On June 10, 2016, a little-heralded court ruling challenged one of the most powerful, pervasive, enduring and taken-for-granted practices in western culture. On that day, an Oregon judge granted Jamie Shupe’s petition to identify as neither male nor female, but rather as gender non-binary. According to Shupe, “After a historic court ruling, I am free. … My court victory has broken a gender binary that many said could not be dismantled. … As a transgender person who was forced to live as a male for nearly 50 years, and who then electively lived as a female for the following three years to alleviate my gender dysphoria, I have discovered that I am healthiest and best served by not being forcibly classified as either male or female against my will. … I am not ashamed of who I am. I was not born into the wrong body. My genitals are not a birth defect. And I am not to be sterilized by psychiatry and a medical establishment that has run amok.”
The Oregon ruling goes far beyond the more hoopla-generating ordinances (dis)allowing transgender people the right to use public bathrooms matching their gender identity. It even goes beyond the June 2016 ruling requiring California prison officials to allow transgender inmates access to “female-oriented commissary items” such as scarves and necklaces, and making California the first state to pay for an inmate’s sex reassignment surgery.
The decision to legally recognize Jamie Shupe’s “non-binary” gender status knocks out the foundation upon which the entire structure of gender inequality rests.
From the Mouths of Babes, and Their Teachers
Two decades ago, together with my family, I spent a year conducting ethnographic fieldwork in an island village in Okinawa (more on that below.) As an anthropologist who studies women’s lives, I initially was drawn to Okinawa because it is the only place in the contemporary world where women are the official leaders of the mainstream religion. Not a sect, cult, order or heresy, the women-led religion has been an integral and respected part of Okinawan life for centuries.
My interest in Okinawa deepened when I learned that Okinawans are among the healthiest and longest-living people in the world, with Okinawan women enjoying a particularly long life-expectancy. (You can read more in my book Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa.)
A month or so after we returned home from Okinawa, our four year old daughter announced that she is “dumb.” Baffled (to my maternal eyes she is perfect) I assumed that one of the mean kids in her nursery school must have called her a bad name. But no, she explained, it wasn’t a kid. She herself realized she was dumb because “I don’t know opposites.” The other kids in her nursery school, she told us, knew the correct responses to the “opposites’ song” but she hadn’t learned opposites in her Okinawan nursery school.
What is this “opposites’ song”? we asked her.
She chanted a few examples of a simple rhythmic call and response: The teacher calls out “up” and the kids sing back “down.” The teacher’s “night” is to be answered with “day” and “black” with “white.” The teacher calls out “mommy” and the kids are supposed to sing back “daddy.” The correct response to “boy”? “Girl.” All the kids know the “opposites’ song,” she told us, and they like to show off the correct responses.
Hold on here, I thought to myself. How are boys and girls opposites? As a mother of three boys and one girl I can vouch for the fact that all my kids have eyes (and tears), ears (and ear infections), mouths that laugh and scream, tushies that produce poop, and belly buttons where their little bodies formerly were attached to the umbilical cord. In fact, the differences between the boys and girl were far less obvious or significant than the differences between the oldest gregarious and energetic boy and the second shy and quiet boy.
Nor are mother and father are opposites. We had just spent a year in which my husband was the primary caregiver and homemaker while I was out exploring the Okinawan village. The previous year I had been the primary caregiver and homemaker while my husband worked in high tech. And over both of those years, hadn’t both of us fed the kids, changed diapers, cuddled crying babies and helped the older kids with homework? How could mothers and fathers be opposites? We both were parents fully engaged in raising our children in a loving and healthy environment; it’s not as if one was a parent and the other an anti-parent!
It had never occurred to my daughter that mother and father are opposites until her teacher taught and repeated the “opposites’ song”. (It also never occurred to her that she was dumb until she realized that she was missing an important category of cultural knowledge that all of the other children had already acquired.) As my daughter learned in her nursery school, teachers, like parents and other formal and informal sources of learning, have enormous power to shape the way we think – even to shape how we perceive the world.
The Okinawan nursery school, I concluded, had not done my daughter any disservice by not teaching opposites. Quite the contrary, her new nursery school was doing all of us a disservice by drilling children in the quite unfactual notion that the world is made up of dichotomous and opposing forces. It is that world-view, I have come to understand, that undergirds prejudice, discrimination and structural violence.
