Gender Transformation in Cross Cultural Perspective

Gender Transformation in Cross Cultural Perspective

Edwin S. Segal, Department of Anthropology, University of Louisville, Louisville, U.S.A.

When I first developed my ideas for this paper, I intended simply to present evidence documenting some of the ways in which, in a variety of cultures, gender is mutable. My thought had been to follow up on documentation for a pattern that seemed to emerge from earlier work (Segal 1997) suggesting the regular existence of asymmetries in the ways in which gender is constructed or transformed. However, as I began working on it, connections to other issues and debates became apparent. One, in particular seemed relevant to my concerns.

One of the currently popular phrasings in sociology and anthropology focuses on questions of boundaries both within and between cultures and the ways in which they are crossed or in which crossing is resisted. In Cultural Anthropology, the formal considerations of such issues have a heritage going back at least to expressions of concern about boundary maintaining mechanisms and their functioning in times of what used to be called “culture contact.” That framing was always faulty, but it is certain that now, at the end of the twentieth century, all cultures have been “contacted” by some other culture. Isolated cultures and instances of first contact between Europeans and some other people are all historical events.

But boundaries and boundary maintaining mechanisms also have a reality within any particular ethnic group. And that is where questions of gender and gender transformations become particularly interesting. Gender is, as Lorber (1994) reminds us, a universal social structure, varying only in the details of its cultural construct. One of those details is the set of answers to questions regarding the number of genders and whether (or the ways in which) one gender can be transformed into another. Essentially, some cultures seem to have not only internal gender boundaries, but also means of transcending them. Others seem to possess no culturally approved mechanisms for crossing gender boundaries. Some of both groups have only two genders and some have (or traditionally had) more than two. The question of boundaries and normative mechanisms for crossing them assumes particular importance, not only for this paper, but also for a more general understanding of cross cultural variations in gender constructions. Recent literature, especially that focusing on war and participation in combat (e.g., Jones 1997, De Pauw 1999) has documented many instances of women assuming a warrior role in cultures where the role is normatively and ideologically associated with maleness. However, some, like a variety of queens or manor mistresses, did so because the role was attached to class more strongly than to gender. Others, like the female warriors of Dahomey occupied a special niche, a class within the category women. Yet others, like the manly hearted women among the MandanNorth America, truly transcended the ordinary roles as their societies defined them, and by virtue of that transcendance, became even more valuable as women. That is, women seem to have gained prestige as women by violating the ordinary norms for women. (Jones 1997) or Piegan (Lewis 1941) on the plains of

The ethnographic universe presents a vision of enormous heterogeneity. There is so much variation both within and between groups that generalization is, at best, difficult. My aim here is to sort out some of the tangle, but to have no pretense about providing a complete ordering. Much of the contemporary literature focuses on gender variations among morphological males. This stems partially from an earlier imbalance, which was partially the result of investigator bias and partially a reflection of reality. There are more cultures containing options for males to change gender than there are for females. This paper focuses most of its attention on the culturally available options for morphological females.

There are several possible starting points. One is with a biocultural view of human existence. The very old and very common nature-nurture dichotomy, which is often transmuted into an academic essentialist-constructionist pair, is irrelevant to an examination of sex, gender, sexuality, and their cultural contexts. The dichotomy leads to the wrong question and hence to meaningless answers.

