Friday, 27 February 2015

“Mum, my name is John”: Gender Identity

by Tanya Thekkakkara


Gender is everywhere. Like the very air we breathe, we are often unaware of its omniscient presence. When a child is born, a quick glance between the legs determines the gender label that the child will carry with them for life. For many people, this creates little, if any dissonance. Yet biological sex and gender are on two completely different scales; gender is not inherently nor solely connected to one’s physical anatomy

What? Crazy right.

Beyond anatomy, there are multiple domains of defining gender per se. Gender, on the other hand, is far more complicated and consists of three dimensions:

1. Gender Identity; one’s internal sense of self as male, female, or neither
 2. Gender expression; one’s outward presentation and behaviours
 3. Gender role; similar to gender expression, however explores how one person should speak, think and act within the context of society.

With the unison of these three dimensions, it produces a person’s authentic sense of their own gender.

Now that is all fair and well, but you may be wondering how this has any relevance to the proclaimed title above. Recently within social media, film actress Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have been causing headlines. No, before you ask this is not the typical celebrity-fueled headline - “Angelina caught eating a burrito!”; without discrediting the exceptional taste of Mexican cuisine of course, it was a lot more profound. The title read “Pitt’s and Jolie’s daughter arrives in tux at a film premiere.” Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter now called John Jolie Pitt (original name Shiloh) arrived with a cropped haircut and in a tuxedo. Jolie has spoken openly of her child’s identification in the past, telling in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2010 that John had been exploring their identity since the age of three.

“She wants to be a boy”. Jolie said. “So we cut her hair. She likes to wear boy’s everything. She thinks she’s one of the brothers, she always insists that we call her John otherwise she doesn’t respond and you know what that’s okay, she’s still my child and I love her.”

However, one may argue that, of course, lots of girls like the same toys, clothes and games as boys. But what about when a child seems to “want to be” a member of the opposite sex? Does this hint at gender dysphoria or identity issues? Or is it just a natural part of growing up? These are the probing questions parents face when dealing with their transgender child and yet to this day many children’s feelings are suppressed as parents shrug it off as just a “phase.” Consequently, with this certain depth of attitude from their parents it could lead to detrimental effects such as depression. Even if it does eventually turn out to be a “phase”, encouragement from parents to express who you are and acceptance are vital for a healthy child.
This was interesting by itself yet an online search brought up something even more intriguing.

There are many cultures that this will be considered normal. The Soman Fa’afafines are a clear example of this. Within Samoan society, it is viewed as the third gender- “fa’afaines” which have always existed and when translated literally means “in the manner of”. F’afaines have a very unique role within their society, one which differs from the perception of transgenderism in the western world. In fact, this recognition of the third gender has been known to man prior to Christianity and hence why it is still acceptable for a male child to feminine. They are notoriously known within these communities as intuitive and widely creative, it is rumoured that most Samoan families contains at least one fa’afine.  It is onerous to label the notion of the Samoan third gender with the Western culture, as these societies completely reject the terms “homosexual” and “transgender”. This is due to the fact  Fa’afine have a very varied sexual life partaking with sexual intercourse with female, male and other fa’afines.


Whereas in the Samoan culture it is accepted, in a bureaucratic system this would be problematic. For example, imagine if you were a victim to a crime, you go to report it to the police yet the application asks to state whether you are “male/female” what do you do? Does this defy your report? These kind of activities undermine people who do not identify as male or female.

Therefore, in conclusion whilst considering both transgender and third gender’s point of view I hope there will be more acceptance of their legal status and acceptance from society.





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