Congratulations, it’s a (Lady)Boy!

ktan's picture

Boys and girls seem to learn their genders very early on in their lives, as apparent to their preference of colours (girls with pink and boys with blue), toys (Barbies vs. cars), and even their awareness of the opposite sex (cooties). But are all these stereotype a testament to the biological predetermination of gender, or are they manifested by societal influences? Is everything inherently biological, or can our actions—our environment—override this seemingly fixed component of our identity? It would seem that the simple answer to these questions would either be (depending on one’s beliefs): yes, with the help of technology and scientific breakthroughs, we are in fact able to change what we were born with, or no, our biological makeup will always dominate over external influences that we impart upon ourselves. However, to merely state that it is one or other is more important seems unwise, given the non-progressive standoff between the two in the debate. Society’s fixation on gender-related issues have been at the forefront of this version of the nurture vs. nature type of debate, and I think the best way to explore this subject is through a different culture, specifically the Thai culture, where the perception of gender defies the Western or “traditional” way of thinking.
 
First and foremost, in the Thai culture, the distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality is more blurred and tenuous than in the West. There is none of the stereotypes of how men are supposed to be “macho,” as the culture is very gentle. Although not common, many of them are open to homosexual experiences and these are fairly well tolerated by modern society. (http://www.enabling.org/ia/vipassana/Archive/J/Jackson/homoBuddhaJackson.html) However, there was a time where homosexuals were looked down upon, especially because they were thought to be the ones who carried AIDS. In the early to mid 1980s the official Thai response to the spread of HIV infection in that country was characterised by denial and silence. It was only in the latter years of the decade that the threat HIV/AIDS posed to public health in Thailand was formally acknowledged by government and public health officials and that public education campaigns began to be formulated and implemented. As in many other countries, the initial responses of many public figures in Thailand to the recognition of the serious issues posed by the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS were informed more by prejudice and fear of speculation rather than by reasoned consideration of the evidence on modes of infection. In this period homosexual men and female prostitutes were widely condemned as sources of AIDS and threats to public health by many Thai journalists, politicians, public health officials, Buddhist monks and other public figures. However, this situation changed somewhat in the late 1980s, when the AIDS pandemic became such that the Thai government could no longer turn their faces the other way whenever the issue was raised (http://phettisaam.blogspot.com/2009/08/why-are-there-so-many-ladyboys-in.html). Thus, through education and knowledge, the myths surrounding the link between prostitutes and homosexuals and AIDS were debunked, and the government decided (somewhat informally) that the sex industry could very well be their solution to bolster economic advancement.
 
So as prostitution became more widely accepted because of the profits it raked in for the workers, the idea of raising boys as girls also gained more popularity, especially in rural areas where unemployment was not a statistic but the norm. In the Thai culture, bonds between family members are very strong, and for children to leave their parents after a certain age is unthinkable. In the hierarchy of things, the younger family members have to support the old as much as they can, and this is where the dilemma emerges. If a girl grows up to be a man, he will eventually have his own family that he has to provide for as well, thus being able to spend less money on his parents and grandparents. On the other hand, if this boy is raised as a girl (commonly referred to as a ladyboy), then she won´t have a family, and will just work for their own livelihood in an industry that earns them a very high income, and are then able to support their parents. Even if they end up staying at home in their provinces, ladyboys can still work in the rice fields like other men and women do, while still staying out of alcohol and drug-related troubles that their traditionally male siblings may be more inclined to follow. The economical push factors of raising a boy as a girl far outweighs the “moral” (although again, in this culture, boys being girls and vice versa are not really seen as immoral to begin with) reasons, and thus, this has become a common practice with a lot of impoverished Thai families.
 
Although the practise has been sharply criticised by many people in the West who see it as exploitative and degrading, a journalist on the Bangkok Post has written, "`what right do liberal Europeans have to condemn the sex industry? Them telling us what to do is just plain neo-colonialism. It's up to Thais to sort out our own problems," exemplifying that different types of perception, social constructs, and acceptance is based on what is imposed on us by hegemonic powers and that in reality, there is no dignity in doing back-breaking labour seven days a week in a rice field for next to nothing either (http://www.petertatchell.net/international/thailand.htm). Many of the questions regarding the moral issues or how wrong this practise is has been met with retorts of how these families have no choice because they don’t want to go hungry or become beggars or criminals. Coming from a ladyboy who is currently working the bars in Phuket, Thailand, she states that “we have to do this to survive, and in many cases our families also depend on our income. Those who criticise sex tourism and the [lady]boys, those rich and educated Thais and westerners, it is wrong for them to condemn me; they do not understand the realities of life faced by the poor."
 
So, is everything in us is inherently biological? Or are we able to override our biological makeup to construct identity? I find the idea of necessity as a main factor that pushes for us to force ourselves to adapt fascinating. This idea can somewhat be related to the theory of evolution in that it is the “survival of the fittest,” because in the case of the impoverished Thai families, those who are able to be resourceful and innovative are the ones who have the chance to have better lives than those who can’t. This illustrates how practices and what is perceived to be “common” arises from necessity. In the case of someone changing their gender, this demonstrates how biological makeup can be influenced by one’s environment—what one needs to do or be in order to survive—but at the same time, one’s environment can also be affected by biology.
 
Our society has created a set of “rules” for the population to follow in order to make sense and create order out of chaos, but as discussed in class, the way things work isn’t to have someone dictate how things should work, but rather, all the elements should come to work together naturally. In the end, I like the idea that there is no biology vs. culture controversy, no nature vs. nurture controversy, or whatever other kind of controversy, because it is never one or the other, but rather it is both working together. The way one experiences life, as well as the way one perceives culture is affected by biology, and vice versa. They are mutually affected by one or the other, a double-sided cause-and-effect situation, rather than a one way road. In this sense, however, it makes me wonder why humans can’t (or won’t) accept this answer. It seems that our inability to leave things the way they are, or to stop asking “why,” and finding a solution to everything has contributed massively to this debate.
 

 
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Comments

Paul Grobstein's picture

sex/gender, biology/culture, and what works

Its very useful to have reminders that indeed identity reflects a bidirectional interaction between biology and culture in the sex/gender realm as elsewhere, and still more so that the interaction occurs against the background of what works in particular contexts.  And it does indeed raise the question of "why humans can't (or won't) accept this answer." 

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