Wariazone and Transgender/Third Gender Issues in Five Cultures

by Bruce Nordstrom-Loeb, Ph.D.

When we look at the variety of sexualities in pre-industrial cultures around the world, we find a number of patterns that challenge the more “binary” or “either/or” thinking about sex and gender often found in modern, industrial societies.  Some people may represent a mix of behavior, dress, and identity (neither male nor female), or may see themselves as a “third gender,” or perhaps people with the body of one sex and the soul/spirit of the other.  In a number of examples, people may change their body or appearance, sometimes physically, to achieve a new gender identity, or to bring their body in line with whom they believe they already are (similar to but not necessarily the same as what Western cultures call transgender patterns). Gay anthropologist Gilbert Herdt calls this collection of sexualities “gender transformation sexualities.”  

Often these groups, who are different from most people in their own culture, believe there is a spiritual or religious significance to their sexual differences, and often those beliefs may be shared by their culture as a whole (they are seen as different, but in positive ways rather than only deviant—at least before modernization or Westernization arrives).  In several societies members of these groups support themselves through sex work (prostitution).  Those of us in the West have much to learn about how complex sexuality and gender identity can be!  

(1) Indonesia: the Warias

Wariazone (a 2011 Estonian documentary film by artist Kiwa and anthropologist Terje Toomistu, 74 minutes) looks at the lives of warias (plural) in Indonesia.  They see themselves as a third sex, neither male nor female, or perhaps as a female soul in a man’s body.  They see themselves as different from gay men, though both of them are attracted to men; the warias see themselves as women and dress/act like women all the time, while (some) gay men might only occasionally wear “drag” and always see themselves as men.  Gay men and warias rarely have sex with each other (gay men seem to prefer other gay men, while warias are usually involved with straight men).

Warias seem to be what we (in the West) now call transwomen (people who began life with a male body but a gender identity as a female.  They change their appearance by dressing as women, wearing cosmetics and doing their hair differently, keeping their body hair closely shaved, and perhaps using female hormones to encourage their breasts and body fat to change shape to a more womanly look.  Yet warias keep their penis, which transwomen in the U.S. who choose “bottom” surgery usually do not.  Their body is rather androgynous in appearance, itself a challenge to our either/or thinking about what gender is.  

Though warias seem to have had an accepted place in traditional Indonesian culture (sometimes as singers or dancers—though the term “waria” is an invented one (from wanita or woman, and pria or man), they are now often stigmatized and even the victim of violence in a modern Indonesian society.  The stigma can be based on sexual morality (they are women who are sexual, with a variety of partners, and many are prostitutes), or their violation of more conservative religious rules (the rise of conservative Islamic movements has made life more difficult for warias). They often move from rural families to the cities, where they don’t have identity cards that they need to find work, or are not accepted in conventional occupations, so many turn to prostitution and many are HIV+ (the fear of the disease adds to the stigma they carry). 

Indonesian Islam often considers warias sinful, though some warias pray (as men) in mosques, and in the film there’s one religious house for the study of the Qur’an just for them.  Some warias argue that in Islamic tradition the Prophet accepted mixed-gender people, or that Allah made them so it’s o.k.  (It’s not clear whether warias are often considered sinful by conservative Muslim people because they do sex work, dance/sing, or are immodest, rather than simply because they are “deviant” in their appearance or sexuality.) (Note: Iran accepts transwomen, and the surgery required to “transition” from male to female, as long as they abide by the social rules that apply to heterosexual women in that very conservative Muslim society; there seems to be more concern about women who are “out of place” than men who become women.  Pakistan has recently announced it may adopt similar laws.)

(2) India: the Hijras

Hijras are a group of people with a long cultural and religious tradition in India.  They are usually, but not always, men who have been castrated (their penis has been removed), and play special ceremonial and religious roles.  The sacrifice of their own ability to procreate gives them (many believe) spiritual power to enhance the fertility of others (they are called in for weddings and the birth of baby boys).  You will occasionally see hijras portrayed in “Bollywood” films in wedding scenes.

They usually wear their hair long, and dress in saris (women’s traditional clothing).

And yet their actual lives are more complex.  They sometimes support themselves by doing sex work (earning money as prostitutes), in spite of the fact that (theoretically) they have given up sex.  They sometimes see themselves as a third gender rather than as women, and some hijras are intersex (with genitals that are not clearly either male or female).  Some have husbands who are straight men, and the hijras do not define themselves as effeminate homosexuals. 

