Jake Weinraub

PBS Documentary 'Two Spirits' Interactive Map

Filed By Jake Weinraub | June 06, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: gender, global culture, pbs, third gender, two spirits

Projector Pam Daniels introduced us to the PBS documentary "Two Spirits" that premieres June 14. Pam writes:

Two Spirits as described on the Cinema Guild website is the story of Fred Martinez who "was nádleehí, a male-bodied person with a feminine essence, a special gift according to his ancient Navajo culture. He was one of the youngest hate crime victims in modern history when he was brutally murdered at sixteen by a young man who bragged to friends that he had "bug-smashed a fag." Two Spirits explores the life and death of a boy who was also a girl and the essentially spiritual nature of gender and sexuality.

Embedded in the site for the film is an interactive map of "Gender-Diverse Cultures" pinpointing global cultures that have "recognized, revered, and integrated more than two genders."

map-shot.jpg

The map highlights numerous examples such a dual-gendered god in pre-colonial Andean culture, hijras in South Asia and transsexual identities in Iran. I found the map to be highly inspiring because it points out my culture's failings in providing space for gender non-conforming individuals.

One thing I noticed, however, is that a lot of the information presented here is about male-sexed individuals who assume a female sex or gender role. Maybe this was done on purpose to align with the documentary's narrative, but it is interesting how gender non-conforming females are rarely covered on the map. Other than last year when we learned about Afghani girls raised as boys as a result of social pressures, whose stories get remembered and why?

Also, is it fair to lump these vastly diverse and intimate understandings of gender and sexuality, presentation and identity, into one map?

img src PBS.org


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The link appears to be broken and doesn't get me to the map. When I went to the Cinema Guild Website and searched out the page for Two Spirits, I could not find the link to the map there, either.

just went in and fixed it. thanks joann!

brooke shelby biggs | June 6, 2011 4:43 PM

We'd be more than happy to add examples of cultures that embrace and elevate gender-nonconforming born-females if you have them! While it is somewhat rarer for the third fourth, etc gender to be born female, we have included some examples here. The map is not intended to be exhaustive, but to help people socialized to believe in binary gender constructs think more broadly, and to realize that "that's the way it is and has always been" is not a valid argument.

Thanks for posting this, Jake; I've got this on my calendar now.

I'm very curious to see the film and how it connects the issue of violence with the notion of two spirits. I'll admit to being wary of a wholesale and often uncritical recovery of supposedly ancient or “non-Western” concepts of gender and sexuality, which tend to avoid the materialist underpinnings of the same. While it's true, for instance, that hijras have historically served as a “third gender,” that very concept depends on the gender binary. And hijras are, even today, amongst the most marginalised in Indian society, treated with violence and brutality if they try to leave their place in the margins, or even if they stay there, since many of them survive as sex workers while harassed by law and order – which should sound familiar to us (although, as I understand it, they're gaining more political representation today).

There's also, I think, a tendency to fetishize “non-western” constructs – and Native American culture is especially prone to that, from within and without. There are complicated political and cultural reasons for that, perhaps, but it usually amounts to a belief in the inherent purity of a “vanishing race” - which is as problematic as anything Edward R. Curtis ever dreamed up.

All of which is to say: I'm looking forward to seeing this.

> ...I'll admit to being
> wary of a wholesale and often uncritical recovery of supposedly
> ancient or “non-Western” concepts of gender and sexuality, which
> tend to avoid the materialist underpinnings of the same.

Speaking of "recovery" with current and living identities is colonialism by western culture. I'm unclear how gender and sexual identities would be based upon materialism - unless that is supposed to indicate they are somehow less worthy - given that they almost invariable come with poverty and low status.

> ....While
> it's true, for instance, that hijras have historically served as
> a “third gender,” that very concept depends on the gender
> binary.

Hijras may have largely been seen as all being a third gender by people inside the binary unwilling to accept their identity of many as women.

> And hijras are, even today, amongst the most
> marginalised in Indian society, treated with violence and
> brutality if they try to leave their place in the margins, or
> even if they stay there, since many of them survive as sex
> workers while harassed by law and order – which should sound
> familiar to us (although, as I understand it, they're gaining
> more political representation today).

You write as if that "place" were traditional, instead of being one to which they were only recently expelled as other traditions of which they were part were destroyed, not least by colonial, christian-based laws which the independent country failed to repeal.

Some have gained election to office, or employment, in some states. New identity cards, as a third gender, are being issued in at least one state, bringing the right to vote (previously denied as being neither male nor female), medical and social security benefits. More will follow from that, but the third gender status is problematic for those with a binary identity, just not the one assigned at birth.

> There's also, I think, a tendency to fetishize “non-western”
> constructs – and Native American culture is especially prone to
> that, from within and without. There are complicated political
> and cultural reasons for that, perhaps, but it usually amounts
> to a belief in the inherent purity of a “vanishing race” - which
> is as problematic as anything Edward R. Curtis ever dreamed up.