Binaries Run Amok
Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1963) famously argued that there must be some sort of structure in the human brain that causes us to perceive the world in binaries: us and them, friend and stranger, good guys and bad guys. In the first wave of feminist anthropological critique, Sherry Ortner (1974) built on Levi-Strauss’s model and argued that male dominance is universal because in all human societies women are more associated with nature (pregnancy, birth and lactation) while men are associated with the opposite of nature; that is, culture. And just as culture conquers nature through tools, agriculture and human settlements, men (as a class) universally conquer women.
Half a century later, these schemas may sound preposterous. Not even the most advanced brain imaging technologies have managed to locate Levi-Strauss’s binary “structure.” Nor have decades of gender-informed ethnographic fieldwork confirmed Ortner’s hypothesis regarding the universality of the “female is to male as nature is to culture” notion. Rather, we’ve learned that brains are far more complex and gender organizations are far more diverse than mid-20th century social scientists could have guessed.
But while Levi-Strauss and Ortner were wrong about the universality of binaries, they were on target regarding their power. Differences that are envisioned as being absolute are particularly compelling: binary distinctions leave no gray area, no room for doubt, no room to recognize commonalities, and no room to negotiate. The construction of two and only two sexes or genders leads to cultural understandings in which men and women are not only essentially different but also antithetical and mutually exclusive types of beings. A popular form of this kind of thinking is represented in books like Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus in which men and women are characterized as species from different planets who need an interpreter in order to learn how to communicate with one another! While I certainly don’t blame this particular book for centuries of gendered economic and political inequalities and gendered violence, I do believe that that there are real dangers in efforts to reinforce, justify or prove that male and female stand in binary opposition to each other.
The “boy” “girl” binary was not the only insidious and false dichotomy the kids in my daughter’s pre-school were taught to chant. They also learned that “black” and “white” are opposites. Of course, we can look at any random gathering of people on the street and know that not only are skin colors a continuum rather than a dichotomous characteristic, but that there aren’t any actually white or black people: ebony and ivory describes a keyboard, not skin color. Yet, by construing race as a binary we easily tack on a plethora of other binary characteristics: black and white echo dirty and clean, bad and good, stupid and smart, them and us, sinner and saint, terrorist or law-abiding citizen. And that’s where all the trouble starts.
As Jamie Shupe learned over a lifetime of living first as a man and then as a woman, if people or things don’t quite fit into the binary categories, social forces exert power to force them into the binary structure, pretend that they don’t exist, or even eliminate them. Indeed, genocide depends on those in power convincing enough people that there is an essential, absolute divide between “us” (superior humans) and “them” (non-humans or inferior humans who, by virtue of that inferiority, should die).
Shupe’s courageous statement clarifies that punishing non-gender conforming people through formal institutions – transgender people in America experience particularly high rates of incarceration and informal practices – transgender people in America suffer particularly high rates of rape is part of the same falsely dichotomous worldview as fixing (curing) them of their “gender dysphoria” through therapeutic interventions to fix their brains and medical interventions to fix their bodies.
How would a world that is not divided into gender binaries look? In the Okinawan village of Henza, where I carried out fieldwork in the 1990s, I caught a few glimpses.
At the haari community boat race, a man in women’s clothing stood at the edge of the pier next to the mayor. Eager to understand this gendered twist, the next day I tried to ask villagers who he was. But first, I first had to dedicate quite a bit of time to clarifying to whom I was referring.
Susan: Who is that man who was wearing a woman’s dress at the boat race?
Villager: What man?
Susan: The man with the woman’s dress.
Villager: Oh, there was a man with a woman’s dress?
Susan: Yes, the man in the bright red dress, blond wig, and padded bra. You know, the man who stood right up in front of the entire audience at the edge of the dock and danced with the Master of Ceremonies during the climax of the race.
Villager: Oh, you mean Mr. Miyagi.
Susan: That’s right. Who is he?
Villager: A bus driver.
Susan: Why does he wear women’s clothes?
Villager: He likes to make people happy at festivals.
Susan: Does his wife mind that he wears women’s clothes?
Villager: Oh, his wife, she is the one with the garden next to your house.
Susan: Well, what do people in the village think of a man who wears women’s clothes?
Villager: He likes to make people happy at festivals.
