Gender-Fluid Practices Amongst Strict Gender Binary Societies
As the world watches the horrific events in Afghanistan, the hearts of the international community break for those who are unable to escape the Taliban’s takeover- especially those whose identities already conflict with societal norms. While living in constant fear is normal for members of the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s control raises their fear from being jailed, beaten, and/or shunned to being “killed on the spot” as one gay man told Radio 1 Newsbeat. According to the Taliban, Sharia Law strictly prohibits homosexuality and identifying as transgender, and it allows punishment by death. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially those who identify as transgender, believe that they will never be accepted by their communities and society. This belief is evident in the Afghan criminal law and in societal perception of transgendered people; however, it poses an interesting conflict to a widely accepted social practice where some young female-bodied people are dressed, styled, and raised as boys by their parents until they hit puberty.
Bacha Posh, meaning “girl dressed like boy,” is a practice in which parents without a son will choose one of their daughters to “transform” into a boy from the age of three or four until they hit puberty. They are renamed with a masculine name, given a haircut typical of a boy, dressed as a boy, and are encouraged to act as a boy in all manners- including those seen as taboo for women. Since Sharia Law prohibits women from appearing in public unaccompanied, these bacha poshes serve as their sisters’ male companions, are able to run errands for the family alone, and work as street vendors to earn money for their families- activities they could not do if they had not “transitioned”. However, this practice is only temporary for the young bacha posh. When the child reaches puberty, she is then expected to return to her identity as a female and serve her role as a young bride and eventually mother - despite years of adopting the customs of and being accepted as a male. In recent years, there has been international recognition and concern over the psychological trauma that this practice can have on the young females who are expected to transition into and out of the role of bacha posh without any apprehension. Their perception of their own gender is expected to change overnight and must exclusively return to the norms of their gender assigned at birth. This conflict between enforcing a strict gender binary society in the law yet allowing and encouraging cross gender expression amongst children is not unique to Afghanistan.
In Japan, the legal hoops that transgender people need to jump through in order to be legally recognized as their desired gender are harmful and outdated, despite a long standing history of a “third gender” in Japanese society. Wakashu is a term meaning “beautiful youth” who were male-bodied actors who took on female-like characteristics and engaged in sex work. The role came about during the Edo period of the 17th century in the artistic communities. Emphasizing their gender fluidity, the wakashu engaged in sexual activities with both men and women serving different (submissive or penetrative) roles with each respectively. Their youthful appearance, feminine dress, unique haircut, and passive nature toed the line between masculinity and femininity, giving them the appearance of a “third gender.” Like the bacha posh, the wakashu’s characteristics are temporary as they depend on the youth of the person. These wakashu, like the baca posh, are expected to “rejoin” their biologically assigned gender roles and reject the dress and behavior they once were encouraged to have. Differing from the bacha posh, however, the wakashu who were biologically female taking on male characteristics to create the “third gender” were not as widely accepted as their biologically male counterparts and were often discriminated against. Despite this negative attitude towards female-bodied wakashu, there were many cross-dressing or gender-ambiguous female sex workers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The wakashu were eventually banned from theatres, but new sex workers would eventually take their place. In the 18th century, a wave of these biologically female but androgonous appearing sex workers moved through Japan, but more notable was the wave of haori geisha that came about in the 19th century. Haori geisha were biological females who fully immersed themselves in the role of a male; they were renamed with a male name and embodied masculinity to the point that they were not even viewed as gender-nonconforming. They were fully accepted into society as males. Despite this social trend of gender fluidity in pre-modern society, modern laws are very discriminatory against transgender people and those who wish to express a gender different from their gender assigned at birth.
Under the Gender Identity Disorder Special Cases Act, Japanese law requires five practices for a person to change their legally recognized gender identity. To change their legal identity, a person must be at least 20 years old, unmarried, without children under the age of 20, “without gonads or permanently lack functioning gonads” (sterilization), and with physical genitalia that resembles the genitalia of their desired identity. This means an individual would have to get divorced from their spouse and undergo extensive surgery that the individual may not even desire, and receive a psychiatric diagnosis which deems transgender identities as mental disorders. This law is a direct result of widespread societal discrimination and prejudice towards transgender people, despite Japan’s history of having groups of those who express gender fluidity. Even though historically Japanese society allowed and accepted sex workers to cross-dress and to fully express themselves as the gender not assigned at birth, gender expression of one’s true gender identity today is not enough in the eyes of Japanese law to warrant a change to one’s legally recognized identity.
In modern society, the strict and exclusive structure of the gender binary has proved to be widely inaccurate and has become more and more challenged with governments strongly resisting the movement towards gender fluidity. There are many countries and societies with a history of gender fluidity in certain situations such as the bacha posh and wakashu that prohibit or make it difficult for nonbinary individuals to live the way they please. With the long history of the role of crossing biological gender norms and the depiction of a “third gender” as in each of these specific cases, along with others worldwide, the question is posed: has the gender binary ideal that laws attempt to have society conform to ever truly conformed to society?