnesses. This results in a lack of confidence in the police or criminal justice system to take their case seriously and effectively prosecute it, particularly if the complainant is involved in sex work. Furthermore, where the perpetrators are police officers, this can negatively affect those officers who are actively trying to solve the case and put their lives at risk (Gilardi, personal communication, April 2016 as cited in Radi and Sardá-Chandiramani). News agencies can also exacerbate the trauma of the crime by disclosing the masculine birth name of travestis and transsexuals reinforcing negative stereotypes about these communities (Bento 2014; Antola, personal communication, April 2016 as cited in Radi and Sardá-Chandiramani 2016). Next, First Nation Aboriginal trans people, their identity, culture and experiences of transphobic violence are examined.

First Nation Third Gender People

Aboriginal Transgender Identities and Culture

There are two groups which are unique to Australia, and they are (i) brotherboys and (ii) sistergirls ; integral features of their self-definition within these categories are kinship and their cultural identification. Hence, why ‘sistergirl’ and ‘brotherboy’ are used by Australian support groups, in order to denote inclusion and focus attention on indigenous Australian trans women and trans men, respectively (see Kerry 2014). However, the term ‘sistergirl’ is not universally used or applied in a consistent manner. Nevertheless, this term is deemed acceptable for those from ‘traditional or semi-traditional communities’. Those sistergirls who came from an urban background emphasised that for them, sistergirls were individuals with ‘transgender qualities’ (Costello and Nannup 1999, p. 6). Kerry (2014) states that ‘[w]ithin traditional communities transphobia is linked directly to the liminal social status of sistergirls. Although the term and social role of a “sistergirl” offers a way of articulating experiences and needs that are distinct from cisgendered indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, their place in traditional communities is “precarious”’ (p. 183).

Regarding the prevalence of transphobic violence within this indigenous community, research suggests that transphobia is a key feature in the lives of transgender Australians with 73.5% of trans men and 69.7% of trans women reporting being harassed through verbal violence. Moreover, 29.4% of trans men and 46.9% of trans women were subjected to threats of violence. In addition, physical attacks were reported by 11% of trans men and 18.2% of trans women. Furthermore, rape or sexual assault was reported by 17.6% of trans men and 13.6% of trans women (Kerry 2014). Unfortunately, no details were provided regarding the context or perpetrator(s). ‘The most common forms of violence perpetrated against the sistergirl community appeared to be physical, sexual assault and rape’ (see Costello and Nannup 1999, p. 8). It is therefore interesting to note that according to Costello and Nannup (1999) that due to violence being condoned within indigenous communities, that the violence experienced by sistergirls was also normalised. Traditional communities are based on a rigid gender binary with regard to the roles assigned to women and men. Therefore, ‘…what is distinctly experienced by indigenous transgender Australians is racism within the wider Australian communities (including queer communities) and transphobia within traditional indigenous communities’ (Kerry 2014, p. 185). Next, indigenous communities’ treatment of trans people within First Nation Native American culture is examined below.

