An earlier version of this article was published in Feminist Current on December 6, and is republished here with permission.
In the debate around gender identity in the West, racist, incoherent or logically indefensible arguments are many. Among these, the extreme distortion of identities of sexual minorities or gender non-conforming people in the Global South is clear proof of the neo-colonialist trend among western progressives.
Trans activists, particularly high profile ones like Munroe Bergdorf who has most recently been given a six-figure book deal to propagate his ideas of gender, or Alok Vaid Menon, frequently assert that the notion of the sex binary is a “white supremacist colonialist construct” and that ancient / indigenous / colonized cultures acknowledged and recognized “transgender people.” This is generally accompanied by a loud insistence that these cultures prove “transgender people have existed for thousands of years,” followed by citations of the Indian subcontinent’s hijras, the two-spirit people of Native American cultures, and the Fa’afafine of Samoa or the ladyboys of Thailand. The existence of these groups, or so the argument goes according to proponents of gender identity ideology, proves that categorization by sex is a western / white supremacist construct, that older cultures recognized the authenticity of “transgender people.” Therefore, current systems of categorization or identity recognition are self-evidently wrong and should be junked (along with legal systems built on such identities).
In this, as in many other topics, western so-called progressives do not bother to be accurate or learn much about the people they’re using in their arguments. These identities and cultural complexities are just a convenient, if completely misrepresented and rewritten, argumentative tools for their own political narrative. The result is that the actual cultural identities of these groups are almost completely erased as their lives are used simply as a debate point for western activists.
Hijras are not “transgender”
Historical scholarship has repeatedly highlighted that the term “transgender” cannot describe the Hijra and it is simply inaccurate to do so. To call hijras “transgender” is based on historical and cultural misunderstandings and imposes modern western concepts on traditional Asian culture. This sees western history and concepts as absolute and ignores how hijras define themselves – to subsume hijras under the western and modern umbrella term of “transgender” therefore is to impose on them an identity that has little to do with their history and actual existence. Gayatri Reddy’s detailed ethnographic account examining the hijra identity makes it extremely clear that hijras do not claim to derive their identity and practices on the basis of “innate gender identity” at all - but rather believe they’ve been called by a goddess, known as Bedhraj Mata to undergo the nirvan operation (castration) and live with other senior hijra gurus, in a separate community, and live within it. They believe, and are believed to have some powers from the goddess, which is why they’re called upon to bless a new born baby, bless visitors to a temple or other house of worship, perform certain rituals in temples, and are also employed as dancers for certain religious ceremonies.
Hijras, for example, have been labeled as “trans,” “India's lady boys,” “India's third sex,” “drag queens,” and a whole host of other English terms to fit Western conceptions of what differently-gendered subjects might be, instead of what hijras have claimed to be – as existing outside of these systems, sometimes called “a third gender”– as described by Suzy Woltmann in her 2020 article for South Asian Review, “Third Gender Politics: Hijra Identity Construction in India and Beyond.”
“The word 'hijra' is derived from an Urdu word, which in colonial times was translated to mean 'eunuch' or 'hermaphrodite.'”
But even this characterization is somewhat incorrect, as extensive writing by those who are familiar with the shifting definitions demonstrates. Research by Indian scholars has repeatedly emphasized that terms used by native speakers, such as “hijras” may more frequently refer to “eunuchs,” “transvestites,” or in a time of decreased knowledge about babies born with intersex conditions, “hermaphrodite.”
In fact, the word "hijra" is derived from an Urdu word, which in colonial times was translated to mean "eunuch" or "hermaphrodite," though this is an imperfect translation. But, it is important to note that all hijras are not eunuchs, and writers more familiar with the actual composition of the group in the native context make it clear that the group can include homosexual men and those considered as transvestites. Hijras have been said to belong to the category of sexually ambivalent men, who may not seem very manly (not possessing the qualities labelled as masculinity in English), and who dress up as women. While a few hijras are born intersexed (which is rare), most are men who undergo voluntary castration and penectomy and consider themselves to be sexually impotent. They have been defined variously as “eunuchs,” “hermaphrodites” with a “ physical defect, natural or acquired,” male or boy prostitutes, passive homosexuals, and as a third gender and/or sex (when writing in English), with a cultural and ritual function. This is further confounded by most hijra representations in the popular press. Moreover, hijras, homosexuals, and jankhas/zankhas (transvestites) are often collapsed in the same category by Anglophones and western-trained writers. Because of the way they’ve been forced into the postmodern western framework, this understanding has been almost erased.
