The conflict rooted in these recent policies is nothing new; for years, people have been asking questions about whether the “sex” we are born with should dictate things like which public facilities we can use, what to tick on our passport application and who’s eligible to play on particular sports teams.
But what if gender were viewed the same way sex researcher Alfred Kinsey famously depicted sexuality – as something along a sliding scale?
In fact, there’s an ethnic group in South Sulawesi, Indonesia – the Bugis – that views gender this way. For my Ph.D. research, I lived in South Sulawesi in the late 1990s to learn more about the Bugis' various ways of understanding sex and gender. I eventually detailed these conceptualizations in my book “Gender Diversity in Indonesia.”
Does society dictate our gender?
For many thinkers, such as gender theorist Judith Butler, requiring everyone to choose between the “female” and “male” toilet is absurd because there is no such thing as sex to begin with.
According to this strain of thinking, sex doesn’t mean anything until we become engendered and start performing “sex” through our dress, our walk, our talk. In other words, having a penis means nothing before society starts telling you that if you have one you shouldn’t wear a skirt (well, unless it’s a kilt).
Nonetheless, most talk about sex as if everyone on the planet was born either female or male. Gender theorists like Butler would argue that humans are far too complex and diverse to enable all seven billion of us to be evenly split into one of two camps.
This comes across most clearly in how doctors treat children born with “indeterminate” sex (such as those born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, hypospadias or Klinefelter syndrome). In cases where a child’s sex is indeterminate, doctors used to simply measure the appendage to see if the clitoris was too long – and therefore, must be labeled a penis – or vice versa. Such moves arbitrarily forced a child under the umbrella of one sex or the other, rather than letting the child grow naturally with their body.
Perhaps a more useful way to think about sex is to see sex as a spectrum.
While all societies are highly and diversely gendered, with specific roles for women and men, there are also certain societies – or, at least, individuals within societies – who have nuanced understandings of the relationship between sex (our physical bodies), gender (what culture makes of those bodies) and sexuality (which kinds of bodies we desire).
Indonesia may be in the press for terror attacks and executions, but it’s actually a very tolerant country. In fact, Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest democracy, and furthermore, unlike North Carolina, it currently has no anti-LGBT policy. Moreover, Indonesians can select “transgender” (waria) on their identity card (although given the recent, unprecedented wave of violence against LGBT people, this may change).
The Bugis are the largest ethnic group in South Sulawesi, numbering around three million people. Most Bugis are Muslim, but there are many pre-Islamic rituals that continue to be honored in Bugis culture, which include distinct views of gender and sexuality.
Their language offers five terms referencing various combinations of sex, gender and sexuality: makkunrai (“female women”), oroani (“male men”),calalai (“female men”), calabai (“male women”) and bissu (“transgender priests”). These definitions are not exact, but suffice.
During the early part of my Ph.D. research, I was talking with a man who, despite having no formal education, was a critical social thinker.
As I was puzzling about how Bugis might conceptualize sex, gender and sexuality, he pointed out to me that I was mistaken in thinking that there were just two discrete sexes, female and male. Rather, he told me that we are all on a spectrum:
Imagine someone is here at this end of a line and that they are, what would you call it, XX, and then you travel along this line until you get to the other end, and that’s XY. But along this line are all sorts of people with all sorts of different makeups and characters.
This spectrum of sex is a good way of thinking about the complexity and diversity of humans. When sex is viewed through this lens, North Carolina’s law prohibiting people from choosing which toilet they can use sounds arbitrary, forcing people to fit into spaces that might conflict with their identities.
More or less ten years ago, I believed that
only in Indonesia (plus perhaps some neighboring countries) we could find
people who adore marriage. The so-called (boring) “normal” life cycle for
Indonesian people is this : being born – going to school – going to college –
graduating – getting a job – getting married – having kids – getting old –
finish. :) To be (considered to be)
happy, someone MUST get married, then MUST have kids. Without getting married
and having kids, someone’s life is considered not complete, even perhaps dull.
While watching serials in Sex and the City
(season 5 dan 6) around a decade ago, I noticed that for New Yorkers, to be considered
happy, there are three things they must have (1) established job (2) house (3)
The main focus of Indonesians and New
Yorkers are a bit different. But there is one similarity : life partner,
although in Indonesia, someone must get married (legally) in order to avoid being
gossiped by neighbors, (cohabitation is still considered morally low here) while in New York,
someone does not need to get married, as long as they have life partner.
Recently I have started watching SATC
again, but this time starting from season 1 and 2. In these two seasons, the
four girls were still single, changing dates very often. I saw how unhappy they
were when they broke up, or when they had no dates. Despite the fact that they
wanted to be known as “being single and happy”. Isn’t it
contradictory? This made me question whether this serial really wanted to show
that girls can choose to be single and happy?
We know that by the end of
the serial (season 6), Miranda and Charlotte both were illustrated as happily
married. Samantha was happy with her young boyfriend, Smith. Meanwhile, Carrie
(eventually) married Mr. Big in the movie. :)
society still lingers everywhere, not just in the developing countries. J Feminists still have to
struggle to convince society – especially girls – that to live single and happy
is absolutely possible. Well, at least, minimize the number of people who
choose to get married only because of social pressure. Get married when they
are really ready for that.