Gender in Different Cultures

It is difficult to understand gender construction and sexuality outside of the United States. To us, gender is binary and sexuality for most the part is too. But as what we have touched on in class, some cultures like Native Americans celebrate what we would consider a third gender.

Webs of Power: Women, Kin, and Community in a Sumatran Village by Evelyn Blackwood
The tombois were women but acted like men and took pride in acting like men. There was the separation of ceweks and cowoks. Ceweks were women said to like men better but still had relationships with cowoks, who were also women. Cowoks take pride in acting like men (they are also the tombois) and swear, smoke, drink and spend a lot of time out in the public sphere. The word tomboi comes from the English term tomboy. For a cowok, the ultimate scenario would be to pass as men. Cowoks also fought to keep their girlfriends because they thought they would leave them for an actual man. Tombois considered having children for them as unnatural. But that is the prominent role for women so the Cowoks live outside the norm.  But with introduction of western ideals, now new identities are conflicting with fundamental Islam and marriage roles for women with magazines and media.

Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India by Serena Nanda
They are in between genders but raised as women but do not have breasts or menstruate. They have women characteristics and count as women in the census but have both male and female defined jobs. They are also described as a caricature of women. Hindu accommodates such behavior with their gods like Shiva and Vishnu. Hijras used to have to mix male and female clothing but do not anymore. But bottom line is they are not real women because they cannot have children.

Hijras of India

Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes by Don Kulick
These hookers are feminine but not female and their boyfriends are what are examined in the text. The boyfriends were basically boy toys that were between the ages 16-30 and very muscular with tattoos. The Travestis are always giving their boyfriends gifts and are the sole provider of the relationship. They also do not like men that like to be penetrated—that is what they are paid to do as prostitutes; instead when it comes to their boyfriends they want to be penetrated. The boyfriends are never former clients because they do not want to be considered free sex. But the boyfriends give the travestis a gender identity and esteem- they are not penetrating them, they are getting penetrated.


The Bow and the Burden Strap:  A New Look at Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native North America by Harriet Whitehead
It was permissible for a man to become a woman socially in Native North America. It was mainly male to female and they were not hermaphrodites. The male berdache—the term they used—did women’s work and wore women’s clothes. Their gender was determined by their child behavior. Gender was determined by whether they chose to play with a bow or a burden strap. War captives were taken as berdaches into communities. The berdaches used a female voice, speech laughing and their walk. The most important aspect to gender was social position and dress. But the berdaches were viewed as a mix creature- more transgender than homosexual. They were matchmakers, love magicians or curer of venereal diseases- viewed as more than a woman. Different tribes had different versions of the berdache, but the idea was mainly the same.


The female berdache was less common. Menstruation held women to their role in society and it was hard to step out of that role. Some claimed to not menstruate though. The female berdache had the urge to fight in wars. Some were considered to have manly hearts, and most were post-menopausal.

The gender was not defined by sexuality, but the lack of category for homosexuality allowed for the berdache role to fit in society. The Native American berdaches fit into these transgendered roles to conform to heterosexuality.