(3) Mexico and Brazil: 

A Norwegian sociologist, Annick Prieur, has done a study titled Mema’s House, Mexico City: On Transvestites, Queens and Machos (1998) in which she talks about young gay men from poor or working-class backgrounds who often work as prostitutes.  A number of them usually dress as women in this role, and are the “passive” partner in the sex act (they are the ones who are penetrated, “play the woman,” rather than those who penetrate (“the man”).  Many also alter their bodies to be more female, though they don’t have the money to have real surgery; most often, they may take female sexual hormones (which will change one’s voice, body hair, breast size, and where body fat is found, but not internal organs, genitals, or one’s “Adam’s apple”).  And many inject oil into their bodies to achieve the appearance of more female curves (this can have health consequences).  Their families may be quite accepting of how their sons have turned out and the work they do, if the young men honor their obligations to their family by helping to support it financially (also true with the warias: among the poor, survival can often be more important than cultural ideals).

In Mexico, “straight” men often identify as very sexual, perhaps very macho, and most would avoid being labeled as homosexual; however, one’s masculinity is defined more by the role one takes in the sexual act (being “activo” or the penetrator, rather than taking the “female” role), than by the sex of one’s partner.  While men who have sex with men in the U.S. are defined as “at least” bisexual, taking the dominant role in sex with a woman or even another man, in Mexico, may enhance one’s feeling of masculinity and does not necessarily threaten one’s heterosexuality.

In a parallel study, by anthropologist Don Kulick, Travesti: Sex, Gender and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes (1998) the author explores the ways in which some boys from a fairly early age (8-10) may begin adopting ways to present themselves as more female or feminine, and later to earn money as transgendered prostitutes (“travesti” in the local Portuguese).  He finds that the Travesti find affirmation in their work, which confirms their skill and success in becoming like women who can even attract the attentions (and resources) of heterosexual men.  Yet they don’t identify as female, but as feminine (a feminine man), whose appearance has taken special effort and skill to achieve (they not only use non-prescription female hormones, but also inject several liters of industrial silicone into their butts, thighs and hips), and which does not involve castration (loss of their penis).  (Kulick’s use of “transgendered” in his title doesn’t fit with our usual North American use of the word, which does include having a strong sense of a gender identity at odds with one’s body, forming the motive to change one’s body.)  

In Brazil, gender is basically dichotomous, between “men” (never being penetrated) and “not-men” (sometimes or always penetrated), rather than the sex of one’s partner, or whether one has male genitals.  Kulick, himself a masculine-looking gay man, is said by his Travesti friends to only be pretending to be a man, whereas they are more honest about their gender—they are people with a penis who have sex with other men, but by their feminine appearance they aren’t trying to fool anyone.

(4) Thailand: Kathoeys

Kathoeys in Thailand (also sometimes called transsexuals, perhaps transvestites, or ladyboys) are men who have or take on female identities.  There is quite a bit of social acceptance (wth ambivalence) for them: in big cities like Bangkok, where surgery and cosmetics make it possible for men to successfully “pass” as women, the emphasis on women’s beauty in Thailand (and its meaning as something virtuous) can work to kathoeys’ favor.  They are often seen as more beautiful than “regular” women.  In the poor areas of Isaan, in Thailand’s northeast, kathoeys also often seem to be accepted by their families, perhaps because their performance of women’s roles and work is traditionally valued, or as daughters they will live near their families in this matrilocal culture.

Kathoeys don’t think of themselves as homosexuals or gay men (even though they started life physically as men, and now may have male partners).  Rather as women in male bodies they attempt to make themselves more female in as many ways as their resources and creativity allow.  How this works out may depend on social class or region (as noted above).  But the fact that Thailand has one of the largest “sex tourism industries” in the world (where many local people depend on wealthy tourists looking for sex) may make the fact that kathoeys are beautiful and deviant a positive resource when using sex work to support themselves.  And Thailand is also very Buddhist in culture (in which it’s believed that people live many lives, and can be reborn as female even if they were male in their previous life—there has been some spiritual virtue to “gender-bending” in Thai culture), which also shapes the kathoey experience and may make it seem less “weird” than it might otherwise seem.  

Note: kathoeys are different from “Toms” and “Dees” (see anthropologist Megan Sinnott’s ethnography Toms and Dees, 2004).  Toms and dees are both women, though the tom (from “tom-boy”) has more masculine behavior and appearance (similar to “butch”-“femme” lesbians in the U.S.).  In Thailand, one’s sexual identity is related more to one’s masculinity or femininity than to the physical sex of one’s partner or the role one plays in sex (as in Mexico/Brazil), so toms and dees do not see themselves as homosexual in a conventional sense—they preserve male and female roles between themselves.  Parents, concerned about their daughter’s sexual purity until marriage, actually feel better about their daughter living with a Tom than they would if she were living with a more conventional straight male.

