Transgender in culture

By Hayley White

Reading time: 14 minutes

Arguably every single culture in the world has transgender people. The South Asian hijra probably relate closest to transgender people in the western culture. Some hijra consider themselves having been born in the wrong body with the wrong sex, while others ascribe to neither sex nor gender (Kalra, 2012).

Before modern times, Muslim societies saw these main gender identities within their culture: the khasi(castrated men), the mukhannathun (‘ones who resemble women’ but are born with male sex organs), and the Khuntha (intersex) (Alipour, 2017). There is also the baklâ in the Philippines which is the term for transgender people or the natural ‘third gender’ (Johnson, 1995). In New Zealand, Māori women, men, and trans individuals embraced the term takatāpui to describe their sexuality or gender identity.

There are many different stories throughout Māori history that relate back to the takatāpui, and these were all things that Shaiya Hafoka (they/them) looked into when they

By Hayley White

Reading time: 14 minutes

Arguably every single culture in the world has transgender people. The South Asian hijra probably relate closest to transgender people in the western culture. Some hijra consider themselves having been born in the wrong body with the wrong sex, while others ascribe to neither sex nor gender (Kalra, 2012).

Before modern times, Muslim societies saw these main gender identities within their culture: the khasi(castrated men), the mukhannathun (‘ones who resemble women’ but are born with male sex organs), and the Khuntha (intersex) (Alipour, 2017). There is also the baklâ in the Philippines which is the term for transgender people or the natural ‘third gender’ (Johnson, 1995). In New Zealand, Māori women, men, and trans individuals embraced the term takatāpui to describe their sexuality or gender identity.

Shaiya Hafoka (they/them)

There are many different stories throughout Māori history that relate back to the takatāpui, and these were all things that Shaiya Hafoka (they/them) looked into when they started a journey into discovering their gender identity.

Based in Auckland and a student of automotive engineering among other things at the Manukau Institute of Technology in Otara, Shaiya originally believed they were a trans man for a long time. When they first started learning about takatāpui, it was an affirmation. Knowing that their tūpuna (ancestors) went through the same things they did and were accepted in their society was extremely reassuring for them. “Finding takatāpui, it made me realise that I had somewhere that I could look back on and realise that it’s not a small world, you know? I had ancestors who were experiencing the same things I’m going through, and it just helps to make me feel that I belong,” they tell me.

Historically, the Māori culture was well known for its acceptance of different sexualities and gender diversity. One of the most common stories of same-sex attraction in Māori history is the romance of Tūtānekai and Hinemoa, who swam to Mokoia to be with him. Before he was married, he had a close friendship with a man named Tiki. The term ‘close friendship’ is the PG version of saying ‘same-sex relationship’.

A conversation between Tūtānekai and his father, Whakaue reinforces the fact that they were in some sort of a relationship:

Ka aroha atu a Tūtānekai ki a Tiki, ka mea atu ki a Whakaue
Ka mate ahau i te aroha ki toku hoa, ki a Tiki.

Tūtānekai loved Tiki, and said to Whakaue
I am stricken with love for my friend, for Tiki.” (Aspin, 2019)

Māori are not the only culture that accept transgender people. The ancient Indian myths viewed hijra as gods or goddesses on Earth, bestowing them with the ability to bless people with luck and fertility and bring riches and rain (Conner, Sparks and Sparks, 1997 as cited in Kalra, 2012). Although viewed as powerful and having cultural significance, modern Hindu societies stigmatise and marginalise hijra even though they like them to bestow blessings on their sons or bless their marriages by attending weddings (Kalra, 2012).

Travie Woffenden (they/them or she/her)

Travie Woffenden (they/them or she/her) currently lives in Auckland and studies film at UNITEC. Travie has identified as non-binary, trans/femme since they were 15, though they say that their true identity is extremely ambiguous. “I like the term non-binary because I also say, ‘screw gender’, but I also like the idea that we are just so limitless and so much of us aren’t tied to either binary.” So they say that while they do lean very feminine, their pronouns are representative of them not fitting into any boxes. For a long time, they just thought they were gay.

When they were younger, they would dress up and play with toys that were different to their assigned gender and did not really think much of it. They officially knew they were a trans woman when they reached about 15, and realised that they did not feel comfortable being perceived as a man.

“That was a very strong feeling, and I didn’t even know how to comprehend it at all, but I just knew that it was such a strong, almost out of body experience where I didn’t feel like I was being perceived in any way that I wanted to be, and didn’t feel comfortable within myself in a way,” they tell me.

“It’s hard because it’s not a linear path, at least for me. It’s been like ‘Okay, I’m happy and getting more and more comfortable’, and then I’ll take a big dive and regress back into myself, then I’ll kind of keep going. It’s a windy road and definitely not over yet, it’s all just life.”