Native American Transgender Identities

‘Queer indigeneous people have been under the surveillance of white colonial heteropatriarchy since contact’ (Driskill et al. 2011, p. 212). The colonial influence was most keenly felt by First Nation Native Americans which will be referred to here. Within First Nation Native American culture, trans people are referred to as being two-spirited people; previously, the colonial term ‘ berdache was used by anthropologists and researchers which is considered insulting by First Nation (Native American) people across North America (see Besnier 1996; Epple 1998; Kessler and McKenna 1978) and indigenous people of Canada—as they were being labelled rather than being asked how they self-identified. The term ‘berdache’ is of Persian origin and understood to historically mean ‘kept boy’ (see p. 26). Kessler and McKenna (1978) also discuss the ‘berdache’ who originate from aboriginal North America. While Hill (as cited in Nanda 1990) uses the colonial term ‘berdache’ to refer to intersex people within the Navaho tribe in the Mohave. These individuals received social sanctions for assuming a gender role which was opposite to their natal sex or assigned gender at birth. Some berdache were homosexual, others transvestic or were both transvestites and intersex; the term ‘berdache’ is no longer used and is referenced here purely for contextual reasons and to highlight its inappropriateness. Two alternate gender categories identified are alyha (transvestite homosexuals) and hwame (lesbians) (Nanda 1990). Alyha self-identify in pre-adolescence by engaging in activities and dress of the opposite gender. For example, instead of learning to ride and hunt, some boys demonstrate a preference for playing with dolls, engaging in domestic chores and wishing to wear a ‘female bark shirt’ rather than a ‘male breech clout’. Their families are ambivalent about their behaviour, but initially try to encourage them to engage in more male-orientated activities, and if these efforts are unsuccessful, they will initiate them via a transvestite ceremony whereby they will wear feminine clothing. Transvestite songs would also be sung. They will dance as women do and once confirmed as alyha, taken to a river to bathe (this could be symbolic of a rebirth into the female gender), given girls’ skirts and thus their gender status is confirmed on a permanent basis. As alyha she will not take on a female lineage name. However, she will take a husband, engage in oral and anal intercourse and refer to her penis as a clitoris, her testes as labia majora and anus as a vagina. Alyha are also considered better housewives than women which increased their attractiveness as spouses. Alyha will also go to extreme lengths to mirror women's biological cycle regarding menstruation (e.g., using a stick to scratch between their legs till they bled), and even mimic pregnancy. Pregnancy is faked by simulating the bump with extra clothing; a potion is ingested to cause stomach pains and through defecation ‘a still birth’ is simulated and then buried. The couple would then cut their hair short in mourning. Although alyha were not teased within the tribe as they were seen as quite powerful, their husbands were teased for marrying them. Another aspect of their prescribed role related to mysticism and healing powers as they were perceived to be potent shamans particularly for curing conditions such as STDs like syphilis (see Nanda 1990).

Hwame were like shamans, thus like the hijra there was a mystical/spiritual element to their role. They were, however, less accepted than alyha. But, hwame were considered excellent providers, but had unstable marriages. If they married a pregnant woman, they could claim paternity of child as sexual intercourse with a pregnant woman could change the paternity of the child according to the Mohave. Some hwame took up their man–woman status after giving birth to a child. However, in contrast with the alyha, their gender identity preferences were for male activities, masculine modes of dress and they rejected the female alternatives; these behaviours also presented in childhood (Devereaux cited in Lang 1998). The hwame were similar to the alyha in that their wives were teased. Nevertheless, where they differ is that unlike the alyha who were socially accepted, hwame occupied a much more precarious position within the tribe. As at one level, their alternate gender was accepted with regard to the carrying out activities of the opposite gender and dressing in accordance with their male role. Nonetheless, this acceptance is suggested as being quite superficial as their wives were verbally harassed as stated above. Furthermore, the hwame despite their shamanic role which appears to act as a protective characteristic for alyha, does not offer them the same protection. Hwame were therefore ‘…exposed to actual verbal and physical assaults, and occasionally even raped by men’ according to Devereaux who ‘described the rapists as ‘practical jesters’, where ‘…a drunken hwame was forced to have sexual intercourse with several men seems astonishingly insensitive’ (as cited in Lang 1998, p. 294). Thus, in accordance with Lang’s anthropological writings regarding the gender ambivalence of hwame and alyha , the institutionalisation  of gender variance did not appear to explicitly challenge either the cultural norms of heterosexual marriage or the gender division of labour regarding the appropriate roles of men and women. Therefore, whether women–men/men–women entered into relationships with men or women, they were still culturally constructed as heterogender (see Lang 1998). The transgender identities discussed above where the opposite gender role to the person’s natal gender is adopted with regard to their mode of dress and gendered activities undertaken contrast with that of the ‘nadle’ or ‘ nádleehé’ . The nadle identity blurs the gender boundaries and provides a much more fluid presentation of their gender regarding their physical appearance, and sexual orientation which is also less well defined.