There is a growing literature asking whether any meaningful distinctions can be made among sex, gender and sexuality (cf Weston 1993). For that reason, it is useful to provide a few heuristic operationalizations. As I use these terms here: Biological sex refers to the mechanics of reproduction and the organs involved. Cultural sex refers to the variety of ways in which different cultures organize, mediate or control the behaviors and feeling states involved in using the organs of biological sex, whether in reproductive or other activity. Gender refers to cultural constructions defining the subset(s) of norms, values, beliefs, behaviors and artifacts appropriate for people occupying a particular bio-cultural sex position. Sexuality and sexual orientation refer to the ways in which individuals construct their own variants of the culturally provided sex-gender system. These elements do not, of course, exist as separate entities, but as part of a single sex-gender-sexuality system. This paper is also based on a concept of culture explicitly recognizing its performative aspects. Culture is a system of assigned meanings manifested in norms, values, beliefs, behaviors and artifacts. My major focus here is on behaviors and their cultural supports, especially normative supports. Performance is a major element of culture and much of what will be discussed below is primarily performative in nature. Many of the data to be referred to below were gathered in the early part of the tentieth century and some as early as the 18th. This age span creates some difficulty in that a variety of performative paradigms were used, many reflecting the western double bipolar framework of male/masculine– female/feminine and permitted sexuality-forbidden sexuality. Some contemporary work (e.g., Murray and Roscoe 1998), drawing on a desire to deconstruct the second half of this paradigm seem intent on replacing that dichotomy with another, heterosexual-homosexual.

The problem here is that the data seem to indicate the existence of sex-gender systems that are tri- or quadri-polar. That is, the ethnographic literature indicates that gender and biological sex can be/are uncoupled in a variety of patterns. Similarly, although specific gender constructs are usually associated with particular sexes, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that these are necessarily related to sexual orientation. The situation seems to be that while some cultures maintain gender constructs that provide normative room for samesex sexual behavior and orientation, none seem to have defined them exclusively in terms of sexual partners.

In a related vein, Donham (1998) documents the ambiguities surrounding both sexual orientation and gender in contemporary, Black1, urban South Africa. (Footnote relating to a de facto segregation). He wishes to say the person he is writing about is “gay,” but recognizes that term does not quite describe the situation he found in South Africa. At the same time, he also recognizes that at least some elements of the Black South African population seem to be shifting from a three gender conceptualization to a two gender—two sexual orientations conceptualization, a double bipolar model. In this process, the human plasticity inherent in other formulations seems to be being lost. When he refers to this process as “modernization,” he might just as well be talking about a creeping hegemony of norms derived from western European cultures and their outliers.

In the late 20th century, in the cultural worlds derived from western Europe, as well as many others, gender is usually seen as being directly derived from biology and having its origin in the birth process. The ethnographic materials indicate this is not a universal definition.

Everywhere, human beings are born genderless, but sexed in the basic mammalian pattern. There are, of course, a variety of genetic and hormonal anomalies occasionally occurring. Until the second half of the 20th century and the discovery of the structure of DNA, these were not perceived as such. They were perceived primarily as the rare occurrence of one or another morphological peculiarity. Or, as in the case of a person with androgen insensitivity syndrome, the anomaly is not even apparent. Appearance is completely female, but the genetics are male (Angier 1999). Even in those societies currently making use of a variety of sophisticated biological tests, it is possible to argue that most people continue to perceive these variations in terms of their effects on external appearances. The biological reality of the anomaly is not as important as its cultural placement. For example, the social and cultural location of intersexed individuals varies cross culturally. The Pokot, living in Kenya, respond to intersexed individuals as an extremely unfortunate occurrence, and frequently resort to infanticide (Edgerton 1964). The Navajo classify such individuals as belonging to a third category that is neither masculine nor feminine (Hill 1935). Most segments of middle class U.S. culture tend to see such people as “mistakes of nature” and seek to correct the “error.” For the Pokot, there is no normatively accepted cultural place for those they call sererr, and those few who survive live on the margins of the society. U.S. cultures also have no place for intersexed individuals, but try to fit them into one of the two normatively accepted categories.

To a certain extent, the difference between the cultural treatment of intersexed individuals in U.S. cultures and among the Pokot is merely technological. The basic attitudes are much the same; both proceed on the assumption of an essential bipolar sex-gender system. The difference lies in the normative prescriptions for dealing with biological anomalies and in the technology brought to bear on the problem. For the Pokot, only those with the normatively appropriate morphological structures can be transformed into gendered children (and ultimately adults). For the U.S., a surgical transformation renders biologically anomalous individuals fit for the social and cultural transformation that will later occur. Ultimately, in every culture there is a process by which genderless neonates are transformed into gendered children (or adults-in-training).