(5) United States: Transwomen

The meaning of “transgender” in Western societies is still evolving, and many people may confuse transgender with other terms such as transsexual, transvestite, drag queen or king, androgynous, intersex, and others.  In general, though, many agree that a transgender person is one whose own gender identity (whether they see themselves as male, female, or other) is different from the one which other people assume the person would have based on the body they were born into.  (We may see a person who looks like what in our culture would be a “man,” yet she thinks of himself as a “woman” (and might use the female pronoun to refer to herelf).  

Her identity as a woman is so strong that she may seek to change how others see her—temporarily by wearing more “feminine” clothing or hairstyles, or more permanently through the use of sex hormones or even surgery.  Transgender people who’ve had surgery sometimes feel gay or lesbian, but about half the time also see themselves as heterosexual.  

“Transsexual” is often used to refer to someone who’s gone through with that surgery (in our example, perhaps having her breasts enlarged through hormones or implants), or even sexual reassignment surgery to create female genitals and a vgina.  Transvestites (or cross-dressers) are those who temporarily dress as another sex, but do not necessarily identity as that other sex.  A drag queen or king is someone who may cross-dress as part of a performance, temporarily adopting the appearance and gender pronouns for the other sex; the performance may show the skill in “passing” as the other sex, or be a humorous caricature of the other sex (“over the top”).  Someone who’s androgynous may look both female and male; an intersex person is one who has ambiguous genitals or perhaps aspects of both sex’ genitals.  Note that the meaning of such terms is sometimes debated and continues to change; there may be even less agreement over what one of these terms means between Western and non-Western cultures.

In societies such as the U.S., the experience of being transsexual is often shaped by the culture’s emphasis on gender and sexuality as binary, “either-or.”  Much of the language we use is about male and female, masculine and feminine, rather than about “third genders,” though this can vary with individuals (who sometimes have more radical, “transgressive,” “genderqueer” or just personally experimental approaches to their own gender).  Doctors in the U.S. were not willing to perform sexual surgery to bring one’s body into line with one’s sexual identity until the 1960’s, and then only if the person believed himself or herself to be completely the identity to which they wished to change their body.  

In the U.S. we usually call someone who originally seemed to be male (based on their body), but who considers herself female, “transgender,” and more specifically a “transwoman” (especially if she is passing as a woman, or has physically transitioned to being a woman).  This transition can take some years and has a number of stages; in the U.S., one can have surgery (as a final stage) only with the approval of a therapist and a doctor, and after living for a year as the gender you’re transitioning towards (under the “Benjamin Standards of Care”).  

A first stage in physically transitioning to being a woman is to take female sex hormones (prescribed by a doctor), which can change one’s voice, breasts, upper body strength, body hair, and distribution of body fat.  (Some transwomen may also have dressed or done their hair differently even before that to try out a more feminine or androgynous look).  Men with heavier beards may have all their facial hair follicles destroyed medically (painful!); men with larger “Adam’s apples” (on their throat) may have it shaved so they’ll look more like women.  If they receive approval for “bottom” surgery (on their genitals), and can afford it (such surgery is defined in the U.S. as “elective” or optional surgery, and so is not paid for my health insurance or government programs), they may have their penis changed into female genitals (hopefully with sexual feeling intact) and perhaps the creation of a vagina.  Some never proceed with bottom surgery and are content with how they look as a woman (especially if they can “pass,” or are “read,” as a woman).  

Transwomen are not necessarily lesbian.  As the woman they’ve always seen themselves as, they may have romantic/sexual relationships with straight men.  But studies seem to find that about half the men who make the transition to women prefer a female partner.

Interestingly, transwomen seem more common than are transmen.  It’s not obvious why this might be.  In many societies, there are more advantages to being a male or living the life of a man than in being a woman, so one might expect transmen to be more common (among people who aren’t transgender, lots more women wish they’d been born a man than there are men who wish they’d been born a woman).  But being transgender may be about something else than finding a strategy to live the best life possible given the limitations of whatever the conventional gender roles are in the culture in which one grows up.  

Prepared by Bruce Nordstrom-Loeb, Ph.D., for the “Untold Stories” exhibition in Tallinn (Estonia) in 2011.  Bruce is a sociologist who teaches about gender and sexuality in the U.S.