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Archive for March, 2018

Kodiak 011

Kodiak, Alaska

In 1805, while visiting the Russian settlement on Kodiak Island as part of the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe, the Russian naval commander Yuri Lisianski observed among the local Alutiiq Natives the presence of individuals known as “schoopans” who had male genitalia but were brought up from childhood as girls, performing women’s work and marrying men. This was a highly honored role in Alutiiq society, and an example of the widespread “berdache” or “Two Spirit” tradition of the Americas that I have discussed before. Lisianski noted that the schoopans “even assume the manners and dress of the [female] sex so nearly, that a stranger would naturally take them for what they are not,” and continues in a footnote:

As a proof of how easily this mistake may be made; it once happened, that a toyon [rich man or “chief”] brought one of these unnatural beings to church to be married to him, and the ceremony was nearly finished, when an interpreter, who came in by chance, put a stop to the proceedings, by making known to the priest, that the couple he was joining in wedlock were both males.

This anecdote caught my attention in part because it is strikingly relevant to modern political debates over the rights of trans people, especially the so-called “bathroom bills” that have cropped up in various places over the past few years. Here in Anchorage, we have one of these measures, Proposition 1, on the municipal ballot right now in our first vote-by-mail election. Election Day is on Tuesday, April 3, but ballots have already been mailed and voting is going on right now.

I’m strongly opposed to Prop 1, which is highly discriminatory against the trans community and serves no real public purpose. Beyond its discriminatory nature, the very premise of Prop 1 is fundamentally absurd in ways highlighted by Lisianski’s story that would render it totally unenforceable and perhaps even cause the sorts of “problems” it purports to solve.

Many of the arguments for Prop 1 and similar measures rely on the assumption that gender is not just an “immutable” biological characteristic on a deep level, but one that is impossible to affect even superficially. Prop 1 seems to take it as a given that a trans person using the “wrong” bathroom under the law will be easily identifiable because they will look to any bystander like their “biological” gender.

This is however not true at all. As with the population as a whole, there is a lot of physical variation among trans people, but many look well within the physical norms of their preferred gender and fit in much better in the bathrooms they prefer to use than in those they don’t. That is to say, trans women really are women, in many cases even physically, visually, to strangers who don’t know anything more about them than how they look. And similarly, trans men really are men.

Indeed, if we are judging gender the way most of us do in practice, by how people look rather than by careful inspection of their genitals or birth certificates, Prop 1 would likely lead to, if anything, a massive increase in the number of “men” in women’s restrooms, because trans men who look like and lead their lives as men would be forced by the terms of the law to use women’s restrooms. In other communities that have adopted laws like this trans men have posted pictures to social media showing what this looks like; it looks like a man in a women’s restroom. If seeing that is what people who support Prop 1 are concerned about, voting for it is certainly not going to help.

The greater visibility of trans issues in recent years may make the idea of gender diversity seem new and strange, but there is actually a long history of different concepts of gender in many societies around the world. The berdache or Two Spirit tradition, present in many indigenous societies of the Americas, including some in Alaska, is one of the most striking examples of a socially accepted, often high-status role for individuals who do not conform to a strict gender binary typical of European societies.

I’ve been digging into the ethnographic and ethnohistoric data on berdaches in Alaska Native societies specifically, which don’t seem to have gotten a whole lot of attention in the anthropological research on gender diversity. The data are spotty and difficult to interpret to an even greater degree than for many other societies, but there are a lot of fascinating nuggets in there like Lisianski’s anecdote about the wedding. I’m thinking of doing a research project to synthesize the existing data, maybe in blog posts here but maybe in a more formal venue. It’s a fascinating topic with a lot of relevance to issues today, which makes it of particular interest to me. Stay tuned.

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