i dream of being possible

Third genders and western constructions/appropriations

(Originally posted at Womanist Musings. Posting here for archival purposes.)

So. A kickstarter campaign recently came across my path. I'll be nice and link to it and let people make their own decisions about the project. The intended documentary is "Gender Blender: A Movie about a Third Gender.” And on the page it defines 'third gender' as:

We have been conditioned to only recognize two genders: male and female (this is known as the gender binary). There are, in fact, many more genders. In the context of this film, third gender does not refer to one singular gender type, but instead, to a spectrum of various gender expressions that exist beyond the binary. The Third Gender refers to people who identify not as male… not as female… but as something completely unique.

For those who don’t know, this is not actually what third gender means. Not as a term and certainly not as a concept that originates in anthropology.

To cite from a paper written about the kind of failure this film endeavor represents:

The term third gender was apparently introduced in 1975 by M. Kay Mar- tin and Barbara Voorhies, who employed it to draw attention to the ethnographic evidence that gender categories in some cultures could not be adequately explained with a two-gender framework. (Towle and Morgan, 472)

This is the history of the word. It is a product of a field renowned for its colonial and racist roots (and its continuing colonial means of 'knowledge' production within the academic industrial complex).

They discuss this word and their gender with seemingly no knowledge of the context of the word they are using. Of course, if you read the article I cited, you’ll see that it has become somewhat fashionable of late for white genderqueer people to appropriate and use racialized trans terms for their own purposes. Even something as seemingly innocuous as using the term ‘third gender’ cannot be stripped of its racist past and the ways that the very notion has been used to misrepresent and colonize non-western gender and their discourses.

While it may not be the case that third gender is not a slur, it is also not exactly the sort of thing that white people should feel entitled to. Particularly because of the way that it was created to further exotify and, thus, delegitimize genders not easily understood by white, western academics. It is the product of a racist field and it is a term used to serve colonial and white supremacist goals. Thus, to first forcibly apply this label onto poc cultures and then turn around and proudly declare themselves ‘Third Genders’ is a special kind of something that I barely even have words for.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. The video explanation goes on to say that Lauren has a special, entirely unique gender and how telling this single story will help so many people… This is the kinda special snowflake shit that gives white genderqueers such a bad name. Your gender isn’t unique. Your story, especially told like this, will only serve to help other white people while adding to my own oppression.

  • I’m pleased to note this comment from one of the producers, who apologizes and has changed the text/subtitle of the film. This is greatly appreciated.