All gender is a matter of transformation, at first from a genderless state to a gendered one, later, in some instances, from one gendered state to another one. The length of time for this initial genderless state is also variable. For the Mbuti, living in the Ituri Forest region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it lasts until reproductive age (Turnbull 1987). In Nigeria, among the Igbo, children seem to be essentially genderless until about 5 or 6. Other instances can be cited, but it is probably safe to say that in most cultures the initial genderless state is relatively short and is usually out lasted by childhood. For some cultures, the announcement of biological sex and an associated gender status is the end of the story, for others it is not. It is also probably the case that for some individuals, in all societies, the assignment of a sex-gender complex does not end with birth. Some cultures, such as portions of the U.S. and the Pokot, cited above, tend to organize their gender structures as a rigidly defined bipolar system. Others, such as Oman, (Wikan 1977, 1982), or Mohave (Devereux 1937), include more than two genders in their cultural system. For yet others, such as the Igbo in Nigeria (Amadiume 1987, McCall 1996), the boundaries between gender categories are flexible. Women can take on the position of men in some circumstances, and yet remain women.

Essentially then, in some societies there seems to be a second process of gender transformation; one taking place some time after the first transformation has been started. Although physiologically intersexed individuals are recognizable at birth, and the Navajo place them in a third category, nadle, the Navajo also recognize a group of people they call “those who pretend to be (or play the part of) nadle (Hill 1935). These individuals come to their status after having begun socialization as males or females. Lang (1998) suggests that one way of understanding the various sorts of gender transformation is an examination of the attached roles and statuses. Writing in the context of North American data, she sets out four patterns that encompass the variations in role performance and status acquisition that seem to account for the gender constructions indicated by her data. Not all of these require the institutionalized gender changes so well documented for the berdache. In particular, the morphological men who became berdache did so on the basis of a normative vision quest, a deliberately sought encounter with the superhuman world. Women, on the plains and prairies of North America, might have a vision, but it was often in the form of a dream, or some other individualized encounter. Consequently, women, in this area, who stepped out of the normative primary gender construct could step into masculine activity areas without ceasing to become women (although some did). Similarly, women who simply experienced an inclination to participate in activities usually thought of as masculine, could do so, without a spiritual prod.

This ability on the part of women to step beyond cultural boundaries seems related to the openness of access to prestige structures (Lang 1998), which were usually associated with masculinity. Unlike Western gender constructs, potential sexual partners seem to have little defining importance. Rather, at least for central North America, gender constructs seem to be more concerned with the gendered division of labor. Healing, curing hides, hunting buffalo, counting coup, building houses, raiding for horses and similar tasks were the center of gender definitions. If women had access to the prestigious elements without it, there was no need for them to accomplish a gender transformation. However, it is also important to keep in mind that even though there is good reason to see division of labor as reinforcing gender boundaries (Rubin 1975), peoples like the Mandan and Piegan indicate that in some cultures gendered tasks are not necessarily definitional traits. This element provides an understanding of some of the gender flexibilities found in other parts of the world. For the Ibo in Nigeria, the Nandi in Kenya and the Kikuyu in Kenya, as well as many others. women may marry other women (cf Greene 1998). No transformation seems to be necessary for them to cross sex-gender boundaries in this particular area. As Amadiume (1987) and Smith Oboler (1980) indicate, the triggering events have to do with issues of procreation and inheritance in patrilineal cultures. These also seem to be instances in which prestige structures (in this case attached to being a household head), are gendered but not rigidly so.