That these identities are being distorted and wrongly used in anglophone rhetoric, with the western idea of gender replacing a different understanding (if scientifically inaccurate) notion of sexual diversity is evident even from the scholarly work that purports to illustrate the disjunct. Western writers educated in English use the language of gender to describe hijras, who are known as Aravanis or Kinnars in other regions of the sub-continent, whereas writers more familiar with the native languages tend to use the language of transsexualism or sexual minorities. Meanwhile, native speakers writing in English forums struggle to maintain the distinction between gender identity, transsexualism, and transvestites. This clear divergence in the writing illustrates the ways English speaking scholars and writers misinterpret the original concepts. Contrast, for example, this country report on the “Condition and status of hijras (transgender, transvestites etc.) in Pakistan'’ for an International Conference of Asian Queer Studies which conflates the identities of “transgender and transvestites,” and a paper that delves into this precise conflict. The latter notes the postmodern concept of “gender identity” finds stiff opposition and hesitation from those counting themselves as part of the hijra community. In fact, people belonging to these communities have in the past expressed fear of the modern concept of “transgender” highlighting that it is not their community or identity.
“Transgender activists in India ran campaigns to differentiate themselves from the hijra.”
The division between the two concepts is so significant that transgender activists in India ran campaigns to differentiate themselves from the hijra because the hijras, being more historically recognized, dominate the discourse. In fact, in the backlash against the campaign, writers and activists noted that modern “transgender women” saw themselves as middle-class - they were corporate employees, doctors etc, whereas the Hijra are a marginalized community on the lower stratum of society, often involved in sex work and modern “transgender women” wished to separate their politics and identity from that of the hijras because of respectability.
The fact that modern western rhetoric is clumsily trying to fit discrete and very nuanced identities such as the hijras, kothis, and aravanis into the Anglophone framework of “transgender” has even been noted by Washington Post columnists who recognized that the term “transgender” does not describe the identities in India (although this recognition didn’t stop them from inserting conceptual and logical confusion with phrases like “gender assigned at birth”).
These communities have distinct identities and mythologies far outliving the westernized concept of gender, as even these writers acknowledge. However, their interpretation of these identities through the lens of gender nevertheless leads them to incorrectly surmise that in Indian mythology there was a change of gender rather than sexual presentation, sexual activities and bodily modification.
Western romanticization of pain, loss, and oppression
These third gender identities, cited by western trans activists as proof that categorization by sex binary is a colonial construct is entirely based on a misreading and deliberate distortion of the actual identities and experiences of these people. But this isn’t just a cultural affront and another example of the typical behaviour of young progressive activists picking up a concept they don’t quite understand and misrepresenting it for their own purposes – its consequences are far more egregious.
Children born with disorders of sexual development, particularly those which manifest with ambiguous genitalia, are unceremoniously dumped and absorbed into this amorphous third category, separated from their family, and raised as an incomprehensible (to mainstream society) third sex. In fact, writers observe that in some cases, when performing a “blessing for a birth” the hijras will examine the genitals of the child, because of a belief that they have a “legitimate claim” on infants with ambiguous genitalia, as they are “neither man nor woman” in their (hijras) understanding. To what extent they did make such claims is disputed, as it did not seem likely that the educated upper - middle class would permit that. However, others, among highly educated people have claimed that individual with disorders of sexual development, even adults have been taken by the hijras.
“In cultures where aggressive, macho masculinity is prized above all in men and boys, these identities serve to absorb all the men who don’t fit, particularly effeminate gay men.”
