Jess Surtees likes to play with people’s concepts of gender by giving what she calls “little nudges.”
Some days she performs as a female by showing off her curves; other days she wears more baggy clothing and dabbles in masculinity. Gender is meant to be played with, according to Surtees, and she loves to remind people of that.
“I had this one friend who said to me: ‘I have no idea how large your breasts are.’ Because some days, I do bind [my breasts],” Surtees recalled.
When it comes to fitting into male or female gender roles, Surtees is far from typical. She thinks of gender as more of a spectrum than a choice between two categories.
“I identify in a plethora of ways — be it female or intersexed or transgendered,” she explained.
Surtees, director of print communications at PrideWestern, was born chromosomally intersexed. While typically gender is thought of as being binary — male or female — she said there is a third option.
“We’re obsessed with things being black or white, one or the other,” agreed Joshua Ferguson, director of Standing Against Queer Discrimination.
He said this mindset originated during the Enlightenment period, when categorization became a popular trend. As a result, exceptions to the norm were suddenly excluded, Ferguson explained.
Limiting gender to male and female is a norm typical in most global communities according to Douglass St. Christian, associate professor of anthropology at Western.
“Most cultures have an official model that says there are males and females and that’s it ... the problem is some people don’t fit into those categories.”
North America is no exception, but academic discourse can sometimes offer a safer place for exploring gender as a more fluid construct.
Wendy Pearson, professor of film studies at Western, pointed to the role of academic discourse in broadening the definition of what it means to be a woman.
“Even without destroying that basic binary of male and female, we have changed its terms. The terms of being a woman have changed,” she said.
However, Surtees finds institutions such as Western to be selectively open-minded when it comes to trans-concepts.
“I think people are open theoretically to gender fluidity, but I think they have trouble with it in practice,” she explained, noting how people are often frustrated with her constantly shifting identity.
St. Christian agreed.
“I’ve seen people who will talk the talk ... but when it comes to the practicalities of actually recognizing and adapting their practice to accommodate [gender fluidity], it’s different ... there’s a lot of resistance.”
Surtees finds many people tend to fix her identity as leaning towards one end of the spectrum. For example, Surtees is bisexual, but because she has a boyfriend, people tend to label her as heterosexual.
“We see people as their sex and gender,” Ferguson said, explaining why it is difficult for some to accept those who do not identify with specifically male or females roles.
He pointed out how in daily life, people are constantly limiting themselves and others to specific genders. From birth to filling out a driver’s licence, you have to assign yourself as either male or female, Ferguson said.
Linguistic limitations create another barrier for trans-people. English only has two officially recognized pronouns — “he” and “she.” Other possibilities include “it” and “they,” but so far no ideal term has been found.
“Language is something that I think will be the last step and probably one of the hardest,” Surtees said.
Ferguson suggested using “per,” as in person, for an all-encompassing pronoun. He hopes it will catch on just as the women’s liberation changed the use of words like “he” and “mankind” to represent both men and women.
Surtees has her doubts.
“With language, you can deconstruct it in academia, but in everyday speech it’s pretty tough.”
For many, the ideal is for gender fluidity to be accepted among all members of the community — be they queer or “normative.” Ferguson said each individual, no matter their label, has some form of gender ambiguity.
“I believe that in some sense everyone is transgendered. It makes sense. If you were to seriously think about it, anyone could find characteristics that don’t necessarily fit [into gender prototypes].”
At a young age, Ferguson found that he did not fit into the male gender role.
“When I was young, in grade three, I would tell people that God made a mistake and that I’m a girl trapped in a boy’s body,” he recalled.
He had only ever encountered representations of girls liking boys and vice versa, so when Ferguson developed a crush on another boy in school, he assumed he must be a girl.
Surtees said in order to accept non-binary genders, people need to realize that gender is a performance, not a fixed condition.
“We all perform gender, to some extent ... We think that playing with [gender] is extreme, but really it’s natural.”
Across the world, other cultures offer varying interpretations of gender outside the binary of male and female. From Canada’s two-spirit persons to the Fa’afafine of Polynesia, gender as a concept becomes increasingly ambiguous as we explore its nature in other societies.
Two-spirit Persons — Canadian Aboriginals
Art Zoccole was raised in the Anishnawbe nation, an Ojibwe group of northwestern Ontario.
“In my language, the word to describe me is Ogokwe and it translates into wise woman,” Zoccole explainsed.
While each indigenous nation has its own word for transgendered and transsexual people, the term two-spirited was coined to represent all queer members of the Canadian aboriginal community.
Zoccole is executive director of 2-Spirited People of the First Nations, a Toronto based organization for queer members of the aboriginal community. According to him, “the term two-spirit was meant to signify that there are two spirits within us — a male spirit and a female spirit.”
The expression was agreed upon in the 1990s among First Nation representatives as a term describing gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed people of aboriginal communities, Zoccole said. However, he noted there is still debate about this term, even within indigenous communities.
Zoccole said prior to colonization, generally in all of North America, people who were of a different gender were fully accepted, even respected as leaders, within aboriginal nations. However, the arrival of Europeans brought with it certain ideals and beliefs, resulting in the alienation of many transgendered native peoples.
Western film studies professor Wendy Pearson explained how previously accepted genders outside male and female were ostracized through colonization.
“If you look at Native American and First Nations peoples, historically many of the tribes have had a third gender. Those systems sort of became destroyed when they were colonized by Christians,” Pearson said.
