Third gender practices around the world

Posted on Tue 10 Nov by AlexK / Documentary, Film, Interview, Trans

by Anna Wates

Not all genders are everywhere the same. This is true not only for the categories male and female, but also for transgender. This year Fringe! presents two remarkable documentaries which explore transgender positions unique to their cultural contexts: Shinjuku Boys, a classic from the feminist archive which takes place in 1990s Tokyo, Japan; and Kumu Hina, a heart-warming doc filmed in present day Honolulu.

In a Western context, non-binary gender positions tend to revolve around the prefix (or standalone identifier) trans-, trans, or trans*. Yet we cannot incautiously attribute these terms to third gender practices everywhere, not least because they emerged from the era of post-Stonewall gay/lesbian politics in the US.

In Kumu Hina we meet the powerful and outspoken, tattoo-covered Hinaleimoana. She is a Hawai’ian Mahu, the local name used by those who embody both male and female spirits. In pre-colonial Hawai’i, as in other places throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia, Mahu once had an important place in society as healers, or gifted and special persons. The film explores Hina’s experience of being Mahu in contemporary Hawai’i, where the culture of Pacific Islanders and their values suffered 200 years of imperialism, violence and colonial religious oppression.

As a teacher at a public charter school dedicated to native Hawaiian culture, language and history, Hina is a cultural icon and guardian of traditions once under threat. We are immediately captivated by her presence when, in an early scene, she chants with such a deep and melodious voice it immediately overpowers a class of self-conscious pubescent boys. “Listen to my voice”, she says, “there’s nothing ‘Wahine’ (feminine) about my voice”. Though Hina uses female pronouns, she is here able to harness ‘Ku’ (energy associated with masculinity) in her position as Mahu – a ‘place in the middle’.  

On the other side of the world, Shinjuku Boys is an intimate portrayal of a cohort of ‘Onnabe’ – persons identified as female at birth who now live and work as men. They are employees at The New Marilyn Club in Tokyo, a ‘host bar’ for (mostly) heterosexual women clients. The roles they assume at work call to mind depictions of masculinity found in Japanese popular culture. For example, Kazuki displays a romantic boy-next-door persona whilst Gaish is dismissive of his customers’ feelings, emulating a tsundere boyfriend who is initially cold before gradually showing a warm side. Beyond this, the film explores a more nuanced reality, with each host adopting a range of different ideas about their gender and sexuality, which can change depending on the context. When a client asks Gaish “What do you think you are?” Gaish responds elegantly: “I don’t think anything. I’m just me”. Later Gaish tells the same client: “There are all kinds of Onnabe”.

Kumu Hina and Shinjuku Boys are both fascinating studies in cultural variety, illustrating how gender practices the world over are as diverse as people are themselves.

Kumu Hina screens on Fri 27th November at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre and on Sun 29th November at the Rose Lipman Building.
Shinjuku Boys screens on Sun 29th November at the Rose Lipman Building.