Academic Transgender Studies Website Update

| Mar 15, 2010
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A couple of weeks ago, we told you about the ATSW.  Coming in too late for publication then was a note from its creator, Walter Williams.

He answered a few questions, and offered a correction.  (See it after the jump.)

He writes: “The only change I would ask is for you to insert the words ‘by a student’ in the statement on Brazil. ‘However, one study points out should read ‘However, one study by a student points out’. I do not agree with that sentiment, so I do not want readers to think I am anti-transsexual.”

How did you come to be interested in this field of study?

I had been doing research and publishing books on Native Americans for several years, when I started running across references to transgender people in native cultures. I had all the negative opinions about trans people that others raised in our transphobic culture have absorbed. Then in 1982 I lived on the Sioux reservations doing ethnographic fieldwork research in South Dakota, and saw with my own eyes how deeply respected and central to family and community life they were, and still are among traditionalists who follow the Lakota religion. That experience revolutionized my attitudes, and I realized my cultural prejudices and limitations. I fell in love with a “winkte” (the name for transgender people in the Lakota language) and that experience transformed my life. Even though I am not transgender myself, ever since then I have championed transgender rights. My 1986 book “The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture” and my most recent book “Two Spirits: A Story of Life with the Navajo” grew out of that fieldwork research.

There’s a focus on the transgender experience outside of the United States and Europe.  Why?

In the class that I teach on Transgender Studies at the University of Southern California, there is a focus on the transgender experience outside the USA and Europe because other scholars like Susan Stryker and Connie Rogers are beginning excellent research and publication on the US and Europe, but little has been done on the rest of the world. My expertise as an anthropologist is in non-Western cultures. In the field research that I have done with Native Americans, as well as in Polynesia, Indonesia, and Thailand, I have found traditions of acceptance of transgender people that would amaze most people who think that attitudes of condemnation have always existed in all societies.  I have lived in small Isan farming villages in northeast Thailand where every village has at least one or two transgender people, and they participate equally in local Buddhist ceremonies and as part of village life. Isan villagers are more accepting than anything I have seen in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York.
The more research I do, the more I realize that in most cultures before the spread of Western imperialism and Christianity, transgender people were socially accepted. In many ancient cultures they were highly respected religious leaders, and central to the operation of their society. In fact, it was the ancient Hebrew reaction against the high status of transgender people in the goddess religion of the Canaanites, that led the Hebrews to condemn crossdressing and same-sex sexuality. It has only been in the last 2,000 years, a very brief time in human history, when that condemnation has spread around the world due to the Christian religion.
My argument is that what once existed in the past can exist again in the future. I think we ought to be developing religions for the 21st century that drop the anti-sexual and transphobic attitudes of the current Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions, and instead transgender people should be reinstituted as important religious leaders who have great spiritual insight.

What are your hopes for the study?

My hopes for the Academic Transgender Studies website is that it will become a place where people who have information about different cultures around the world can write in and contribute data on those societies. At this point we have only begun to scratch the surface. See particularly my student’s video “A World in Transition” about the hijra in India at the South Asian section of the website, for an inspiring example of what kind of work needs to be done. But I also want to include information on the United States and Europe, so that the website can be truly global. My hope is that anyone, from a scholar to a transgender youth who is just coming to accept their own nature, can go there and realize the long history of transgenderism as a factor in human existence. My hope is that this website can help people to get beyond their cultural limitations and recognize the reality that transgender people are an integral part of humanity and should be accepted and valued for the unique contributions they can make for human progress in the future.  That future can only be built on an accurate knowledge of the past, and of the diversity of cultures around the world. That is what I hope to contribute.

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Category: Transgender Community News


About the Author ()

Ronnie Rho has been writing for Transgender Forum since May of 1999. One of these days, she'll get it right. She's been described as the "world's most famous recluse," but only by people who don't know her very well. She is unmarried, and lives in Cincinnati.

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