I want my images to reveal a sense of beauty, mystery and individuality. My subjects don’t buy into the gender binary and I feel this should be celebrated or at least appreciated and recognised within Western society. I like the idea of drag, transsexual and transgender identities being seen and accepted as beautiful and revolutionary. Separate from regular society but in a good “I want to be like that too” sort of way. With changing fashions and mainstream celebrities embracing gender-bending in full blown public view proves that by following the gender binary you’re “like so old news”. People that are pushing the gender boundaries or don’t even consider gender as a category (enter Andrej Pejic hello?!) are the new realm of human and body beautiful. It’s exciting. But Western society is still lagging behind many other societies and cultures that have. For a long time other cultures have appreciated the beauty and even godliness to gender-benders. Let’s explore.
Cross dressing and transvestism has not always been considered abnormal or subversive. It might be difficult to imagine for the western brain societies in which sexual ambiguity of this most uncompromising kind could be accepted and even revered. Cross dressing has been recorded by anthropologists and social historians across many centuries covering the most diverse cultures from North America to Africa. There have been many cultures where transvestism has been customary, and transvestites themselves being given ‘generic’ status as a sort of honorary third sex. The berdaches in certain American Indian tribes were men who wore women’s clothes and engaged in feminine activities such as child rearing. Among the Cocopa Indians males who showed feminine characteristics were dressed in women’s clothes and known as e L ha. The mahoos of Tahiti were transvestites who dressed permanently in womens clothes; in Brazil as cudinas; among the Californian Indians as i-wa-musp; and among the Aztecs and Incas as bardage. Whilst in some cases it has been suggested
Native Americans have often held intersex, androgynous people, feminine males and masculine females in high respect. The most common term to define such persons today is to refer to them as “two-spirit” people. Throughout history, a person who was recognized as two-spirit was someone who identified with both male and female gender roles, and so two-spirit is essentially a third gender recognized in Indigenous cultures. The perspective among Indigenous Americans was that having this third gender was a strength their society benefited from. American Indian traditionalists, even today, tend to see a person’s basic character as a reflection of their spirit. Since everything that exists is thought to come from the spirit world, androgynous or transgender persons are seen as doubly blessed, having both the spirit of a man and the spirit of a woman. Thus, they are honoured for having two spirits, and are seen as more spiritually gifted than the typical masculine male or feminine female.
Instead of seeing two-spirit persons as transsexuals who try to make themselves into “the opposite sex”, it is more accurate to understand them as individuals who take on a gender status that is different from both men and women. This alternative gender status offers a range of possibilities, from slightly effeminate males or masculine females, to androgynous or transgender persons, to those who completely cross-dress and act as the other gender. The emphasis of Native Americans is not to force every person into one box, but to allow for the reality of diversity in gender and sexual identities.
Perhaps the most famous two-spirit Indigenous American was from the Zuni tribe during late 1800s in New Mexico. Her name was We’wha, and she died in 1896, but not before befriending anthropologists who were able to document her story (Roscoe, 1991). One of the female anthropologists who was close to her described We’wha as “…the strongest character and the most intelligent of the Zuni tribe” (Roscoe, 1991, p. 29) The history of this particular two-spirit gives us a peek into the historical role of two-spirits within Indigenous American culture. In the tradition of the Zuni tribe, children were not referred to as girl or boy until around the age of five. Prior to this age they were simply referred to as “cha’le” or child (Roscoe, 1991, p. 32). In We’Wha’s case she reported identifying with the female gender as early as the age of three (p. 33). This writer refers to We’Wha as both “he” and “she” because according to Roscoe (1991), her family referred to her using both genders’ terms. The reason was because in that time two-spirits were not thought of as just a man or just a woman but as embodying characteristics of both genders in a single person, making them a more whole human being. A more whole human being, I like that.
Overall, this research evidences that what is considered “normal” and “ideal” varies across cultures and further reinforces that gender “norms” really needn’t exist. I hope that western culture will one day celebrate individuals with alternative gender identities for their courage and diversity or even better, being more whole human beings. I want my images to encourage the public to recognise the beauty in those with trans* identities, something I want to become the real normality.
Roscoe, W (1988) Gay American Indians “Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology” New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Wesley, T and Jacobs, S (1999) American Indian Culture and Research Journal v. 23 no2 (p. 91-107)
Walter, W (1986) The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon Press (p.233-234)