Kurt Cobain, was born in 1967, and died 23 years ago today. He flitted between narcissism, empathy, love and pain, trying to enjoy his life and simply be himself, but not feeling it, instead feeling everything else instead. He’d have been 50 now, just a month older than me. 5 years ago, I also attempted suicide, after a lifelong struggle with identity and feeling too much.
Whilst Cobain is in nirvana now, where are we 20+ years on? Still struggling for identity, as individuals, and a generation? Cobain struggled with being seen as the voice of a generation. His band, Nirvana, was labelled “the flagship band” of Generation X, and Cobain himself proclaimed as “the spokesman of a generation”, something that did not sit well with him.
Faking it, Being Someone Else
“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are.” – Kurt Cobain
Cobain was trying to work out how to be himself amidst the pressures of fame, parental divorce, love and loss, and mental health conditions including bipolar mood swings between depression and mania, as described by his cousin, a nurse, who noted his childhood diagnosis of ADHD and as an adult Bipolar (unconfirmed?). Several relatives had also committed suicide in the same way.
He struggled to feel what he thought he was meant to feel or enjoy. He couldn’t fake the enjoyment of fame, or life itself.
“I’ve tried everything within my power to appreciate it” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
“The worst crime is faking it.” – Kurt Cobain
Empathy and Fame
He mentioned empathy four times in his suicide note, and the struggle between feeling too much and yet not feeling anything – or what he thought was the right thing, at all.
“I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus, man, ‘Why don’t you just enjoy it?’ I don’t know!” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
Nirvana sold over 25 million albums in the US, and over 75 million worldwide, but fame and success do not fill the void. He hated the fame, and was envious of Freddie Mercury and how he seemed to relish it.
“We’re so trendy we can’t even escape ourselves…I really miss being able to blend in with people.” – Kurt Cobain
Reading, Writing & Lyrics
Cobain “occasionally took refuge in the counter-cultural writings of authors such as William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett and Charles Bukowski”. Yet, described himself as having the “tongue of an experienced simpleton”, and hating the Freudian analysis that people subjected his lyrics to. Another reason, to explore him in his own words, not the interpretation of others.
“I’m not well-read, but when I read, I read well.” – Kurt Cobain
“I like to have strong opinions with nothing to back them up with besides my primal sincerity. I like sincerity. I lack sincerity.” – Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain was seemingly bisexual, though gave mixed interviews on that side of his personal life, calling himself “gay for a while” yet “more sexually attracted to women”. As a teen he was arrested and fined $180 for graffitiing “Homosex Rules” on a wall. He once said, “I started being really proud of the fact that I was gay even though I wasn’t.” It is not clear if he ever consummated this part of his persona, despite saying:
“If I wouldn’t have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle.” – Kurt Cobain
Whilst Generation Y, born early 80s to 2000, followed Cobain’s Generation X, we are now on the Gen Z cohort, born since the Millennium. A group happy to be neither gay nor straight, to question gender and express it fluidly.
Cobain wrote about women’s rights in his songs, including concerning the rape of a 14yo girl after a concert (not one of his).
“I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male – or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be.” – Kurt Cobain
“He was himself”
Canadian musician and writer, Dave Bidini, in an article for the National Post entitled “Kurt Cobain, who died 20 years ago today, wasn’t a hero, martyr or vampire. He was himself” ended with this comment:
“He looked like he didn’t care (because he didn’t) … His arms hang down and he turns sideways from the crowd, as if he’s trying not to be seen, even though 20 million people have their eyes trained on him. In a society where ‘bringing it’ and ‘all or nothing’ and ‘going for it’ are sicknesses pumped by fools who aspire to drive people apart rather than draw them together, Cobain’s sense of oblivion was, in a way, brave and confrontational, and that’s why he cracked even the hardest edifice and ate through misplaced pop culture like a creeping disease. In the end, he made an enormous impression for someone who wasn’t even there.” – Dave Bidini, National Post
Cobain did escape, “Rather be dead than cool”, others need not take that route if they can follow his other wisdom, to be yourself and find someone you can be yourself with and talk to.
Remember him alive though, here’s an awesome unplugged hour-long Kurt Cobain MTV concert in NYC November 1993 just months before his suicide, my favourite line of which was “like this is my third cup of tea already” – how Rock’n’Roll!