Susan: Were there traditionally men who wore women’s clothes at festivals?
Villager: I don’t think so, I don’t know.
A similar conversation ensued after the san gatsu (third month) ritual, where I noticed a man wearing a woman’s bodice and a long red loincloth between his legs.
Susan: Who is he?
Villager: Mr. Arakaki.
Susan: Who is Mr. Arakaki?
Villager: He is a schoolteacher.
Villager: But that isn’t why he wore those clothes. Teachers don’t have to wear those clothes.
A somewhat different conversation with the same underlying theme took place at a neighborhood usudeku dance gathering. Many Henza women belong to one of three usudeku groups that practice and then perform elaborate traditional dances at the annual obon festival. Although these typically are all-women groups, I noticed an elderly (92 year old) man had joined one of the groups. He was pointed out to me by several women telling me with pride that there are many very old people in their group (all the others, of course, were women). His age rather than his gender is what elicited comment in this all-women’s group.
The women also told me that at san gatsu (third month) festival he dresses up in women’s clothes and makes merry for the people in the old age home. I asked why and was told, “Because he likes to, and because he has his late wife’s clothes. He put on make-up and a complicated kimono by himself. He has pictures. His wife died when she was 71 years old [tragically young, by Okinawan standards]. She did usudeku until she was 65, and he used to like to watch it.” At this point he joined the conversation: “Because my wife died, I take her to the san gatsu by wearing her clothes.” He and the women made it clear that by wearing his wife’s kimono he was not being outrageous but rather, in his own quiet manner, demonstrating or embodying the continuity between men and women, and between life and death.
These dialogues are a lesson in how not to do anthropological fieldwork. It is a great credit to Henzans that they were able to withstand my persistent efforts to put words into their mouths and to force them to share my own cultural categories. Clearly, the notion of a man wearing women’s clothes is not interesting to Henza villagers. No one remarked on it without my asking, no one drew my attention to it at the festivals, no one even realized who I was asking about until I repeated my question several times, and no one understood why I was interested in asking about this topic. Whereas to my western eyes these men were crossing gender categories, in the eyes of villagers they simply wore clothes that usually are worn by women but that have no inherent or permanent gendered attributes. What we in the West label as “cross-dressing” or “transvestitism” (and find funny, entertaining or abhorrent – depending on the person and the situation) is not a recognizable cognitive category in Henza.
What Does It All Mean?
American scholars have argued that transvestism ultimately reinforces gender divisions. In the West, when a man dresses like a woman and passes, he is gender-bending. If he really wants to pass, he needs to submit his body to surgical and chemical interventions. And if he does not pass, or if he deliberately shows a male trait (such as hair on his chest), the bizarre incongruity of his appearance strengthens the belief that the two genders are polar opposites. An individual who mixes the wrong gender with the wrong sex thus draws attention to the “naturalness” of the gender-sex association and the “unnaturalness” of detaching that association. Unless the situation is very contained (such as in a drag show), the obvious transvestite makes people uncomfortable, as evidenced by the hysteria over the idea that people can use the public restroom corresponding to their gender rather than the sex marked on their birth certificate.
In Okinawa, in contrast, gender is loosely constructed; it is not naturalized or supernaturalized; it is not enforced by powerful institutions or drilled by nursery school teachers. A person who usually is thought of as a man dressed in clothing that usually is worn by women presents no paradox, challenges no world-view, is given no label or diagnosis, invokes no strong emotional reaction, and does not risk punishment.
The absence of a rigidly binary gender ideology in Okinawa precludes the development of rigidly binary gender dominance. Okinawan women do not suffer from threats and fears of sexual violence (except at the hands of American military personnel) that shape women’s lives in the West. Okinawan women do not experience lower social status, poorer access to resources or any of the other aspects of subordination experienced by women in many or most parts of the world. The fact that women are the priestesses in Okinawa does not grant women moral control over men. And Okinawan women live longer than any other women in the world.
When I think about the violence that transgender and other gender transgressing people experience in America, I wonder what Jamie Shupe’s life would have been like in Henza rather than in the United States. We have yet to see the implications of the Oregon Court’s ruling in Shupe’s favor – it may well be over-turned or ignored. But with that ruling, for the first time in a very long time, I can glimpse the possibility of a chink in the immensely strong fortress of drilled “opposites.”