This practice commonly occurs much to the dismay of activists for intersex rights, and in violation of children’s rights, despite the fact that modern medicine has far better ways of determining their sex and allowing children to have a life with their birth family. These communities are often an amalgam of men who undergo voluntary castration, a relatively smaller proportion of men born intersex, men who behave and present in feminine ways, and homosexual men. In cultures where aggressive, macho masculinity is prized above all in men and boys, these identities serve to absorb all the men who don’t fit, particularly effeminate gay men. The relentless obscurantism practiced by western and western-trained activists in misrepresenting and romanticizing these identities results in a social climate where these nuances are lost or buried in service of the larger transgender movement.
“Two-spirit,” “fa’afafine,” and other Indigenous gender non-conforming communities
Progressive activists in anglophone countries have not merely done this with the hijras. They toss around the two-spirit people as examples for their narrative, refusing to acknowledge that the two-spirit designation also merely refers to movement between gender roles and expressions, but not necessarily a fixed third identity like the hijras. Thus, it would be a mischaracterization to see them as transsexuals who try to make themselves into the opposite sex. They are more appropriately understood as individuals who take on gender roles that are different from feminine and masculine notions - i.e, capable of encompassing. They are more appropriately described as slightly effeminate males or masculine females, from androgynous persons to those who completely cross dress, and hence can include several genders - each describing social roles and expressions only. As usual, young progressives have not hesitated to mangle a badly understood notion, to vaguely signal that “trans people exist so our arguments against the destruction of sex for political categorization are valid.”
The same goes for the oft-distorted concept of the “third gender” in Samoa. In an extremely ironic twist, while hordes of young self-styled progressives de-platform and silence women for noting the significance of biological males, people from the cultures they so conveniently cite are vehemently opposed to the excesses of current trans activism’s demands. Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has criticized allowing Laurel Hubbard, a man who identifies as a woman, in the women’s weightlifting category despite explicit recognition of the fa’afafine in Samoa. “This fa'afafine or man should have never been allowed by the Pacific Games Council president to lift with the women. I was shocked when I first heard about it," Malielegaoi told the Samoa Observer.
“'Fa’afafine' translates to 'in the manner of a woman.'”
The fa’afafine of Samoa are biological males who behave in a range of feminine-gendered ways. They have been an integrated part of Samoan communities for centuries. “Fa’afafine” translates to “in the manner of a woman.” There may be equivalent identities for females who adopt masculine social roles in Pacific cultures, but evidence is scarce. Personal accounts show that the fa’afafine identity is mostly about taking on the tasks of women and acting feminine, not necessarily adopting bodily modification or castration like, for instance, the hijras. Western terms don’t describe them, and further than that there is a translation gap between “female” as a sexed term in English, but also used as a gendered term in the native languages, where, frequently, “gender” terms like “femininity / masculinity” of Romanic languages translate as “qualities of women / girls / females” in native languages. Perfect translations are difficult, but what is clear is that the “native” concepts being equated to Anglophone concepts of “gender” is inaccurate. But these details are obscured by western rhetoric.
The exact same pattern can be seen in English language discourse about the ladyboys of Thailand, also frequently used by western trans activists as proof that categorization by sex is a western supremacist concept. Unlike the westernized terms applied to them, in Thailand, where the term transgender is seldom used, they’re actually called “kathoey” - a term, again, that was originally used to denote hermaphrodites. It “gathers male-to-female trans-sexual people, as well as effeminate men, (emphasis mine) under its cover.” Thus, kathoey are biological men (denoted as “male born”), who Thai-speaking writers writing in English (such as the authors of Ladyboys: The Secret World of Thailand's Third Gender) describe as being “born with distinctly female hearts and minds” including effeminate mannerisms and that they “portray themselves as women and live, in many ways, like them.” It’s clear when reading the description in detail, though, that they refer to adopting women’s clothing and mannerisms as “living like a woman.”