I will remember him, as much for the angst music of a tortured soul, as the desire to find and be himself, a journey I am also on, aren’t we all to a degree?
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.” – Kurt Cobain
The enigma that was Prince Rogers Nelson, whose African-American family hailed from Lousiana originally burst onto the pop scene as a 17-year-old teenager, in the late 1970s. Aged just 20, in 1979, he performed his first gig with his band, who became, ‘The Revolution‘. His death, this week, leaves behind dozens of songs, lyrics, statements, and beliefs, that not everyone understood.
His own path navigated 3 engagements, 2 marriages and divorces, and the death of his only child. In 2001, he became a Jehovah Witness and said he was turning to monogamy after prior romantic links to Kim Basinger, Madonna, Sheila E., Carmen Electra, Anna Fantastic, Sherilyn Fenn, Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, Susan Moonsie of Vanity 6, and Vanity, herself, another singer who underwent a Christian conversion and also died this year.
Prince, the Genderbending Rule-breaker
“A strong spirit transcends rules”, Prince said in a 1999 interview.
Steven W Thrasher, writing in the Guardian, writes of Prince’s genderbending and gender-busting allure:
Prince broke all the rules about what black American men should be. The musical genius captivated both men and women with his high heels, tight butt and playful sexuality – and he refused to be anyone’s slave…
…letting go of all those rules he seemed to have dispensed with? That purple clothing, those high heels and ruffled shirts: was he proudly feminine, or so secure in his masculinity he didn’t mind others questioning it? That small frame and that tight, small butt that seemed to leave him “shaking that ass, shaking that ass” for men and women alike?
Prince was a paradox in that he expanded the concept of what it meant to be a man while also deconstructing the entire idea of gender.
It was, in retrospect, the first time I experienced someone refusing to live under the oppressive binary regime of gender, or to submit to the dominant power’s rules.”
In 1982, Prince said that “What’s missing from pop music is danger – there’s no excitement and mystery”. Well, he certainly provided that mystery, much as David Bowie did.
I wanna be your lover
Wanna be your mother and your sister too
“Prince brazenly blended rock, R&B, funk, pop and jazz like few artists before or since. He pushed the envelope on sexuality and androgyny in music, dared to take on the corporate music industry…” – Star Tribune
Freedom and Fascination
From a rare interview in 1996 with, among others, NME, on the release of his ‘Emancipation’ triple album comes these quotes from Prince on freedom, life, experience and people:
“I find freedom sexy. I find freedom so sexy I can’t even explain it to you. You wake up every day and feel like you can do anything.”
“Everyone has their own experience. That’s why we are here, to go through our experience, to learn, to go down those paths and eventually you may have gone down so many paths and learned so much that you don’t have to come back again.”
“I’m no different to anyone. Yes, I have fame and wealth and talent, but I certainly don’t consider myself any better than anyone who has no fame, wealth or talent. People fascinate me. They’re amazing! Life fascinates me! And I’m no more fascinated by my own life than by anyone else’s.”
Prince, Mystery or Madness?
“America still believes Prince to be mildly insane…’Why does everyone think I’m mad?’ he once asked his British press person. ‘Because,’ the PR replied, ‘you do weird things and you don’t explain them.’ Prince does do weird things, but he also performs live with a stage presence and a charisma that’s unrivalled in American entertainment.” – Guardian(2006)
His refusal to bow to the corporate line of either the music industry or journalists meant that he came across as ‘odd’, but his response was that he didn’t care:
“I don’t really care so much what people say about me because it usually is a reflection of who they are.”
“Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people.”
Being yourself and not worrying about what others thought was one of the ways he inspired others to break out.
