Home » Gender Identity, Ideas, Tokenized
19 January 2011, 3:00 pm 7 Comments

Tokenized: Colonization & Its Effect on Gender Expression

Submission by Sylvia Renee, TNG columnist

For centuries nearly every culture allowed for some kind of gender expression beyond what we now view as masculine and feminine roles. Those who lived in these borderlands between genders were often thought to have a sacred perspective, one that allowed them to understand gendered interactions in ways that no else could.

And then their physical and spiritual landscapes were colonized, occupied by hostile forces in the name of monotheistic religion.

Their sacred insights were viewed as a threat to the new social order. The first step toward making an occupied land forget themselves is to make them feel ashamed of their own heritage.

Religious decrees set out new rules of what was acceptable behavior and what wasn’t. Some of the earliest broad prohibitions against crossing the gender line come from the god of the desert in the book of Deuteronomy.

As the avalanche of this new history swept the landscape, it left only the colonial re-imagination of the wreckage.

And so we went from spiritual leaders to outcasts, freaks, and medicalized monsters.

Too often, people who live in border lands are forced to choose a side. Do you belong to Mexico or to the US? Are you Black or White? Are you gay or straight? Are you a woman or a man? Are you one of us, or are you one of them? Yet, this space in between was, and is, rightfully ours because it explicitly and accurately reflects all of our experiences and uncertainty in this world of binary oppositions?

For trans people, or any of the other gender cousins, as a whole, we are expected to largely disavow our lives prior to transition. While these experiences make us who we are they also mark us as being outsiders. Are you a man or a woman? We are told both explicitly and implicitly that we can only be one. We have to pick a side from limited (and limiting) options. For many of us, the act of picking or being forced to pick can be quite traumatic. We always face the consequences of this choice at the hands of the occupation.

Thousands of these sacred representations are now extinct. The few left have been filtered through generations of hatred – sometimes by identities that were equally sacred, such as the contemporary gay and lesbian movement. Even trans communities think that some weekly flavor of gender just is not trans enough to be considered authentic.

It would be easy to interpret this as another white person searching the spiritual wasteland of modern consumer culture. It would be easy to appropriate any of the few remaining identities, such as Two Spirit – an identity that the broader North American Indigenous Peoples use to recognize the multiple genders found in their individual traditions. It may be en-vogue for various people to claim the heritage of a people other than their own in the name of being different or somehow more spiritual. However in practice this is an act of violence. Though it would be easy to find safe-haven in one of these resilient traditions, it would be the latest in an equally long line of colonization and occupation of a space that we are not a part of. Beyond that, the identity becomes just another commodity to dull the pain of daily existence as soon as it is appropriated.

We are therefore left with a choice. We can continue the colonial project either through appropriation or shame. Or we can begin the long process of healing the wounds gained during the occupation until we can tear down our internalized barriers and once again find ourselves in the borderlands. Though the scars may fade, they are a memory of everything that we have lost and everything we need to rebuild.

The space between is rightfully ours and it will be again.

You can find more on this topic in Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg.

This is the first of a series of columns on the colonization of identity. There will be at least two more over the course of the next few weeks, and certainly more in the future.

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  • Nayeli F said:

    I found this entry to be (painfully) emotive and crafty, and in many ways offensive to many of us who come from tribes with Twospirit “traditions,” which I may add is as much a product of colonialism, since it is a fairly modern creation and borders more the “landscape” of reclamation than a pre-colonial identity.

    Everyday, I have to struggle to start a conversation that centers more on physicality and my own lived experiences of being a gender non-conforming Ojibwe than it does on the flowery, effusive, and spiritual language that postcolonial theorists and most Twospirits use. All this focus on colonial violence and religious traditions misses the point and undermines our current struggles: the alcoholism, the trailer parks, the diabetes. It’s so frustrating how The New Gay approaches many T issues as if we were all in a radical faerie powwow; it all smells of niche multiculturalism and hipster pontification. Just stick to fixing your fixed-gear bikes and reviewing CocoRosie albums.

  • Michael said:

    Hi, Nayeli F:

    Your comment is (or at least started off) being very powerful. Your jump from criticizing the “focus on colonial violence”, etc., to criticizing how TNG covers T issues was a mind-blower.

    You want to complain about how this particular trans columnist glanced over your people’s current struggles? Fine. Do that. This individual speaks for herself from a position as a trans person with her own set of personal experiences, and can’t be expected to know of your personal struggles. If you want to raise awareness of some holes in her post, feel free. Let’s have a conversation.

    I must say, though, that this author appeared to criticize non native peoples for bonding with traditional twospirit traditions: her goal wasn’t to address the struggles of native peoples. You can’t criticize a post for not doing what it didn’t set out to do. If you want the world to read a post about the social ills plaguing your people, we respectfully request that you write one and share it with us.

    Finally, if you perceive TNG as approaching T issues in a way you disagree with, that’s because the trans authors who have volunteered their free time to share their personal experiences can only share their own perspectives, and if you disagree with their perspectives, so be it. Again, share your own.

    We here at TNG have been fighting off accusations of hipsterdom since day one. Yeah, so Zack is a hipster. That’s one way of being queer. Each other individual who writes for this site has their own unique way of being queer, and the purpose of this site is to spotlight all of them and question our own behaviors and habits as well as that of mainstream gay culture.

    The only way to guarantee that you find yourself represented in the “pages” of TNG is to share your voice with us. If you’re not prepared to do that, the only person you have to criticize is yourself.

    TNG Co-founder

  • Syvia Renee said:

    Nayeli, your points are mostly well taken and I certainly did not mean any offense. And thank you for taking me to task on my arguments.

    But before you start telling me to go back to my (non-existent)hipsterdom,I actually grew up on an Ojibwe Reservation so I know all too well the crushing poverty, addiction, domestic violence, racism, and general oppression that make up daily life. As I pursue this little mini-series and my broader column I am actually going to get into how these types of things work their way into the daily lives of trans and gender queer people — all the while keeping in mind what that might look like from a variety of social stand points.

    I will take any constructive criticism and would really like the opportunity start a conversation. Please feel free to email me at vcrowley@thenewgay.net.

  • Jake said:

    A lot of this is really sad… it reminds me of what I learned when I was studying pre-western/pre-christian notions of male sexuality and the association of sex with other men with being anti-masculine, the destruction of men’s spaces, etc… what little areas of the world where the West hasn’t already completely destroyed men’s love of other men are rapidly disappearing.

  • brontomerus said:

    I would recommend much less Feinberg and much more Gloria Anzaldúa and/or “This Bridge Called My Back” … while the latter don’t address specific trans issues as much, their examination of borderlines is amazing, and much less perpetuating of the colonization discussed. I would also highly, hiiighly recommend “Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the ‘Third Gender’ Concept” from Evan B. Towle and Lynn M. Morgan.

  • Syvia Renee said:


    I am actually a big fan of Anzaldua. While you are right, I was going for a more historical approach. The topic was something that I was flirting with for a while but ultimately went elsewhere.

    Thanks for your suggestion of Towle and Morgan!

  • myplaylist said:

    Too often, people who live in border lands are forced to choose a side. Do you belong to Mexico or to the US? Are you Black or White? Are you gay or straight? Are you a woman or a man? Are you one of us, or are you one of them?
    So true