Wingnut fundamentalist Pat Robertson recently shocked both sides of the political aisle by publicly proclaiming that there is nothing wrong with being transgendered. If that isn’t a sign of times changing, I don’t know what is.
In the last few decades, Americans have been compelled to take sides in the “culture wars” on the transgender issue, falling into conservative opposition and discomfort, or liberal advocacy and compassion. I think many of us fall somewhere inbetween. For my own part, advocacy and compassion have never been in question, but I’ve struggled to let go of a discomfort with the surgical solution, perhaps because as a holistic healer, I question the over-use of surgery in western medicine.
A recent passion for the field of anthropology has provided me a new rabbit-hole for considering the issue. Anthropology is the study of human beings, and in particular cultural anthropology investigates the genesis, growth, and clashes of human culture. One of the tenants of the field is that to truly understand any culture, it has to be understood on its own terms. This cultural relativism doesn’t mean abandoning our own ethical positions, but it does mean that ethics aside, every culture creates value in its own way.
So why is anthropology at the heart of the transgender issue? It’s obvious when you think about it: physical sex characteristics are certainly biologically determined, but the meaning of “gender” is just as certainly construct of culture. The meaning of “male” and “female” designations, as well as the roles that those designations carry, inevitably vary from one culture to another. Just think about gender roles in the American 1950s versus American gender roles today. Thus, we cannot speak of the transgendered without looking into the meaning of gender in their culture of origin. What does it mean to be a man or woman in the local culture the transgender child grows up in? What feelings, experiences, roles, responsibilities, and behaviors are expected of that gender role? If these culturally constructed stories and expectations were not in play, would the transgender child still grow up to feel so uncomfortable in their bodies? This is no easy question, but it must be considered, because the human body itself is inevitably encoded with cultural meanings; hating the body or changing the body must in large part be a cultural act. And because adult sexual characteristics are largely a function of hormones that don’t activate until puberty, transgender children especially must derive their gender identity from their culture of origin. I make this point to suggest that what transgender children are reacting to developmentally is not nearly so much their given biology as the cultural values attributed to that biology.
We might pause here for a moment to consider exactly what is meant by “transgender”. In Psychiatric terms, transgendered individuals experience a condition known as “gender dysphoria” in which their gendered self identity does not match their sex. I’ll say more about this medical model shortly, but first lets look more deeply into the word itself. The etymology of the word “trans” suggests either moving across or moving beyond something. So to be transgendered suggests an individual moving across the gender divide of their culture, or else going beyond it. We might conclude that this becomes a matter of “transcending” gender, but such a move just brings us full circle: the notion that gender can be transcended or altered is itself a cultural construct, based on cultural assumptions of gender.
And to be clear, saying that something is culturally “constructed” does not mean that it’s somehow unreal or meaningless. On the contrary, from an anthropological perspective, meaning itself is derived from culture. Everything we do – our work, leisure, religions, ritual – everything that makes the lives of a people meaningful is a cultural expression. I know from my own work with the mens movement that gender identity can offer a tremendous sense of belonging and purpose, something I would never take away from anyone, no matter how unusual their gender affiliation seemed to me. Deconstructing something in this way is about understanding it, not negating it.
Americans now live in technically advanced society in which hormone therapies and surgeries can literally begin to physically “re-assign” the physical sex of an individual. But these re-assignments and hormone therapies are themselves a unique product of western biomedicine – yes, as much as the materialists want to deny it, medicine is a cultural construct as well! One of the best kept secrets of anthropology is that indigenous healing practices actually work for members of their own culture. A lot of effort has been made to explain this scientifically in terms of placebo effect, but at the end of the day, from a pragmatic perspective, if it works, it works!
This means that gender re-assignment surgery is as much a matter of medical anthropology as cultural anthropology; culturally constructed understandings of medicine and health are employed to “heal” the transgender individual who does not feel whole living in the body s/he was born into. Without these technologies, physical gender re-assignment would not be possible. So any depth analysis of the transgender phenomenon in western culture must be incomplete without a thorough exploration of western biomedcine and all of its underlying cultural constructs around health, healing, and wellness.