The nadle who were part of the Navajo tribe present with personality features that are ascribed to the other gender but there is ambivalence with regard to sexual identity, and the discrepancy between their physical appearance and behaviour results in dual sexuality which presents as physical ambivalence. ‘The status of nadle is an ambivalent, nonmasculine and nonfeminine gender status which requires either physical or psychic-physical ambivalence’ (Lang 1998, p. 69). She cited Hill when discussing nadle and stated he was not clear as to whether they were male- or female-bodied or intersex; but, she suggests that it is most likely he was referring to male-bodied or intersex people. The Navajo stated that nadle were better women than natal women, as they were guardians of traditionally gendered activities and have access to all female-oriented activities but were excluded from male-specific ones of hunting and warfare. In contrast, the winkte (female-to-male) of the Lakota tribe dedicated themselves to women’s work but also hunted. Thus, they engaged in combined gendered activities and took a much more flexible approach to the expression of their gender identity. Winkte were understood to have supernatural power to bestow secret names. These trans men are similar to hwame only with regard to their natal gender and their self-presentation as the opposite gender. Although they engaged in specific specialist occupations within the context of their masculine gender role, they dedicated themselves to women’s work (Lang 1998). However, this adoption of specialist male roles was the choice of the individual as to whether they wished to engage in these as well as participate in men’s everyday work activities. Depending on their occupational specialisms and whether they were within the feminine sphere of responsibilities or they were activities which could be undertaken irrespective of sex; there was more flexibility in this sense within the Lakota tribe in this regard. According to Lang (1998), the Oglala Lakota winkte had an additional social role whereby they were considered good match-makers. There were no reports here of winkte being subjected to overt violence because of their transgender presentation, this does not mean that such violence may not have occurred but may instead be reflective of researchers not asking such questions. Next, the transgender identies within the Zuni tribe of First Nation Native Americans are discussed.

Zuni lhamana are initiated into the ko’tikili when masculine characteristics or oppositional gender identity preferences first present. Young males did not have to choose this gender role until puberty even if prior to this they showed a preference for female clothing and tasks. However, lhamana occupy a gender ambivalent role that has some parallels with the winkte. They engaged in women’s activities such as weaving textiles and baskets and demonstrated a mastery of these skills as well as being expert plasterers which was more of a male ascribed activity (see Parsons as cited in Lang 1998). They also carried out the most difficult labour intensive women’s tasks. Again, here there was no discussion of any violence experienced by those who undertook this role so it may suggest that there was widespread social acceptance within the tribe of this flexible gender role. Nevertheless, evidence to confirm or reject such speculations is unavailable and thus more research is required in this regard. In the next section, transgender identities are explored in Tahiti, Tonga, Indonesia, Africa, Korea, China, Japan and Vietnam.

Transgender Identities within other International Communities

Trans people are referred to in Tahitian and contemporary Hawaiian terms as māhū and Samoan fa’afāfine ‘(in the fashion of a woman)’ (Besnier 1996, p. 286). Thus, ‘[i]n Samoa a fafine is a woman, [and] a tane is a man or husband…’ (McMullin 2011, p. 85). However, McMullin does not name what Samoan women who dress as men are called, this may be because evidence of their visibility is rare. The reader will note that throughout the discussion of trans people within these indigenous communities, disproportionate attention is often given to men who identify with the opposite gender, while their female counterparts are either considered not to exist or given cursory attention in the literature. When they are discussed as in the case of the hwame above, it is noteworthy that they were condoned targets for transphobic sexual violence.