“Cool means being able to hang with yourself. All you have to ask yourself is ‘Is there anybody I’m afraid of? Is there anybody who if I walked into a room and saw, I’d get nervous?’ If not, then you’re cool.” – Rolling Stone Magazine
Prince, Song Lyrics
Stand up everybody/This is your life
Let me take you to another world, let me take you tonight
You don’t need no money, you don’t need no clothes
The second coming, anything goes
Sexuality is all you’ll ever need
Sexuality, let your body be free…
I’m talking about a revolution we gotta organize
We don’t need no segregation, we don’t need no race
New age revelation, I think we got a case…
No child is bad from the beginning, they only imitate their atmosphere…
Stand up, organize
We need a new breed, leaders, stand up, organize
– “Sexuality” (1981)
Whenever I feel like givin’ up
Whenever my sunshine turns to rain
Whenever my hopes and dreams
Are aimed in the wrong direction
She’s always there
Tellin’ me how much she cares
She’s always in my hair
It’s a generation since the death of author, feminist, and existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir on 14 April 1986. A lover of Sartre – in both senses of the word, she was a sexually liberated bisexual whose disregard for sexual convention – including age of consent laws, caused her to lose her right to teach in France. Her 1949 defining work on the oppression of women, Le Deuxième Sexe – “The Second Sex“, is widely considered a groundbreaking treatise on sex and gender for 20th-century feminism.
As to her sexual liberation, her “erotic liberty“, and open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, she saw any sexual categorisation as restrictive:
“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.” – Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir Quotes
I recently quoted, knowingly totally out of context, this from de Beauvoir:
“One is not born a woman, but becomes one.”
I was quite promptly, and perhaps rightly, accused of ‘quote mining’. Contextomy or the unjustified use of an uprooted, and in this case anachronous, quote, to prove a point it was never intended to address, is a fair criticism.
My use of the quote was because it resonated with the idea that people can be born female, raised a girl, but become a woman. A woman is as much experience, as nature. I’m not jumping in and suggesting, for example, that post-operative trans women are thus women, the same as those who were born with a uterus and raised as girls. Indeed, is anyone any less of a woman after uterine cancer (affecting 8,500 women in the UK a year) and removal of the womb via hysterectomy? Similarly, women can have various difficulties in reproduction due to infertility, or any number of intersex medical differences that may cause an XX or indeed other chromosomal combination such as XXY etc to present a body that defies the defined binary female stereotype. Women should not be defined by their ability to procreate and bear children – that much I am sure de Beauvoir would agree with.
My question is, though, whether de Beauvoir would have condemned or supported the rights of some to pursue a gender trajectory that more matches their inner feelings and psyche than their binary-born bodies. In other words, transgender, non-binary and other forms of gender fluidity or transition.
Simone de Beauvoir on Woman, Femininity, the Other, and maybe a Third Sex
So to add insult to injury, to compound my contextomy crime, here are some further Beauvoirisms that might shed light on what might have been her attitude to “The Third Sex”. A phrase which I use, advisedly, for the main purpose of echoing her “Second Sex”, rather than for the purpose of defining all trans and/or gender non-conforming people as a “Third Sex” even though that is a way which some, especially in Asian and Indian cultures, do define.
Does ‘Woman’ even exist?
Beauvoir existentially questioned whether woman would always exist, suggesting that ‘she’ is an ephemeral concept ,driven by culture and construct as much as conception:
“Are there women, really? Most assuredly the theory of the eternal feminine still has its adherents who will whisper in your ear: ‘Even in Russia women still are women’; and other erudite persons – sometimes the very same – say with a sigh: ‘Woman is losing her way, woman is lost.’ One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should…” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
One can be female but not a woman
As to femininity, she saw it as something esoteric, and that female ≠ woman ≠ femininity:
“It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination?” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
If female equals the “female of the species” reproductively, and feminine a cultural construct if not oppression, then woman need not be feminine and feminism a path to throwing off that oppression. But does ‘woman’ need to be female? If one can be female but not a woman, can one be woman but not a female?
What is woman?
If much previous philosophical, and biblical-theological enquiry, stemmed around “What is man?” and the nature of man, then de Beauvoir helpfully examines, what is woman:
If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?
Yet would it not be more helpful to discuss what it means to be human, or are we still stuck seeing woman as something less than a man, and hence neither equal nor fully human since, as in the Bible, Adam stands for man and humankind as the first point of reference?
“Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
On BBC Woman’s Hour today, British Army Captain Rosie Hamilton was interviewed about how female recruits are trained, but it was then made all about how many of them made the ‘male’ standard.