Growing up as a pākehā trans woman, Travie says that they cannot imagine what it must be like to be an indigenous trans person these days, knowing that most cultures have such a rich history of accepting every sexuality and gender identity. “And then to feel colonisation and see that not be the case anymore – see these new views adopted that are really aggressive.”

“To grow up in a world where being straight and cisgender is the norm, it is so in your face and it’s everywhere,” Travie says, impassioned.

Western culture is not the only one to impose gender norms to the detriment of transgender and homosexual people. Muslim society is heavily patriarchal, both theologically and culturally, and this makes countries such as Egypt and Iran extremely dangerous for transgender people. But in the 1980s, sex reassignment surgery was made legal (and halal) by Ayatollah Khomeini and Sheikh al-Tantawi in Egypt and Iran in accordance with sharia law (Alipour, 2017).

Daya Czepanski
Photo: Jasmine Simmons

Daya Czepanski knew since they were young that they did not feel like other kids growing up. They could not quite put their finger on what it was and just thought that something was not quite right until they hit puberty.

Daya has lived in Sydney for over five years, and graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art. They soon realised that a lot of the roles that they were being put up for, like the girl-next-door and the cheerleader, were not quite what they wanted, and it felt very wrong.

It was not until halfway through 2020 that Daya figured out they were not a cisgendered person. Once they came out to their friends, they gradually started to introduce their new pronouns and socially transitioned. Now, they feel more like themselves than ever before.

Daya’s beliefs are similar to Travie’s in the sense that they think western culture seems threatened by transgenderism. Western culture, and Christian ideals by extension are responsible for a lot of the restrictions and gender roles we have now, they say.

“I mean, almost every culture across the world pre colonisation has a recognized third, fourth, or fifth gender, and it’s only when colonisers came along and sort of tried to push their Christian ideals of [the man and woman binaries]. So I think historically, white coloniser history is very scared of exploration and non-conformity and freedom because they see it as a threat to white supremacy and patriarchy.”

In the Philippines, where over 80 percent of Filipinos belong to the Roman Catholic Church (International Religious Freedom Report, 2004), baklâ are tolerated by the church but in general Filipino society, are condemned and face discrimination. In the Philippines, it is essentially illegal to show any homosexual ‘misconduct’ or for men to dress in female attire. In 2004, Marawi City banned trans people (notably male-to-female trans people) from wearing female attire, earrings, or makeup in public. If any are seen doing one of the many outlawed things that limit LGBTQIA+ people from expressing their identity, they will have paint dumped on their heads by the mutawa Islamic religious police (Wockner, 2004).

As for how they think more inclusion can be realised for trans people, and especially trans people of colour, Daya, Travie, and Shaiya have various answers. Representation, access to gender neutral facilities, safe spaces for queer people, and just plain old empathy top the list. Shaiya says that representation, seeing themselves on TV and in the public eye and seeing the inclusivity of trans people of colour is super important.

“I don’t see much inclusion of people of colour or gender identity in the media or on TV; it’s like a sworn-off topic that not many people are brave enough to breach. I feel like that’s one thing that needs to change if we want to make it more supportive.”

Travie says that education and gender inclusive bathrooms are very important in order for people to feel comfortable in society. It helps people feel like they have a place; it helps them feel accepted and safe. “I think that bathrooms are a fundamental human need, like we all need to use a bathroom in some way – it’s just something undeniable – and it’s a fact that there’s a huge portion of the population that feel uncomfortable using an essential service,” Travie says.

Education about trans people and gender identities is also important to them. “Educate everybody. It baffles me that I learned nothing about being trans at school, absolutely nothing and I’m not exaggerating. I think it was one thing and it was really awful – it was like a little checklist called Are You Trans? asking questions such as where you shop, for example, at a different section of the clothing store. But it was nothing accurate, nothing sympathetic. I think 100% sexual identity education in schools needs to be compulsory and mandated.”

Daya believes that people need to take a good look at how they treat others. The only way to make communities safer is to be kind and have compassion. They implore that people respect them as humans, rather than someone to be shunned.

“Ultimately, we just need so much more empathy towards people who are different to us, because again, yeah we’re all human and not that different. Just because somebody is trans and somebody’s cis, we’re still just flesh and blood, we’re still people with hopes and dreams and aspirations and that doesn’t go away because you come out,” says Daya.

 

Sources: 1. Islamic shari’a law, neotraditionalist Muslim scholars and transgender sex-reassignment surgery: A case study of ayatollah Khomeini’s and Sheikh al-tantawi’s fatwas. International Journal of Transgenderism 2. Gay Philippines news & reports, globalgayz.com 3. Hōkakatanga – Māori sexualities – Sexual diversity in contemporary Māori society, teara.govt.nz 4. Transgender men and homosexuality in the southern Philippines: Ethnicity, political violence and the protocols of engendered sexualities amongst the Muslim Tausug and Sama. South East Asia Research 5. Hijras: The unique transgender culture of India. International Journal of Culture and Mental Health

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