Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 6, August 2001

Serena Nanda

Gender Diversity:
Crosscultural Variations

Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2000
pp. vii, 127. Includes Index
ISBN 1 57766 074 9 (paperback), $US10.50

reviewed by Andrew Matzner

  1. Serena Nanda, an American cultural anthropologist, is well known for her pioneering ethnographic work with the hijra of India. The book she wrote based on her research was one of the earliest to appear about transgenderism in a non-Western context. [1] Nanda has also been involved in developing curricula for anthropology courses aimed at undergraduate students, and is the co-author of several textbooks produced for this audience. With Gender Diversity, Nanda has combined her interests to produce an undergraduate-oriented text which describes gender variance (Nanda's preferred term) in seven 'cultures': Native America; Polynesia; India; Brazil; Thailand; the Philippines; and Euro-America.
  2. Nanda believes that most Western writing on gender variance has indulged in romantic notions of the acceptance of such behaviours in non-Western societies. In her introduction she stresses, however, that it is important to understand that social attitudes towards transgendered people are very complex. In addition, she writes that observers must pay attention to individual differences of gender identity within singular populations of transgendered people. Nanda is also interested in promoting the view that there is no one correct way to view sexuality or gender. Hence, the goal of Gender Diversity is to 'raise our consciousness about the cultural construction of sex, gender, and sexualities and their relationship to each other in all cultures' (p.9, emphasis in original). In doing so, 'we are enabled to cross the barriers of cultural difference to a recognition of a greater shared humanity' (p.9). Despite Nanda's laudable introductory statements, I found Gender Diversity to be disappointing for several reasons.
  3. First, due to the book's short length (106 pages of text), its subject matter is presented in an abbreviated and highly generalised manner. Ironically, the author erases the complex lived realities of those who are gender variant, as well as flattens out the various social/historical contexts in which these people exist. For instance, in the chapter on multiple genders in Native America, Nanda lists different characteristics of gender variant persons without naming the tribes to which they belong. Except for brief discussions on gender variance among the Navajo and Mohave, Nanda's language typically reads as follows: 'Male gender variants frequently adopted women's dress and hairstyles partially or completely, and female gender variants partially adopted the clothing of men; sometimes, however, transvestism was prohibited' (p.15). By failing to locate specific behaviours within specific tribes or social contexts, Nanda leaves the reader with a fuzzy sense of what was happening where, when and why. This chapter in particular reads like a series of brief encyclopedia entries (i.e. 'transvestism,' 'occupation,' 'sacred power,' 'sexuality,' etc.) which in a classroom situation would need to be heavily supplemented with outside material.
  4. My second concern is with Nanda's reliance on a limited number of sources, as well as her uncritical acceptance of their conclusions as fact. Nanda often makes definitive statements about aspects of gender variance which are actually based on unsubstantiated speculations. For example, in the chapter on Thailand she relies heavily on Peter Jackson,[2] writing that in the last few decades 'homosexuality has become central in the cultural construction of the kathoey, who is now primarily considered a transgendered homosexual' (p.74). However, this statement does not make clear exactly who considers kathoey to be 'transgendered homosexuals:'kathoey themselves, non-kathoey Thai, or Westerners. Indeed, a number of the kathoey I interviewed in Thailand self-identified as women.[3] In addition, sexual relationships between kathoey and their male partners are not necessarily seen as homoerotic by either partner.[4] Citing Jackson, Nanda goes on to assert that 'A Thai man regards himself as either a man or a kathoey. In the modern Thai sex/gender system the kathoey becomes the negative "other" against which the masculine identities of both gays and men are defined' (p.76). However, an examination of Jackson's article reveals that his argument regarding the production of Thai masculinity is not supported by ethnographic evidence such as interviews or other forms of fieldwork with members of the Thai population.
  5. Because gender diversity in many of the cultures Nanda discusses has often been examined by only a single researcher, much of the information in her chapters has yet to be challenged, modified, or confirmed in the academic arena by studies done by other researchers. For instance, in her chapter on Polynesia, Nanda follows Niko Besnier's argument[5] by writing that gender diversity appears to be less 'institutionalised' in this part of the world than in other cultures, and that Polynesian gender variant people occupy 'liminal male roles' (p.58) rather than 'an independent status of their own' (p.61). This is because 'in Polynesia there is no consistently articulated ideology associated with gender variants, no uniformly consistent role with which they are identified, and the boundaries of the role are "porous": a man can move into the role and then move out of it in later life' (p.59). I would argue, on the other hand, that at present not enough historical or anthropological research has been carried out among the various Polynesian island groups (which Nanda often lumps into one undifferentiated entity) to make substantive claims regarding the place(s) and conception(s) of gender variance in these societies in pre-colonial contact times. Secondly, my own research in Hawai'i indicates that there was in fact an 'articulated ideology' surrounding males who engaged in gender variant behaviour (known as mahu) in pre-contact times, which was related to their capacities as honoured teachers and chanters.[6]
  6. In the same chapter, Nanda also states as fact that 'Polynesian gender diversity is not associated with religion nor does it have sacred meanings. It is, however, associated with 'rituals of reversal,' that is, secular cultural performances that involve spontaneous, clowning, and uninhibited behaviour that is normally disparaged and repressed' (p.61). Again, this type of statement does not do justice to the diversity of gender variant experience among the different Polynesian-island cultures. For example, according to Hawaiian elders with whom I spoke, mahu were deeply involved in the teaching and performing of the sacred hula dance in pre-contact times, and continue to be so today.
  7. A third noteworthy issue in Gender Diversity is the moralizing tone with which Nanda criticizes Westerners who identify as transsexual. In her chapter about gender variance in contemporary Euro-American society, Nanda writes that by having a sex change, 'the transsexual upholds the status quo of the binary sex/gender system' (p.94). Therefore, 'far from being an example of gender diversity, [transsexuals] both reflected and reinforced the dominant sex/gender ideology in which one had to choose to be either a man or a (stereotypically) woman' (pp.96-97). In place of transsexualism, Nanda prefers those who embrace a 'new concept called transgenderism,' which she claims is based on androgyny (p.97). As she writes,