Woman as the ‘Other’
Beauvoir rebelled against the patriarchal concept that man is human and woman is defined only in relation to being man’s so-called opposite pole, that she is ‘othered’ in reference to him. Not that we have achieved gender parity yet, but I wonder how she would see trans, non-binary, intersex people now, as perhaps the new (however ancient a group of people they are) ‘other’?
“No subject will readily volunteer to become the object, the inessential; it is not the Other who, in defining himself as the Other, establishes the One. The Other is posed as such by the One in defining himself as the One.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
Trans, Non-Binary and Intersex people are ‘othered’ by the default biologically and socially essentialist binary. In the same way, de Beauvoir saw woman as othered by man. Thus, gender non-conforming people, whether assigned male or female at birth, should have some solidarity with the feminist struggle to assert the equality of women with men, and their common core identity as human beings absolutely, not relatively. Sadly, that is not always the case and some folk do not see a common struggle between feminism and gender identity. As de Beauvoir said:
“Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
Some radical feminists, such as Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, Sheila Jeffries and others, are well known for exclusionary attitudes to trans people. Indeed, de Beauvoir others intersex people, formerly termed ‘hermaphrodite’, in her seeking to find an independent voice on ‘what is woman?’:
“What we need is an angel – neither man nor woman – but where shall we find one? Still, the angel would be poorly qualified to speak, for an angel is ignorant of all the basic facts involved in the problem. With a hermaphrodite we should be no better off, for here the situation is most peculiar; the hermaphrodite is not really the combination of a whole man and a whole woman, but consists of parts of each and thus is neither.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
In a 1976 interview, when asked about excluding men from some aspects of the feminist struggle and female gatherings, she opined that sometimes it was necessary. So she may have argued against the full and unfettered access of some transwomen (e.g., pre-operative) to women-only safe spaces. She did also say, however:
“The battle of the sexes is not implicit in the anatomy of man and woman.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
Similarly, she spoke of some lesbian women, in particular, being male-exclusionary:
“There are other women who have become lesbian out of a sort of political commitment: that is, they feel that it is a political act to be lesbian, the equivalent somewhat within the sex struggle of the black power advocates within the racial struggle. And, true, these women tend to be more dogmatic about the exclusion of men from their struggle.” – interview (1976)
Anyone, who is oppressed has the right to gather in safe spaces – whether other oppressed minorities should have rights of access to the safe spaces of other groups who have been ‘othered’ is another matter. That siad, shared oppression is sometimes more important than shared hormones.
“Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified through the action of others than herself.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
It was Audre Lorde that said, whilst “any woman is not free”, then “no woman is”. Being the one oppressed is sadly part of a common humanity, and a common responsibility:
“Each of us is responsible – to every human being.” – Simone de Beauvoir
In some matters, if not most – except the most basic biological differences, “men and women” and anyone that is defined or identified outside that binary need to” unequivocally affirm their brotherhood”, as de Beauvoir concluded in The Second Sex.
So, could every Human be a Woman?
“I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.”
Beauvoir speaks of every human being, every human life, less of the categorisation that in a class-distinctive way oppresses all of us, even the men. For, in defining men and not women, as not soft or empathic, or similar stereotypes, we trap them in conventional masculinity, we oppress gay men, drag queens and transvestites who may still identify as male.
“…man, like woman, is flesh, therefore passive, the plaything of his hormones and of the species, the restless prey of his desires.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
We no longer accept feminism as the sole regard of women. True women’s liberation also liberates men from roles and rules of sex and gender.
“…the woman of today is [not] a creation of nature; it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
If a feminist need not be a woman, and a female need not be a ‘woman’, and the ‘feminine’ just as possessable by males, then, perhaps too, a ‘woman’ need not be female, at least not assigned one at birth. In other words, is the very term ‘woman’ as much a social construct as gender itself, and the so-called masculine and feminine ideals?
“No single educator could fashion a female human being today who would be the exact homologue of the male human being; if she is brought up like a boy, the young girl feels she is an oddity and thereby she is given a new kind of sex specification.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
Only in an androgynous (but not uniform) utopia, where all human beings were raised without class or gender specificity, could true equality perhaps be found.