"Fetish" is a dangerous word in a gender and sexuality context. Whilst older cultures are rarely perfect, valuing or maintaining them seems unlikely to deserve the smear of being done for reasons of sexual arousal.

To say that other cultures embrace and elevate people labeled as third gender makes me nervous (and, for me, has more to do with western-centric queer studies' desires for the subject than it does with reality). There are very few of these third-gender people who aren't in some way, severely marginalized, attacked physically and sexually and kept in an extremely low socio-economic position.

Well intentioned academics and activists love to point to someplace like Thailand as being such a gender accepting place, yet the trans women and gender variant MAAB people there have extremely limited job and educational prospects, can't change their national ID cards, basically can't get married, are still exposed to violence and overwhelmingly either work as shopgirls or, especially, sex workers. Where's the embrace... because they can appear on beauty pageants on tv once a year?

Moreover, while there is certainly a spectrum of identities in these MAAB third genders, many of the people I've heard identified as such who are actually allowed to speak for themselves (and not spoken for by queer theorists, anthropologists, academics or non-trans persons explaining the dominant culture these people live within), they seem to be saying many of the same things trans people in the west are saying in terms of identifying as women, or, in other cases, some form of genderfluidity and how their identities are dismissed. Making a group third gender can either be seen as a very positive move or as a way of making them even more marginalized (especially for people who do experience themselves as women). I also think it's very hard (and I understand I'm viewing this from my western bias) to separate some of the 'third gender' identifying statements of these people (ie "I'm really a boy") from larger societal bias that gets heaped upon them every day. In other words, hard to know what's more contemporary 'internalized transphobia' and what represents actual threads of ancient cultural views of gender.

I'm hoping the film about Fred isn't yet another parade of cis talking heads explaining who someone like Fred was and allows two-spirit people do to their own talking.

> Well intentioned academics and activists love to point to
> someplace like Thailand as being such a gender accepting place,
> yet the trans women and gender variant MAAB people there have
> extremely limited job and educational prospects, can't change
> their national ID cards, basically can't get married, are still
> exposed to violence and overwhelmingly either work as shopgirls
> or, especially, sex workers. Where's the embrace... because they
> can appear on beauty pageants on tv once a year?

The embrace (you exaggerate the term of course) is in the never-colonialised buddhist acceptance of a womanly nature being born into male bodies as a result of events in past lives for which the person has no responsibility, so must not be judged, and not harmed. This, approximating in our terms, covers both feminine gays and trans, so the numbers are substantial. There is also a traditional role still in culture because such people are welcome at temples both as examples of how reincarnation can work, and as performers. The monks sympathise if someone expresses a need to be female, or be reincarnated, next time, fully female because there is a narrative to explain it. Thus parents accept such children, and schools and media too. Not necessarily happily, but it does make a huge difference to the number of visible people, such that no school is lacking such pupils, and universities have dorms for them, and consequently there is peer support at critical points, and room for diversity.

Other ethnic and religious minorities can hold different views, of course. Chinese families are often mentioned as less accepting, and there are some christians...

You are right about the ID, the marriage issue, and discrimination. The television pageants are not as limited as you say - there is considerable employment in many pageant shows, sometimes in beautiful, purpose-built theatres - and the television presence is wider. Also some of the country's most successful movies are their stories ('Iron Ladies' and 'Beautiful Boxer', for example).

Transsexual and post-transsexual women amongst them are working very effectively on whatever issues they can, given the current political impasse in the country, between two rival patronage systems, both of which are conservative, and interference by prejudiced, western influenced gay activists (rumoured to be backed by ILGA) who have thoroughly stuck an oar into the processes of transition.

Education is not really an issue, with teachers often valuing "sao braphet song" (second type of women) and "kathoey" pupils as some of the highest achievers, except that the national regulations requires they wear male student uniforms and hair cuts right through to university graduation. It's more that qualifications then cannot be used because of employment discrimination. Many emigrate.

Unfortunately the political elites of the country have tended to see them as something shameful for the country in western eyes, and so to be discouraged. That we should be helping in changing.

> ...they seem to be
> saying many of the same things trans people in the west are
> saying in terms of identifying as women, or, in other cases,
> some form of genderfluidity and how their identities are
> dismissed.

All true, however, given that what drives transsexuality has, for more than half a century, been obviously inborn (see Green's chapter in Benjamin's book, surveying the worldwide incidence), and therefore independent of culture, and that is obviously true of sexual orientation too, it in no way impinges upon the validity of the different terms, associations, interpretations, or beliefs other cultures use to fit differences of gender identity or expression or sexual orientation (culturally independent terms the UN seems to favour) into their societies.

> ...hard to know what's more
> contemporary 'internalized transphobia' and what represents
> actual threads of ancient cultural views of gender.

"Internalised transphobia" is a dangerously unwieldy instrument to wave around in the contexts of thousands of different cultures. Wouldn't it be better to simply respect stated identities?

Okay, I've spent way too long clicking around the map. Absolutely fascinating.