Posts tagged ‘gender’

November 8, 2011

Gender Imperialism

According the San Francisco Trans March’s about page, this was part of the original callout that started the march:

to encourage more trans and gender-variant people to come out; to build connections among ftm, mtf, bayot, crossdressers, sadhin, hijra, transvestites, bantut, drag queens, drag kings, mahu, transsexuals, bakla, travesti, genderqueers, kathoey, two spirit, intersex

Speaking from my particular Bakla experience, I find this list very troubling. The impression you get from this list is that bayot, sadhin, hijra, bantut, mahu, bakla, kathoey, and two spirit are all trans identities. Now, I do not know about the other identity labels in this list (nor would I want to speak on their behalf), but I will say that I do not believe that Bakla is a trans identity. Or it isn’t necessarily a trans identity.

In my Filipin@ family ‘bakla’ was usually considered to be Tagalog for gay. This means, within my family, that bakla denoted sexuality and not quite a gender expression. Of course, being bakla sexually did have some interconnected gender norms that would appear to the Western gaze as gender variance or non-conformance. In other words, being bakla=gay in my Filipina context had different cultural meanings than being gay did in my larger Western context.

It has been and continues to be a challenge for me to resist the Western, imperialist constructions of gender. This conflict has been my *only* source of gender confusion and dysphoria. Before I was kicked out of my dad’s house, I was perfectly comfortable with my gender. But as I became entirely surrounded by the Western gaze, with no refuge, I began to feel discord with my gender and body. I have spent years struggling with my gender only to realize that the issue was not about my relation to my body but my relation to how the West views my body. My gender dysphoria was the result of Western imperialism.

When I started wearing skirts and make-up in high school, I was perfectly fine. I was also, to the surprise of everyone white person I’ve told, perfectly fine at home and with my family. I didn’t try to wear the skirts at my Catholic high school (but I did wear the make-up). And I actually got my dad to tell the school administration to stop bullying me about my gender non-conformance. Amazing, isn’t it? More important than these really great external circumstances, was the fact that I never felt like my body and gender were mis-aligned. I liked having this body. My gender expression was fine for bodies like mine. All was right in the world and with my gender.

After I got kicked out (for reasons unrelated to my being queer), I entered the big, white world. And in this world, suddenly my gender and its expression became a source of conflict and danger. Perhaps my most alarming experience was being followed home by this guy. I, unfortunately, lived in the ghetto at this point (my street was the street where the women sex workers conducted business). This meant that being followed home in this neighborhood was *not* a good thing. I also experienced other expressions of hate and discomfort with gender variance. Eventually, these experiences (and a toxic friendship) convinced me to throw my skirts away (lovingly hand crocheted by myself) and make up, so that I could be a ‘man.’

Trying to live up to this Western, gender normative notion of ‘man’ did a lot of damage to myself. I’m getting over it, but it hasn’t been easy. And as I exit this stage of my life I’ve been re-examining my relationship with the trans umbrella (and the cis/trans binary). Ultimately, I’m resisting this label too, partially out of mistrust and a fear that even trying out this better, but still Western, conception of gender will still do damage to me. And I think it would. Because accepting the trans label as a bakla means that I’m defining and understanding my gender within a Western context. It is an acceptance of the imperialism and continued colonization of my body by the West.

My gender identity, and its expression, exist outside of the Western construction of gender. It is the product of a culture that, while it has a colonial past, is its own. I do stand in solidarity, however, with my trans cousins because we are, ultimately, fighting for the same rights (I want the freedom to express my gender without consequence, just as much as they do). And as I stand in solidarity with my trans cousins, I ask that they recognize that appropriative nature of things like the SF Trans March callout. That they recognize that trying to include non-Western identities under the trans umbrella is imperialistic and wrong, even when individuals choose to stand under that umbrella. As a bakla, I do not belong to a monolith and my community is diverse. Some of us are trans and some are not. And, ultimately, this is *our* decision, not yours.

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October 19, 2011

Designated values and privilege

I’ve had occasion to criticize the cis/trans distinction. One of the commentators mentioned asked me if they should not identity as trans because their family didn’t reject them. It has take me a while to work through how I really should have responded to that comment.

Originally, I said that simply subsuming myself under the trans label totally erased my identity, not only as a POC but also the privilege my particular non-binary identity allowed me to experience. It was me wanting to *own* my privilege that prompted me to want to call out the inherent imperialism of including non-Western identities under the trans label. It was me wanting to credit and recognize both my family as well as my culture for allowing me to grow up *without* the pain of gender confusion.

Anyway, it was also out of a belief that while my gender expression is outside of the Western binary it may actually re-enforce the binary in the Philippines. When you look over the four categories of gender, you immediately realize that while it may be a little more fine-grained than the West, it still ultimately supports the supremacy of the binary identity.

The four categories are man, woman, bakla, tomboy*. This is also usually considered to be the proper order of importance. And the way that these four categories still manage to create a binary is via the mechanisms that allow for a multi-valued logic. There are logical systems that admit of more than ‘true’ and ‘false.’ The system may recognize ‘neither true nor false’ and ‘both true and false’ as valid truth values. However, in order to interpret these systems some of the values become designated and some are un-designated. See how above the layer of diversity there is a dominant layer creating another binary?

Of course, being an undesignated truth value doesn’t carry the exact same implications as being ‘false’ (or women in the case of either the Philippines or the West). In the above construction, the designated values are man and bakla, while un-designated are woman and tomboy. See? Gender diversity does not imply that a society will magically become an un-patriarchy.

This is why taking cultural variation for gender is important. One cannot claim that gender is socially constructed without recognizing that there are non-White societies. I find that the people who repeatedly say this always assume whiteness as default and filter everything through that white gaze.

It leaves no space for me to recognize that I received designated privilege while my Ate caught a lot of shit from my Tatay for performing femininity. Tatay never policed my gender and allowed me to as femme as a I wanted (which when I was cross-dressing in high school, was pretty damn femme). Whereas, when it came to Ate? She received the full brunt of rape culture’s victim blaming and was constantly policed by Tatay.

This highlights another problem with the appropriation of non-white gender variance by the trans movement. Ultimately, they are pointing to the other and exoticising it. It is another variation on the theme of ‘Noble Savage.’

* This reflects a personal understanding of the situation. I will say that, when I was in the Philippines, I never saw any Tomboys. They were invisible, whereas I saw Bakla in every town I visited (even some really small ones) — of course, I also saw men and women everywhere.