Historically, during the UK’s LGBT History Month, Stonewall (England and Wales) has announced that after months of meetings and “extensive consultation with over 700 trans people” that it will now actively campaign for trans rights and educate across the whole of LGBT.
“This change marks a significant moment in Stonewall’s history…This is an exciting but huge undertaking – we recognise that we are not instant experts, and will work closely with the trans community to achieve real change for LGBT people.” – Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall
Just as Stonewall plays historic catch-up and apology, others are debating the inclusion of more letters in the LGBT alphabet soup. So it was good that Stonewall also had engagements, one of which I was present at, with people who are intersex and/or non-binary, whether they identified as trans or not.
Ruth said: “We recognise that there is no universal experience of being trans”, so it is good that the trans* spectrum rather than stereotype is being explored.
At present, intersex inclusion is some way off, but engagement continues to take place, and Stonewall will help facilitate intersex campaigners and ensure that it itself says nothing about intersex without reference to UK intersex organisations and individuals first.
Another long standing grievance with Stonewall has been bisexual silence and thus tacit erasure. This too, has been addressed this month, with more conclusions to follow.
“Stonewall no longer needs to maintain a strict distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity….[but] we would have to work hard to make sure that people understood the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation.”
In an interview with PinkNews, to be published later today, Ms Hunt said:
“I am absolutely committed to creating a world through Stonewall where everyone has the right to be themselves, where everyone can be who they want to be, and I think that the artificial divide between trans and sexual orientation hasn’t been particularly helpful in the kind of disagreements that we have had, so I wanted to move it forward.”
LGBT, Bullying, Education and Schools
Perhaps, now, with Stonewall’s help weighing in on Government and education, we might see an improvement to sex education and anti-bullying training and measures that are inclusive of trans and gender non-conforming individuals, and not just homophobic bullying awareness. Indeed, anti-transphobic bullying campaigns and education about gender dysphoria needs to take place at an age before even sexual orientation becomes an issue, since gender identity is often felt by age 7.
Responses to the news
Meanwhile, some in the gay and lesbian communities have questioned the addition of trans. For instance, in the Pink News article comments:
“I’ve just cancelled my monthly donation to Stonewall as it’s clear they now have more money that they need. Gender and sexual orientation are wholly different.” – Steve
Other leading gay and lesbian figures including Paul Burston and Julie Bindel have previously commented that they can’t see the need of campaigning and including trans, and that at best lesbian and gay should stick together or indeed also work independently of each other. They regard LGBT as a letter too far and any other letters beyond that as weird and ridiculous.
Divided we fall, united we stand
Many of these changes are down to the hard work and great mediating of CEO, Ruth Hunt, who made these engagements a prerequisite of taking on the job after Ben Summerskill stepped down. She spoke to the Guardian on the first day of that new job:
“We are at quite an important tipping point in terms of trans equality, and we are looking at how we can best support and maximise that tipping point… Any change needs to be led by the trans community… we are very open to taking whatever direction will be in the best interest of [that] community” – Ruth Hunt
In just over 6 months she has begun the fulfilment of those promises, and today is indeed historical – but never needed to have been. Trans were among the first participants in LGBT rights and demonstrations since the Stonewall Inn riots, but were sidelined and erased from early gay rights history. Correcting that now, is long overdue, but nonetheless appreciated.
“This change marks a significant moment in Stonewall’s history. As a community we can achieve much more by standing together.“ – Ruth Hunt
This is very definitely a step forward and step away from the past. Some historic grievances may have to be laid to rest and a trans/bi-Stonewall amnesty declared to see this as a good thing for all, particularly as Stonewall are a narrow remit organisation involved in education, government and business equality monitoring and lobbying, not a support organisation or legal advocacy one, thus there is plenty of room for grassroots trans organisations to continue the great work they are doing.
Free Speech or Hate Speech?
This comes at a crucial time in the UK since twitter storms, blogs and facebook arguments are raging over trans rights to self-identify and the question of whether it’s free speech or hate speech to question that right and trans access to cis-gender spaces. (‘cis’ means non-trans, and is not a word I personally like, nor is accepted by many ‘cis people’ who simply consider themselves non-trans and comfortable with their birth sex identity.)
