Stop Imposing Western LGBTQ+ Identities on Non-Western Cultures. It's Gender Colonialism | Opinion

In the National Geographic documentary "Gender Revolution," the journalist Katie Couric met with a group of LGBT students at Yale University who schooled her in contemporary Western gender terminology.

"Why are we suddenly seeing such huge changes in the way people are looking at their gender?" Couric asked.

"It's not new," one of the students told Couric. "I mean, people who might identify as trans, they've always existed in cultures for as long as we've had history and we find it now everywhere across the world."

Well, sort of. Like the student schooling Couric, we all cull bits and pieces of information from the historical past and other cultures to construct an authoritative sense of who we are, but in doing so, we risk overlaying Western gender ideology onto non-Western ways of thinking.

For almost two decades, I have conducted research in two non-Western cultures that are frequently cited in Western discussions about transgender people: the Polynesian island nation of Samoa in the south Pacific, and the Istmo region of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, where the indigenous Zapotec people predominate. In both places, I work with individuals who are male, but who present a markedly feminine manner. For example, many wear female-typical clothing and adopt feminine names.

fa'afafine
The author (right) and his fa'afafine research assistant, Trisha.

In Samoa, these individuals self-identify and are identified by others as "fa'afafine." In the Istmo, they are known to themselves and others as "muxe gunaa" or muxes for short. Having interviewed hundreds of such individuals, I can tell you that almost without exception they are exclusively attracted to masculine men as sexual partners.

Yet when fa'afafine and muxes are dropped into Western discussions about gender, there is much that gets lost in translation. Most Westerners describe these individuals as "transgender," a reasonable practice given that both fa'afafine and muxes recognize certain shared commonalities with trans people worldwide. For example, no one assigns infant males as fa'afafine or muxes at birth; rather, as their femininity organically emerges in early childhood, those around them recognize that these male children are behaviorally distinct from typical boys. The monikers fa'afafine and muxes mark them as something else altogether, neither boys nor girls, men nor women; something we in the West might call a non-binary gender.

But Westerners err when they call these individuals "trans women," because the vast majority of fa'afafine and muxes actively reject being labeled as women. True, some might use such terminology or related words, but they do so when struggling to translate the concepts of fa'afafine or muxes into terms that Westerners can understand. Nor are the vast majority of these individuals "gender fluid," as some claim. They do not shift from being fa'afafine or muxes to some other gender and then back again.

Unlike many trans people in the West who identify as male-to-female, fa'afafine and muxes recognize that they have male bodies and that these are immutable. A tiny number might femininize their bodies with hormones or even more rarely surgery, but no one in their local communities, least of all fa'afafine and muxes themselves, believe that such procedures transform them into females. Given that they do not identify as women and recognize that they are male, dysphoria about sex or gender has traditionally been relatively uncommon in these cultures, my research has shown.

In view of all this, it should come as no surprise that fa'afafine and muxes are not "raised as girls" as Western commentators often assert. Nor do families lacking girls "create" fa'afafine and muxes as substitute daughters—another Western fantasy. Research conducted by my students and I has repeatedly demonstrated that, like gay men, fa'afafine and muxes tend to have more older sisters than straight men, not fewer, so the so-called need for additional girls in such families is non-existent.

Fa'afafine and muxes do not, as is so often alleged, occupy "specialized roles" in their cultures. True, as my research group has shown, they have strong preferences for the same sorts of occupations that are favored by women and gay men, namely, people-oriented jobs such as teachers and nurses. They also tend to be drawn to occupations that involve aesthetic embellishment, such as clothing designers and florists. But these are individual preferences, not institutionalized expectations.

Moreover, Westerners have a habit of characterizing fa'afafine and muxes in highly idealized terms. In truth, they are neither rarefied nor revered in their societies. They do not lead hallowed lives unblemished by discrimination, though community appreciation for these individuals is demonstrated annually during beauty pageants, parades, and lavish parties. But outside these highly circumscribed events, fa'afafine and muxes tend to be seen as no more remarkable than your standard issue men and women.

Gender diverse individuals from non-Western cultures are routinely marshaled as evidence that the panoply of transgender phenomenon we see in the West has existed everywhere since time immemorial. In reality, the vast majority of gender variant individuals living in non-Western cultures are a particular "type." Almost invariably, their sex-atypical behavior emerges in early childhood, and as adults they are exclusively same-sex attracted, underscoring the very real developmental connection that exists between sex-typed behavior and sexual orientation regardless of culture. In contrast, very different types of non-homosexual, adolescent-onset transgenderism tend to predominate in the West.

Even Western notions of an LGBT "community" do not translate into many non-Western contexts where locals fail to see any relationship between this conglomeration of individuals. Consequently, treatment of these different groups can vary wildly. In Samoa, for example, fa'afafine, are highly visible and integrated into society, whereas masculine, same-sex attracted females (known as fa'atama) are far less accepted or visible.

Dragooned into the service of Western gender ideology, the unique cultural character of fa'afafine and muxes can become warped like a funhouse mirror and, in the process, we end up far from reality.

Obviously, individuals can identify in any way that they choose, including those living in the West. But imposing Western concepts of sex and gender onto non-Western cultures, ones with rich traditions of their own, is wrong. Let's be clear about calling this what it truly is: gender colonialism.

Paul L. Vasey is a Professor and Research Chair at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.

The views in this article are the writer's own.