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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