India has, today, ruled in its highest court that transgender people, usually called Hijra there, will henceforth have the option to be recognised as a third gender and all forms, documents and facilities will have to provide for them as such. Whilst numbering some 2-5 million people or up to 1-in-200 of the population, they will be given minority rights, job quotas, full access to education, adoption and healthcare.
In development since 2009, and in time for India’s current elections, the Election Commission has also allowed for a third gender option, “Other”, on voting forms.
Justice KS Radhakrishnan, headed up the Supreme Court ruling and said:
“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender…Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue…The spirit of the Constitution is to provide equal opportunity to every citizen to grow and attain their potential, irrespective of caste, religion or gender.”
Anita Shenoy, lawyer for the petitioner National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) said:
“We are quite thrilled by the judgement…The court order gives legal sanctity to the third gender. The judges said the government must make sure that they have access to medical care and other facilities like separate wards in hospitals and separate toilets.”
The case demanding equal rights first came to court in 2012 initiated by a trans-activist group led by trans Hindi film star Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. She said, upon hearing the ruling:
India is the world’s largest democracy yet especially in rural areas is far from an equal society. Tripathi proclaimed that, “The progress of the country is dependent upon [the] human rights of the people and we are very happy with the judgement.”
These rights are extended to trans and or intersex people that are living in a way that is different to their birth gender and yet also allows post-op transsexuals to legally choose their gender: male, female or transgender/other. Thus both binary and non-binary individuals are able to choose their identity, it is not a category that is being forced upon them but one they have fought for.
Western trans activists should remember two things here, firstly, that hijra=trans is not an exact Western/Eastern label match. The cultural evolution of their fight for recognition comes off the back of centuries of religious, social and cultural development, in context, and against different prejudices, classes and castes. Their identity was formed in the crucible of their history. We should not, therefore, seek to impose our LGBTI rights battles on their personal and political paths, we should, however, support them in their moves to self-assert their chosen identities.
Secondly, the concept of ‘third gender’ has been sought by them, whereas many in the West oppose that concept and fear its use in a 1930s anti-Semitic way to categorise and potentially segregate trans people as if with some kind of yellow star (Jews) or pink triangle (homosexuals).
Trans masculine identities in India
“If trans people are a minority with almost no rights in this country [India], transmen are a minority within that minority.” Just as “there are hijras, kinnars, mangalamukhis, aravanis, kothis, jogappas, shiv shaktis among trans women as identities, there is a wide range of trans masculine expressions”, says an Indian transman, one of 74 that co-signed a letter to the Indian Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, “We have many names to identify ourselves like bhaiya, thirunambi, gandabasaka, babu, ftm, trans man etc. For an umbrella term, to refer to us in all our diversity, we would like the use of the term, trans masculine. We do not identify with PAGFB [Persons Assigned Gender Female at Birth] which is what is being used in reports and meetings here to describe our identities. We strongly urge you to refer to us by identities that we assume, not ones that are imposed on us without due democratic discussions and consent.”
Another “term for FTM in Hindi is Sadhin“. Last November, an Indian trans man fled the country after being ‘outed’ by the media and sought asylum in the UK. This was before this week’s more positive news for trans rights. Although more sparse, trans masculine support does exist in India, but they have a lower profile in society, media and rights activism.
[The above section of this post has been reblogged many times including on several transmen Tumblr blogs – read the comments and reposts there for more thoughts]
LGB Gay Rights in India
Meanwhile, LGB rights of India’s gays, lesbians and bisexuals, are still behind the times though, having recently restored an old British colonial law banning homosexual activity. India has granted these historical Hijra rights, yet still bans gay sex in a logical anomaly. How is gay sex to be defined now there are three genders? If a newly defined Hijra/Third Gender has sex with a man is it gay or straight sex? If a Hijra has sex with another Hijra is that homosexual?
Trans rights in Pakistan
Back in 2011 after actions that began in 2009 Pakistan granted “third gender” status and improved rights to trans people, for example on national identity cards, employment and inheritance rights. Whilst many Hijra end up begging, wedding dancing or in prostitution, Pakistan has been enterprising in employing them as official agents pursuing tax evaders. Apparently, recovery rates are up 15%!
