National Geographic : 2017 Jan
Rethinking gendeR 69 a girl’s name, start using female pronouns, and attend preschool as a girl. Almost instantly the gloom lifted. In a podcast that aired two years after that, Mack reported that her transgender daughter, age six, “loves being a girl probably more than any girl you’ve ever met.” Vilain alienates some transgender activists by saying that not every child’s “I wish I were a girl” needs to be encouraged. But he insists that he’s trying to think beyond gender stereotypes. “I am trying to advocate for a wide variety of gender expressions,” he wrote in a late-night email pro- voked by our phone conversation, “which can go from boys or men having long hair, loving dance and opera, wearing dresses if they want to, lov- ing men, none of which is ‘making them girls’— or from girls shaving their heads, being pierced, wearing pants, loving physics, loving women, none of which is ‘making them boys.’ ” This is where things get murky in the world of gender. Young people such as Mack’s daughter, or Charlie Spiegel of California, or E of New York City, must make biological decisions that will affect their health and happiness for the next 50 years. Yet these decisions run headlong into the maelstrom of fluctuating gender norms. “I guess people would call me gender- questioning,” E said the second time we met, in June. “Is that a thing? It sounds like a thing.” But the “questioning” couldn’t go on forever, she knew, and she was already leaning toward “trans guy.” E had moved a few steps closer to that by September, asking people, including me, to use the pronoun “they” when referring to them. If E does eventually settle on a male identity, they feel it won’t be enough just to live as a man, changing pronouns (either sticking with “they” or switch- ing to “he”) and changing their name (the leading candidate is the name “Hue”). It would mean be- coming physically male too, which would involve taking testosterone. It was all a bit much, E told me. As their 15th birthday approached, they were giving themselves another year to figure it all out. e’S thinking ABOUt where they fit on the gen- der spectrum takes the shape it does because E is a child of the 21st century, when concepts like transgender and gender nonconforming are in the air. But their options are still constrained by being raised in a Western culture, where gender remains, for the vast majority, an either-or. How different it might be if E lived where a formal role existed that was neither man nor woman but something in between—a role that constitutes another gender. There are such places all over the world: South Asia (where a third gender is called hijra), Nigeria (yan daudu), Mexico (muxe), Samoa ( fa‘afafine), Thailand (kathoey), Tonga ( fakaleiti), and even the U.S., where third genders are found in Hawaii (mahu) and in some Native American peoples (two-spirit). The degree to which third genders are accepted varies, but the category usually includes anatomical males who behave in a fem- inine manner and are sexually attracted to men, and almost never to other third-gender individu- als. More rarely, some third-gender people, such as the burrnesha of Albania or the fa‘afatama of Samoa, are anatomical females who live in a mas- culine manner. I met a dozen or so fa‘afafine last summer, when I traveled to Samoa at the invitation of psychology professor Paul Vasey, who believes the Samoan fa‘afafine are among the most well- accepted third gender on Earth. Vasey, professor and research chair of psychol- ogy at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, returns to Samoa so frequently that he has his own home, car, and social life there. One thing that especially intrigues him about third genders, in Samoa and elsewhere, is their abili- ty to shed light on the “evolutionary paradox” of male same-sex attraction. Since fa‘afafine almost never have children of their own, why are they still able to pass along the genes associated with this trait? Without offspring, shouldn’t natural selection pretty much have wiped them out? Henry was assigned male at birth but considers himself “gender creative.” He expresses himself through his singular fashion sense. His parents have enrolled him in the Bay Area Rainbow Day Camp, where he can find the vocabulary to explain his feelings. At six years old, he is already very sure of who he is.