In Tonga, the term used is fakaleit̄i (borrowed from the English word ‘lady’) or fakafefine. Whereas the Tuvaluans use pinapinaaine of Gilbertese origin (Besnier 1996). Nanda (1990) suggests that in Tahitian culture, a third gender role that of the māhū is found. They are like some of the hijra as they are not castrated, they also do not cohabit, but live and dress as women, speak with a feminine voice, engage in traditional female employment, demonstrate a mastery of certain handicrafts and also sing with women. The māhū also do not wear facial hair (Morrison as cited in Levy 1973, Nanda 1990). Historical accounts of Captain Bligh of the Bounty ship recounts how the genitalia of māhū were examined and found to be underdeveloped male genitalia that had been tucked in. It is noteworthy that māhū people were treated with the ‘same esteem and respect as women according to Bligh’ (as cited in Levy 1973, pp. 130–131, see Nanda 1990). In order to mimic heterosexual intercourse more closely, it was noted that historically interfemoral intercourse was practised not anal intercourse. According to Tahitian cultural traditions, the māhū fellate the man he has had sex with and ingests his semen as it was understood to bestow strength, the māhū were also believed to have exceptional strength. There were rigid heteronormative gender roles described with regard to sexual acts whereby the māhū’s partner is always the recipient of oral intercourse and never the provider of fellatio. The māhū’s partner is also described as the passive partner never the active one (Nanda 1990). There are conflicting accounts about the homosexual activities of the māhū with some Tahitian men stating it was central to their role but others denying this, and younger men refuting this rejection. Nevertheless, Nanda suggests that the māhū are not defined solely by their sexual orientation. The relationship between the māhū and their partner is differentiated from a homosexual couple as the māhū are perceived as women. Tahitian culture defines the Western import of ‘homosexuality’ as raerae which means ‘sex-role reversal’ and pertains to sodomy and applies to a role reversal between male and female sexual relations (see Levy as cited in Nanda 1990). Each district has one māhū, the person volunteers for this role by being willing to dress and engage in the activities of a woman (domestic chores, childcare, etc. in public, or as in another district associating with adolescent girls, walking arm in arm, usually an activity only participated in by homosexual males (see Levy as cited in Nanda, p. 136). However, Nanda’s account lacks clarity as to whether undertaking the role of māhū is due to being intersex or the possession of any genital abnormalities, but her reading of Levy’s work explicitly states that Tahitians do not believe that one can ‘change their sex’ and it is possible to revert to non-māhū masculine status. Therefore, there is a fluidity here that again is particularly reflective of the xanith. There also seems to be a social acceptance of this role although like the hijra (see Nanda 1990) young men do harass māhū and may ridicule them despite boasting about sleeping with them and emphasising their promiscuous nature (Besnier 1996).

Park (email communication as cited in Feinberg 1996) identifies the existence of trans people known as basaja’ on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (Celebes). In Korea, trans males are known as the mundang who was a shaman or sorcerer, whereas in Ancient China, the shih-niang wore a combination of male and female dress together with religious apparel. In addition, in Okinawa, Japan, certain shamen participated in male-to-female ceremonies known as winagu-nat i (‘becoming female’) (see p. 45), while in African cultures, female-to-male (FTM) shamans co-exist with male-to-female (MTF) shamans, for example, in the Lugbara tribe, a MTF person is called an okule and FTM person is called an  agule . In South Africa , the Zulu too initiated both FTM and MTF isangoma . MTF shamans also existed as part of traditional life of the First Nation peoples of the Arctic Basin; for example, Inuit FTMs serve the White Whale Woman, a spiritual being who is gender flexible according to accounts of her being transformed into a man or a ‘woman–man’ (Boas as cited in Feinberg 1996). Thus, the common characteristic amongst the majority of trans people across different cultures is the shared mystical or spiritual element of their persona which was sometimes enough to protect them from transphobic violence and gender-based harassment.