Interestingly, kathoey can be found in all walks of life and occupations throughout the country but are heavily represented in the sex industry – an expected consequence in a country where the first sex change surgery was performed in 1972, and is today a popular destination for such surgeries. Most significantly, “they do not hold official status as women however, they are seen as phet thi-sam : the third sex.” That even the current incidence of the “transgender” term is purely an Anglophone phenomenon is clear from the articles and sources that use the term transgender. While simultaneously acknowledging that the term kathoey was used to define intersex people, human beings who were born with ambiguous genitalia, and that it was expanded to include effeminate men and male-to-female transsexual people, the “transgender” term finds its way into the discourse when referencing western sources or English-trained writers. What is clear, however, is that transgender (as understood in terms of gender identity) was never the concept at play in these cultures. Instead, a complex mix of people born with intersex conditions, effeminate men and, predominantly, male-to-female transsexuals have been recast and their history distorted, in service of a postmodern self-referential framing.
“Their lives are used to score cheap political points to argue that the sex binary is a colonial construct, their language mistranslated, the nuances of their identity lost in the recasting into 'gender identity.'”
Not to be outdone with merely co opting and misrepresenting Asia and Native Americans, the distortion can also be noticed in anglicized narratives of the aboriginal Australian sistergirls and brotherboys, when their story and the complexity of their identity is attempted to be retold in English terms and in the framework of westernized concepts. When the sistergirls or brotherboys describe themselves, it is clear that while being born biologically male they become sistergirls when a boy’s feminine behavior becomes clear, so he has to be a girl. From then on, the sistergirl would go with the women and do women’s dancing and ceremony and those sorts of tasks. The personal accounts reveal that they live in the role of women, go hunting with, sit with, and talk with women. While their identity more closely tracks the current identity of “transgender” than other roles like hijras and kathoey, it is notable that they do not challenge the existence of the sex binary and categorization according to it, but declare that they move into, and behave in, the roles of women – an acknowledgment refused by modern western trans-activism.
Undoubtedly, various forms of gender non-conforming communities have existed in older cultures. But these identities, as seen above, are highly complex and shifting. Some were communities that included persons with intersex conditions, highly effeminate men, and those born biologically male who undergo a form of body modification to become transsexual (hijras, kathoey), and typically treated as a third sex. A birds-eye view of these identities reveals a pattern - men who prefer feminine expressions, clothing, and tasks formed these groups, along with homosexual men. Where some amount of body modification to sexual characteristics takes place (such as the hijras and Kathoey) there is no evidence of women adopting a similar “cross-sex” identity.
Other communities have identities that clearly signify people born as either male or female, taking on only the social roles, mannerisms and dressing habits of the opposite sex (sistergirls, fa’afafine, two-spirit) and do not claim to be the opposite sex. While the Aboriginal and Native American concepts (brotherboys and two-spirit) people seemingly reference women, references to men undertaking “feminine” roles dominate. While written descriptions switch between gender and sex descriptors because of gaps in translation, once these identities are understood in terms of their elements (i.e what makes them unique), it is clear that they merely adopt opposite sex roles, clothes, or mannerisms, and phrase it as “living as a woman.” Their lives are used to score cheap political points to argue that the sex binary is a colonial construct, their language mistranslated, the nuances of their identity lost in the recasting into “gender identity.”
The real colonialism of gender activism
The irony of trans activists alleging that feminists are guilty of colonialism and white supremacy in recognizing the reality of biological sex becomes increasingly evident the more we learn about the specific cultures they misappropriate for their arguments.
If there is any colonialism in this debate, it is the re-colonizing of languages and cultures with western concepts which have no application there. If there is white supremacy in the conversation on sex, it is the assumption that Eastern or Native cultures could not have recognized biological sex as forming the basis for a fundamental category division in the human species or have chosen to name it specifically and uniquely. If there is racism, it is the racism of romanticizing the oppression of intersex, gay, and gender-nonconforming people across the globe.
These ideas cause direct harm by continuing the long-standing tradition of western progressives using other cultures as an argumentative crutch when convenient, but ignoring the actual realities, histories, and lives of the people they claim to represent.