The Chuckchee (and probably other Siberian peoples) seem to have combined access to prestige structures with a spirit encounter. Gender transformations were available only to shamans (Bogoras 1909), but both women and men could become shamans. The requisite superhuman encounter occurred in the course of an illness. However, for the Chuckchee, the transformation is within a bipolar system. There are no intermediate or liminal statuses or roles. In fact, Bogoras reports that Chuckchee shamans claimed to have changed or be in the process of changing sex. This instance comes closest to fitting Lang’s category, “Gender role change: [which consists of] the total adoption of the social role of the opposite sex . . . .” (1998:342). More recent material dealing with shamanism (Atkinson 1992 ) indicates that changes in political and economic circumstances have changed patterns of prestige, and consequently the ways in which shamans are or might be gendered. Here we come to one of the central issues: although, gender can be defined as a set of acquired characteristics ascribed to a particular bio-cultural sex position, the details of which characteristics are included in the bundle and the ways in which they are associated with bio- cultural sex may vary from culture to culture. The number of bundles associated with a particular bio-cultural sex may vary, as can attributions of sexuality. This latter point is crucial to re-reading some of the older literature. For example, Devereux’s (1937) discussion of the Mohave sex-gender-sexuality system, which seems to have contained four categories, is cast entirely in terms of two “normal” sexuality categories and two named deviations. That is, the entire article, which seems to be the only, relatively complete, extant source on Mohave gender constructs, is written in terms of homosexuality. The result is an almost exclusive focus on sexual partners.

And here we also see the distorting effects of such an ethnocentric analysis, regardless of its motivations. Devereux insisted on seeing the hwame and alyha as seeking to emulate their “adopted sex.” This is not necessarily a far fetched view; it is, after all an apparently accurate, even though ethnocentric, description for Chuckchee shamans in the early part of this century. However, here Devereux missed the element that points to a very different sexgender- sexuality system. Alyha did not have sex with other alyha, and the same was true of hwame. The Mohave seem to have had a four gender system. The sexuality component seems to be a variant of the three gender system described to Jacobs by a male informant.

homosexual—it means I have sex with other men

heterosexual—means I have sex with women

bisexual—means I have sex with women and men

trisexual—means I have sex with women, men and with Joe [pseudonym for the kwido in the Tewa village Jacobs studied] (Jacobs and Cromwell 1992: 56)

Although sexual orientation is not a prerequisite for membership in a third or fourth gender category, it does seem reasonable to suggest that a culture’s definition of appropriate sexual pairings is a clue to its understanding of the elements that are a part of its gender categories. If people falling into a named third or fourth sex-gender category engage in sexual behavior with each other, then they may not be members of a distinct gender. If, on the other hand, they do not, then they seem to exist as a distinbct group with a different culturally constructed sexuality.


Access to prestige structures seems to be central to an understanding of whether women are likely to undergo a gender transformation, or simply transcend a normative role set. The North American and Siberian data indicate the importance of conceptualizations of the natural and superhuman. Allen (1981) argues that North American indigenous cultures were characterized by a religious orientation that included the active involvement of a spirit world in every aspect of human existence. The result was that all aspects of human life, including sexuality, were seen as manifestations of the natural world, that is, as a result of spirit prompting. Although she may overstate the prevalence of such a view, its occurrence clearly facilitates the expression of individual predilections. This leaves considerable room for the interplay of individual and group, especially in cultures usually depicted as being communally oriented.

Blackwood (1984) extends this argument by noting the appearance of gender definitions more flexible and wider in scope than those of western cultures. The data amassed by Lang (1998) supports that contention by detailing not only a variety of gender constructs, but a variety of ways in which each one might be played out in a culture. Ultimately, gender constructs may be more profitably seen as sets of interacting continua, rather than as sets of strongly bounded categories.

Seeing culture as a system of assigned meanings with various manifestations leads to the position that both the meanings and their manifestations are distributed across a population. As with any distribution, there is a certain level of variation around the center. Consequently, even though everyone may know both the norms and their range of accepted variations, everyone does not necessarily choose the same guiding set of norms and variations. To say that a particular culture contains a third or fourth named gender position and gives it a particular social location, is not the same as saying the entire population approves. What it does say is that most people in a particular culture recognize the existence of the phenomenon and have a judgmental (i.e. normative) statement to make about it (Rosdeth 1998). If those normative descriptions close off the possibility of access to prestige structures, then women are more likely to seek some sort of transformation.

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