      Transgenderists view gender and sex categories, or "boxes," as improperly imposed by society and its "sexual identity gatekeepers" ... Unlike transsexuals of the 1970s and 1980s, transgenderists today challenge and stretch the boundaries of the American bipolar system of sex/gender oppositions and renounce the American definition of gender as dependent on a consistency of genitals, body type, identity, role behaviors, and sexual orientation (p.99).

    Nanda's favoritism towards 'transgenderists' over transexuals is both curious and offensive because there are large numbers of people who identify as transsexual working at the forefront of the 'gender liberation' movement in countries such as Australia, the United States and Great Britain.
  8. Another problem is Nanda's dismissal of the growing number of Euro-American female-to-male transsexuals. She justifies her exclusion of this population from her book by writing that 'transsexualism has been largely a male phenomenon' (p.97), a claim taken from on an outdated, hostile source.[7] This statement is inexcusable because of the increased visibility of female-to-male transsexuals since the mid-1990s, which even a cursory glance through the major magazines aimed at a Euro-American transgender readership (such as Transgender Tapestry) would reveal.
  9. In sum, Serena Nanda has undertaken an extremely important project, as this is the first book of its kind. That is, even while the number of undergraduate courses dealing with issues of gender and sexuality in cross-cultural contexts continually increases, before now there has never been a single book which collects, compares, and contrasts a broad range of gender variant behaviours in various societies. However, in spite of Nanda's good intentions, I would not recommend Gender Diversity for use in an undergraduate course; the professor would need to spend too much time qualifying its passages. Until a better version of Gender Diversity appears, books such as Nanda's own The Hijras of India, Will Roscoe's The Zuni Man-Woman or Don Kulick's Travesti would make better choices for undergraduate readers.[8] Each of these highly readable books contains enough ethnographic richness and cultural context for readers to develop a truly deeper understanding of gender variant behaviour in an historically situated non-Western culture.


    [1] Serena Nanda, Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1990.

    [2] Peter Jackson, 'Kathoey-Gay-Man: The Historical Emergence of Gay Male Identity in Thailand', in Lenore Manderson and Margaret Jolly (eds.), Sites of Desire, Economies of Pleasure: Sexualities in Asia and the Pacific, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997, pp. 166-190.

    [3] Andrew Matzner, 'The Complexities of 'Acceptance': Thai Student Attitudes Towards Kathoey', Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, (forthcoming).

    [4] Han ten Brummelhuis, 'Transformations of Transgender: The Case of the Thai Kathoey', in Peter Jackson and Gerard Sullivan (eds.), Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexualities in Contemporary Thailand, Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 1999, pp. 121-140; Jan W. de Lind van Wijngaarden, 'A Social Geography of Male Homosexual Desire: Locations, Individuals and Networks in the Context of HIV/AIDS in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand', Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Masters Thesis, Department of Human Geography, University of Amsterdam, 1995.

    [5] Niko Besnier, 'Polynesian Gender Liminality through Time and Space', in Gilbert Herdt (ed.), Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, New York: Zone, 1996, pp. 285-328.

    [6] Andrew Matzner, O Au No Keia: Voices from Hawai'i's Mahu and Transgender Communities, Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris, 2001.

    [7] Leslie Martin Lothstein, Female-to-Male Transsexualism: Historical, Clinical and Theoretical Issues, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.

    [8] Serena Nanda, The Hijras of India: Neither Man nor Woman, 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999; Will Roscoe, The Zuni Man-Woman, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991; Don Kulick, Travesti: Gender and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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