While many two-spirit persons flock to urban centres to find acceptance and gain understanding of their own identity, Zoccole said many stay behind in their rural communities and often live in denial.
Zoccole recalled his own struggles with his identity.
“When I was about 14-years-old, my mom looked at me and said, ‘You are Ogokwe.’ At that time, I didn’t quite grasp what she was saying to me … The next time I encountered that term [was] when I was 21. It perfectly described me.”
Zoccole hopes to help other two-spirit aboriginals to get in touch with their cultural roots and find acceptance in the way of their ancestors.
“I think there are other people out there who have gone through the same experience as me — knowing that they are two-spirited and not understanding their cultural connections,” he said.
“Some of our communities have lost that traditional knowledge about gay and lesbian people and how they were engaged in our communities. We have to look at what we did in the past and look at how that relates to our role now.”
The Hijra – India
“There is really no counterpart term in Western culture [for the Hijras].”
Western professor James Miller’s words best describe the diversity of the population in India who identify as Hijra.
Miller — founding director of Western’s Pride Library — recently travelled to India, where he researched “out” gay Indian artists. While there, he was invited to afternoon tea with a group of Hijras in Puna, India.
Hijra is a term encompassing a broad range of individuals who do not fall into typical gender and sex norms, be they intersexed, transgendered or transsexual.
The Hijras are deeply ingrained in Indian culture and are recorded in texts as early as the Ramayana, an epic tale and one of the key texts of Hinduism according to Charlotte Suthrell’s Unzipping Gender.
According to Suthrell, the Ramayana tells a story where the god Ram leaves the city to perform a pilgrimage and tells the inhabitants to leave his side and let him continue alone. As he reaches the forest, he realizes he is still being followed by a group of people and asks them why they did not turn back.
According to Suthrell’s interpretation, the group replies: “You told the men and the women to go but we are neither men nor women and so we have stayed with you.”
Ram, in return, gives them a special blessing for having stayed with him.
Today, the Hijra are far from blessed within Indian society.
While situations vary for each individual, it is not uncommon for the modern Hijra to be excluded from the general community and his or her family. Often alienated from their more conservative societies, many Hijras are forced to work in the sex trade or beg for money.
Suthrell writes that Hijras are traditionally employed to dance and perform at weddings, births and other celebrations. However, many are forced to perform on the streets.
During his visit to India, Miller met with Bindumadhav Khire, author and founder of Sanapathik Trust. While Sanapathik is officially run as a men’s health organization, its main purpose is to offer support to local male sex workers — most of them Hijra — and promote safe-sex outreach programs.
Miller agreed the options for Hijra are limited.
“If they are from a lower class family and they come out ... they don’t have a great deal of career choice.”
For the Hijra of Puna, the Sanapathik offers a haven from the streets, where they can participate and even lead outreach programs, or drop by for advice and counselling.
Many of the Hijra, according to Miller, have teachers called gurus — older Hijras who will take on the younger ones and teach them anything from safer sex techniques to dancing tips.
While traditional Indian society may have had a more accepting attitude towards the Hijra, their space in the community continues to diminish as Western ideals infiltrate Indian culture.
Miller explained the binary nature of North American culture.
“You can see how our language will tend to take a continuum of [sex and gender] possibilities and divide the spectrum [into categories].”
Western film studies professor Wendy Pearson agreed globalization has limited traditionally fluid concepts of gender in some societies. However, she also pointed out how the spread of North American culture has offered some helpful tools.
“It’s not that we’re just exporting bigotry. We’re also exporting human rights ... You can say that globalization has created pressure on those [more inclusive] systems, but it has also created ways in which people can respond to that pressure,” Pearson said.
The Fa’afafine – Polynesia
“In some cultures, such as our own, we penalize people who don’t fit into [male and female] categories. In other cultures, they come up with a more creative solution,” said Western associate professor of anthropology, Douglass St. Christian.
St. Christian’s work with the Fa’afafine of Samoa have provided him with a first-hand experience with one example of a more gender inclusive society.
During the 1990s, St. Christian lived and worked with the Fa’afafine — Samoan men who adopt a more fluid gender role within their culture.
The Fa’afafine perform social duties that are not quite male and not quite female, with roles ranging from child rearing to teaching young men how to have sex. Some Fa’afafine will even adopt the children of their cousins, if the cousin has too many children to care for.
Often recognized as Fa’afafine by their parents, members of this group will typically occupy a third gendered role from a young age. However, the role is usually temporary and by the time they are 30, Fa’afafine normally marry and have children, St. Christian noted.
Traditionally, this third gender role is fully accepted within Samoan culture.
“All throughout Polynesia you have the institution of a third gender role ... everybody knows who the Fa’afafine are and what role they play,” St. Christian said.
Yet, as the globalization of Western ideals reaches cultures such as Polynesia, traditionally accepted groups such as the Fa’afafine are at risk of being marginalized.
St. Christian explained why North American culture is so deeply rooted in gender binaries.
“It’s the fact that we are an insidiously patriarchal culture … anything that is not conventionally male is held in lower regard because male heterosexuality has to be the triumphant position.”
However, the ideology of younger generations seems to be shifting.
While there was a time when we would look at other cultural practices as quaint, we are now looking at other cultural expressions as equally legitimate as our own and as something we can learn from, St. Christian added.
“I think the power of the patriarchal model is fading and we will continue to see recognition of the reality of gender fluidity,” he said.