LGBT rights in Nepal
Thirteen years ago Nepal’s LGBT activists initiated a campaign for full LGBT equality, which resulted in a landmark decision in 2007 but which took another 5-6 years for full implementation of trans equality. The court decision ordered the then government to scrap all laws that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and “that they study and implement a same-sex marriage policy, and that citizens be allowed to self-identify as a third gender on all official documents and registers.”
Nepalese activists have urged the government to use the word “other” rather than “third gender” or “trans” as a “more inclusive” term that allows full “self-identification”.
Trans rights in Bangladesh
Last year, Bangladesh also granted third gender rights and recognition to Hijras – a term in Bangladesh adopted by 10,000+ people including many male-to-female presenting individuals and some intersex persons. Cabinet Secretary Muhammad Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said: “They will be referred to as hijras in both English and Bangla. Any other translations to English would be misleading.”
Non-Western Trans terminology
Across India, South and Southeast Asia numerous terms describe gender non-conforming people in ways which, because of cultural, historical and religious differences, are not totally synonymous with Western usage of trans terminology. For example in Thailand and, Cambodia, they are called, Kathoey, elsewhere the most common term is Hijra, but we also find Aravani, Aruvani, Jagappa, or Chhakka (Kannada), Bambaiya (Hindi), Khusra (Punjabi) and Kojja (Telugu). In Pakistan, terms include Khwaaja sira, Khusra (trans), Zenana (crossdresser) and Narnban (eunuch).
Polynesian Samoa has its Fa’afafine, Tonga its Fakaleiti, and Hawaii and Tahiti their Mahu. Both fa’a- and faka- are prefixes meaning “like a” or “in the manner of” and fafine and leiti mean ‘woman’ or ‘lady’. On the surface, therefore, they would pass as the prefix trans- before woman, but Western legal, political and cultural transgender terminology should not be imposed on their cultural-historical usage of the terms.
Native Americas traditions
Numerous indigenous Native American tribes had gender options outside the seemingly conventional Western binary. Berdache was a term meaning effeminate male used by Westerners of some tribal members encountered. More recently, the preferred term is Two-spirit, but some tribes went beyond three to several gender expressions, roles and identities. The Mohave Indians had the terms Alyha (Male-born) and Hwame (Female-born) for their Two-spirit identities. “Two-spirit natives comprised a distinct social class within most of these tribal communities; for example, among the Hidatsa of the northern Plains, two-spirits were observed at no less than fifteen to twenty a village and typically pitched their tipis together in a group.”
Similarly, among southern Mexico’s Zapotec there were the Muxe/Muxhe possibly a variant of the Spanish word for woman, mujer, describing people born male but who behaved as female in role, dress or sexuality. Because the word described effeminacy across gender or sexuality it accounted for some 6% of the population in some studies.
Modern Western/Antipodean/Americas Gender Identification
Argentina, Australia and New Zealand all allow passports to be stamped with the full range of internationally allowable options: Gender – | M | F | X |. Despite it being explored and to some extent encouraged by the Liberal Democrats, the UK Passport and Identity Service seems to have mothballed any likely change in Great Britain. Although as of June 2014 it has now been tabled for another Early Day Motion in Parliament, though is perhaps unlikely to reach debate stages.
In Europe, Germany has recently allowed “other” as a temporary designation on birth certificates to allow families to delay decisions on children born with intersex differences. The Netherlands are considering a third category to protect trans people during transition.
All gender designation is ultimately sexism. However, in an imperfect and unequal world some level of gender designation for protection can benefit in the here and now. Ideally gender neutral bathrooms would be the norm, but how to protect the vulnerable? The sooner all nations accept fully equal sexual relations, parenting and marriage between two or more persons of any gender, the sooner we can dispense with legal gender designation.
More important than third or more genders, reinforcing the binary, opposing the binary, gender sexism, is the simple inalienable human right to self-identify. Restricting identification, whether legally or culturally, to just two genders goes against human respect and rights especially when medically there are dozens of conditions that can make typical birth-sex identification impossible, quite apart from gender identity issues and/or gender non-conformity. Celebrate diversity and difference and the right to self-identify, as Radhakrishnan has said: “It is the right of every human being to choose their gender” – and that includes “Other” and “None”, in my opinion.
This post is an extended edited version of an article that first appeared here.