According to the writings of Feinberg (1996) who suggests that irrespective of which culture, there is a persistent spiritual connection with regard to the role of trans people, however, this is uniquely absent in Western cultures. With regard to the latter, transsexualism is encompassed within the transgender status and is not defined as an alternative or ‘third gender’. However, for the hijra, the female and male signifiers of ‘male and female’ are similarly constructed to Western gender signifiers of maleness, as the phallus and the child bearing capacity of women (possession of a vagina). With regard to the xanith, the male signifier is male potency and the active sexual position being taken in intercourse, whereas with the alyha and māhū , the presence or absence of male genitalia does not impact on their presenting in a female role as long as they dress and engage in female domestic-related activities (the former also taking on the female passive role in sexual intercourse).

Traditionally, in Western culture there is a perceived permanence with regard to one’s gender identity and that even when a person transitions to confirm their subjective gender identity; the expectation is they will not revert back to their natal gender identity. This is highlighted in Chap.  3 when discussing legislation in relation to gender identity. However, there is more fluidity and public acceptance with regard to gender identity in indigenous cultures as seen above. For example, the hijra (prior to emasculation), the māhū and xanith allow individuals the opportunity to revert back to their natal gender identity should they wish to do so. Thus, the importance of physical and biological characteristics lies in gender attribution and may combine in bearded women, penile women and vaginaed men. The complexity of gender attributions can be further highlighted by pre-operative transsexuals being sperm donors and also socially women. ‘…[W]e assert that not only is gender attribution far from a simple inspection process, but gender attribution forms the foundation for understanding other components of gender, such as gender role (behaving like a female or male) and gender identity (feeling like a female or male)’ (Kessler and McKenna 1978, p. 2). By confirming one’s internalised gender identity through hormone therapy, feminisation surgery and less so by undergoing gender confirmation surgery, trans people’s internal gender identity and external gender presentation may be aligned. This reinforces the gender binary and associated cultural stereotypes rather than challenging them and facilitating the development of a ‘third gender ’ as discussed above in indigenous cultures. Just as there are parallels regarding the mystical and spiritual aspects of the transgender identity across non-Western cultures, so too are there overlaps between the restricted access to occupational spheres which increase transgender peoples’ vulnerability to transphobic violence and harassment. For example, when trans women are economically forced to engage in ‘survival sex’ or sex work irrespective of culture. Examples include the hijra and travesti , and similarly transgender sex workers in other territories such as America (Boles and Elifson 1994; Weinberg et al. 1999). Xaniths present female characteristics in their sex work role and this occupational context has parallels with the perceived promiscuity of Polynesian gender liminal people. Engagement in sex work due to restricted employment opportunities in indigenous cultures also occurs in Western countries, whereby trans women’s risk and vulnerability to violence are therefore increased. However, Polynesian gender liminal people have more work options available to them. The problem with researching transgender people in non-Western contexts according to Nanda (1990) is the ethnocentric tone which unhelpfully projects Western gender concepts onto other cultures. Furthermore, Roen (2001) also emphasised that ethnic diversity in transgender communities continues to be ignored as reflected by the predominant ‘Whiteness’ of transgender research. There have thus been renewed calls for conducting more intersectional research with regard to transgender socially constructed identities (see Nagoshi and Brzuzy 2010) and how ethnicity , class and socio-economic status as well as gender and sexual orientations can intersect to exacerbate discriminatory responses at an institutional level and increase trans people's vulnerability to violence as a result of hazardous occupations being undertaken due to limited employment opportunities.

In the next chapter, transphobic violence is examined with regard to its prevalence, nature and type on a national and international scale. In addition, the perceived ‘naturalisation’ of the gender binary is discussed referencing the different theoretical perspectives reinforcing and challenging this ‘norm’. The reader is also encouraged to consider whether the approaches taken to accept trans people are as conceptually advanced as suggested by these progressive countries or could more be learned from indigenous societies’ adoption of gender flexibility as being normative.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Criminology and SociologyKingston UniversityLondonUK

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