gender

Transcending the Binary: Gender and Colonialism

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Colin Gill

Unapologetically queer, world-traveling, feminist writer.

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From a young age, I can remember feeling different from other boys. In fact, until I went to public school, I didn’t really classify myself as exclusively male, nor did I ascribe to so-called “boy behavior.” I liked playing with dolls and begged my father to buy me ballet slippers. I’d dig into my mother’s closet and put her high heels and pearls on.

My parents never really deterred me from expressing my feminine nature early in my childhood. I am an only child and in my neighborhood, there weren’t a lot of other children for me to interact with. That meant that entering public school was like a slap in the face. I remember in kindergarten, during recess, I put on a princess dress that I found in a chest in the classroom. All the other children in class were laughing and pointing at me, and I was absolutely dumbfounded as to why. Little did I know that I committed the crime of transcending the gender binary and not actinin accordance tmy assigned gender at birth.

genderIt wasn’t until later that I received another blatant reminder that I was wandering into dangerous territory. When I was ten years old I was in the garden talking to my father. During our conversation, I took lip-gloss out of my pocket and applied it. There was a momentary pause in the conversation until my father broke in and said to me, “Colin, you know why all the other kids are making fun of you, don’t you?” I was taken aback by his remark and shook my head no. He responded and said, “It’s because you act like a girl.” I felt hurt and betrayed because my own father, who had been supportive of me early on and was a person I could feel safe around, took the side of the oppressor.

Looking back, I now realize that he may have said this as a way to help me survive in a heteronormative society. Yet, I still felt confused as to why being a girl or “acting like a girl” was something to mock. It was in this moment that a bit of my spirit broke. I knew from these incidents in my childhood that life was not going to be easy or the same as my cis-gender and heterosexual classmates. I was the freak, the weirdo, the fag, and the bitch. For many years I tried to conceal my identity, and squashed any possibility that I could be any gender other than my male-assigned at birth one. 

Colonialism and Gender

As a young child, I did not realize that the idea of the gender binary has a history rooted in Eurocentric colonialism and the heteropatriarchy. Prior to the colonization of the Americas, many indigenous cultures recognized and respected transgender, gender non-conforming, and other gender variant people. One of these identities are called two-spirits, an umbrella term coined in Winnipeg, Canada in 1990, to describe a person who encompasses a gender that is not rigidly male or female.  There are several names and specific roles that different tribes have for two-spirit people.  For example, in the Lakota nation two-spirit people are called winkte and in the Navajo nation are called nadleeh. According to Indian Country Today, two-spirits play an important role within their tribes as the balance keepers, healers, and “thought to be the ‘dusk’ between the male morning, and the female evening.”

It’s also important to note that two-spirt identity is not synonymous with being gay.  While there are intersections and overlaps of these two identities, a two-spirit person could be gay, but it does not mean that a two-spirit person will always be gay.  This identity also does not fit neatly within the colonized framework for LGBTQ identity boxes; rather, it is an identity that acknowledges the continuity of gender identity and expression.  A two-spirit identity encompasses a person with two genders rather than an attraction to a person of the same-sex.

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Pictured Above:  Historical image of Two-Spirit Native People.  Source: Indian Country Today

Contrary to these accepting and affirming indigenous cultures, the U.S.A., along with other colonized states across the globe, have violently forced certain standards of living upon the people already living there. For example, a study in The Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse by Teresa Evans-Campbell et al looked at the effects that boarding schools had on indigenous children’s mental health and susceptibility for drug and alcohol abuse.

Included in this study was a section about two-spirit children who experienced trauma and erasure in boarding schools because of the missionary, Christian values built into these institutions. European and Christian standards of conduct enforced upon the two-spirit children caused them to struggle with their identity and mental health. Furthermore, findings in this study indicated that there were high rates of substance abuse and mental health problems among two-spirit people who attended boarding schools. In the field of psychology, this is an area that needs more attention. Mental health practitioners need to be aware and understand the racism, heterosexism, and transphobia that settler colonialism has inflicted when treating two-spirit and other gender variant clients.

Intersectionality

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Like many other people of color, two-spirit indigenous people experience a confliction of racial, gender, and sexual identities. Scholar and activist Audre Lorde introduced this as a concept of intersectionality – the ways in which an individual exists with multiple identities. Lorde demonstrated intersectionality by naming her identities: a woman, lesbian, black, mother, partner, teacher, poet, and activist. She further revealed that she could not exist with one part of her identities missing – and that we need to think of our multiple identities co-existing instead of being separate.

Even marginalized communities have occasional difficulty respecting the notion of intersectionality. Once one comes out as being LGBTQ+,  there are instances that the LGBTQ+ community does not welcome certain bodies. Look no further than opening up the app Grindr on a smartphone: you will see profile descriptions stating: “No Fats, No Femmes, No Asians, Whites Only, and Masculine Please!” Queer performance artist Jamal Lewis created the 2015 documentary “No Fats, No Femmes” about the politics of desirability in LGBTQ+ spaces. As per Jamal’s website it states: “No Fats, No Femmes interrogates and explores desire, the politics of desirability, and the ways in which they are informed and shaped by media, pop culture, and capitalism through interviews, archival research, and performance. The film engages the phrase ‘no fats, no femmes,’ which is popularly used on queer social networking/dating sites, through the personal narrative(s) of 5 Black and Brown queer, trans, fat, femme, and disabled people.”

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Jamal Lewis pictured above.

Indeed, I have encountered experiences on Grindr where cis-gender men have messaged me and told me that my gender is not legitimate, that trans men are not “real men,” and asking whether or not I have a penis. The ways in which we see these hierarchies, racism, and gender essentialism play out in queer spaces speaks volumes to the legacy of colonial Eurocentric norms of desirability. My hope for the future is that we, as a society, break away from essentialist norms of gender and for people to be able explore their identities more freely, starting with teaching about the diversity of identities in formative years. If we hope to decolonize gender, we must start early – and we must not whitewash the colonial history of gender policing.

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