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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #105 Bolin 1996 “Traversing Gender: Cultural Context and Gender Practices”

Full citation: 

Bolin, Anne. “Traversing Gender: Cultural Context and Gender Practices” in Ramet, Sabrina Petra (ed). 1996. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-11483-7

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers with an anthropological angle on how gender is viewed within the context of specific cultures. I have only covered the articles that are relevant to my project.

Bolin, Anne. “Traversing Gender: Cultural Context and Gender Practices”

Yes, the LHMP is back with new entries! I'll be sticking with my once a week schedule, which is a bit more sustainable while I'm plugging away at the current novel. But I have several new books that I've been working on and currently have enough entries lined up for the next couple months, so I think I can manage that.

I picked up the collection Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures almost entirely for the one entry on Elena/Eleno de Cespedes, which with be the last of the several I cover. There's a great deal of interest in this volume to those studying transgender issues, but only a few of them also speak to historic lesbian issues, and I'll be confining my coverage to those. I am not entirely fluent in the accepted terminology for discussing transgender topics (and in some cases the articles I'm quoting are using older terminology that is no longer in favor). I would be happy to know if I've stepped on any landmines so that I can adjust the wording.

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An anthropological look at several distinct types of non-normative gender categories/identities. Bolin examines five distinct types of gender variance that appear cross-culturally (without implying that these are the only five possible categories). The final part of the articles uses these types to consider modern Western gender paradigms, however this modern analysis only considers individuals assigned male at birth (including MTF transgender individuals as well as cross-dressers who identify as male) and therefore is less relevant to the Project.

The first category is hermaphrodites (i.e., physiologically intersex persons). Various cultural approaches are discussed, where there may be a labeled category distinct from “male” and “female”, or various mechanisms for assigning the individual to a male/female category. Some cultures allow for a person who is not physiologically intersex to identify with a hermaphroditic gender category. Also considered are identities like the Hijras of India who consider themselves a distinct third gender (although in this case the identity is not linked to being physiologically intersex). Two case studies are noted of populations with genetic factors that result in an identifiable category of intersex infants who will become physiologically male at puberty. In the two identified cultures, these children were raised as a third gender but with the understanding that they were expected to become “male” at puberty.

The second category is identified with the label “two-spirit” although not all examples are drawn from the Native American cultures from which that label is taken. The characteristics of this category include: a culturally recognized status as transgender or as combining male and female gender attributes; adoption of behaviors associated with the non-physiological gender, or of a combination of masculine and feminine behaviors; and in some cases the choice of a partner of the same physiological sex, though this generally appears to be a result of, rather than a reason for, identifying with the two-spirit category. In many cases, identification as two-spirit occurs in childhood, based on an affiliation for activities and behaviors associated with the non-birth gender. Most of the examples discussed are for those assigned male at birth.

The third category is labeled “Cross-gendered roles” and while it involves individuals taking on behaviors associated with the non-birth gender, it is distinguished from the previous category in generally not involving a shift in dress or in the choice of sexual partner. The author discusses only two examples in this group, both involving individuals assigned female.

The fourth category is organized around marriage between two individuals with the same physiological sex (male or female). The impetus for entering this category can be a disruption in the expected life path, e.g., a woman who is unable to bear children may take another woman as wife and become culturally “male” in order to acquire heirs. The woman-husband will then typically take on male-associated economic activities. Similar cultural practices for male individuals more typically are associated with social structures that create a scarcity of marriageable women (e.g., age-stratified polygynous societies) and typically involve an age-differentiated relationship between the two men. The “boy-wife” would take on many (though not all) activities associated with a female wife, including being a “passive” sexual partner. Partnerships are typically age-stratified with the boy-wife eventually aging out of the role and taking a boy-wife of his own. Although the female and male examples are grouped together here, the motivations for them seem to be entirely distinct.

The fifth category is identified as “Cross-gender Rituals” and involves temporary, situational adoption of behaviors and/or attributes of the non-physiological gender. The motivation may be due to situational need or may be ceremonial.
The remainder of the article considers modern Western transgender issues within the context of these several approaches, and therefore is not particularly relevant to the Project.

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