Interestingly, it is the language and culture of biomedicine that often offers the strongest rhetoric for tolerance and compassion for transgender individuals, defining the condition as “biological”, which is meant to carry the connotations of something innate and immutable. This rhetoric is useful in arguing for compassionate treatment of the transgender community, but it unfortunately (and ironically) leaves the cultural construction of gender out of the picture. By this model, gender is dictated entirely by brain structure. But if gender is determined solely by brain structure, the hard reality of culture is being blatantly ignored. In light of recent discoveries in the field of epigenetics – which holds that gene expression is itself influenced by environmental factors (Lipton, 2005) – it seems far more likely that the “biological” factors underlying gender identity are themselves significantly influenced by the cultural context. That is to say, cultural understandings of male and female roles, behaviors, and experiences may influence the biological development of the brain toward a more “male” or “female” structure. This process of neuroplasticity in the brain (the tendency of the brain to radically alter itself) is now well documented, and is especially pronounced in children (Begley, 2007). The implications of epigenetics and neuroplasticity taken in tandem is that biology itself will in part become an expression of culture. One astounding (and little known) manifestation of this is male lactation: Americans largely assumes that only women can breastfeed their babies, but evidence is mounting that under the right conditions the average male can produce breast milk to nurse an infant (Swaminathan, 2008).
Given that physical gender re-assignment surgery is a very recent development of western biomedicine, it may be helpful to consider the question of “transcending” gender in a cultural context where no medical solution is possible. In Native American culture, a more fluid understanding of gender roles is expressed in the concept of the “two-spirit” – a broad term covering a range of transgender traditions and behaviors across over 130 tribes (Roscoe, 1991). Brian Gilley has gone so far as to assert that the presence of male two-spirits “was a fundamental institution among most tribal peoples” (2006). In this case, strict male/female gender roles are “transcended” by certain individuals who do not feel that their gender identity conforms to the body they were born into. However, it is important to understand that most of these tribes simply do not have the same kind of rigid conceptual split between the genders that Western culture does (Pope, 2012). In these cultures, gender has an inherently broader and more fluid definition, and thus the same level of “gender dysphoria” documented in the west has no cultural basis to occur. Although there is great diversity across the two-spirit traditions, it is worth noting some key features in stark contrast to western culture. The Two-Spirit was often thought to have both female and male qualities, sometimes understood as two souls in the same body. Their extra spirit was often (but not always) seen as an indication of greater spiritual depth and power. Their sexual partners varied in different traditions, but often included either gender. For a biological male one-spirit to engage with a biological male two-spirit was not seen as homosexuality in the way we mean it today, because the two-spirit was not understood to be a man just because “his” body was shaped that way.
Overall, we see in the two-spirits a cultural tradition that honors the “transgendered” members of their community by making gender a fluid and largely spiritual affair. Rather than condemning and ostracizing the two-spirits, they were often granted a special reverence, perhaps even seen as being closer to the spirit realm and possessed of unique spiritual abilities. This is in stark contrast to traditional western culture, which has tended to define gender rigidly and biologically. With such rigid definitions and a lack of compassionate cultural recognition, it is not surprising that transgendered individuals would naturally seek a medical procedure to correct their culturally constructed “problem.”
Personally, the one thing that has always left me uncomfortable about the transgender issue is simply the reliance on surgery. As a practicing holistic healer, I feel that surgery is over-prescribed in general. And as a former actor, I can’t help but notice that Western culture is also home to the beauty $ fashion industries, Hollywood celebrity culture, and cosmetic surgery. All of these factors arguably contribute to a society that highly values aesthetic appearance over substance, sets unrealistic standards for masculinity and femininity, and encourages individuals to feel inadequate about themselves – in order to encourage further consumption of various “self-improvement” products and procedures. At times it has seemed to me that gender re-assignment surgery gives too much value to appearances, to surfaces. But as a healthy and attractive American white male, I’ve learned to be careful about these kinds of assumptions – it’s all too easy to judge others for being concerned with issues that I have never had to deal with.
The truth is, without a cultural container that honors transgender identity spiritually, the only alternative is physical transformation. Most anthropologists will warn you that taking an ill person out of their tribal culture, away from their trusted healers, and putting them in a western hospital, is a recipe for disaster. The same principle works in reverse – in a culture that insists that gender is strictly a matter of biology, only a biological solution will suffice. As biomedicine continues to advance, these physical transformations will become increasingly thorough and convincing. In fact, western culture will need these physical transformations in order to heal the deep gender wounds that its own emphasis on biology has created.
Arenson, L. & Miller-Thayer, J. (2007). Cultures of the United States. Plymouth, MI: Hayden-McNeil.
Begley, S. (2007). Train your Mind, Change your Brain. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.
Gilley, B. (2006). Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Lipton, B (2005). The Biology of Belief. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House Inc
Pope, M. (2012). “Native American and Gay: Two Spirits in One Human Being” in Casebook for counseling lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons and their families. Dworkin, Sari H. (Ed.); Pope, Mark (Ed.); Alexandria, VA, US: American Counseling Association.
Roscoe, W. (1991). The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
Swaminathan, N. (2008). “Strange but true: Males can lactate” in Scientific American. Retrieved July 24th, 2013 from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=strange-but-true-males-can-lactate