Walter Williams’ Academic Transgender Studies Website

| Mar 1, 2010
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There are often complaints that not enough research is done into the transgendered world: No-one’s sure exactly how many people in the world are TG, or what exactly qualifies as transgendered.  But, there are a few people who are digging, exploring and asking the right questions.

Walter Williams
Walter Williams

Among them is Dr. Walter Williams, a professor of Anthropology, History, and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California.  He has not only compiled what could be the most comprehensive look at gender identity from a cultural viewpoint, but has published his findings online, for the world to read.

The Academic Transgender Studies Website features lectures, studies, and reports from around the globe.

Dr. Williams grew up in Atlanta, during the civil rights movement, and was inspired to study and work for human rights, in part, by a principal who yelled at him for writing an editorial for the school paper that criticized fellow students for throwing rocks at an African-American teen who was trying to enroll in the high school.

It was when he was teaching at the University of Cincinnati that he came out as a gay man, helping to found the local GLBT activist movement, and challenging the conservative climate.

His interest in gender identity rose from his studies of Native American culture.  He did fieldwork on the Eastern Cherokee and Pine Ridge Sioux reservations, and among other Native American tribes, including some in Alaska and Yucatan, Mexico.

“Many Native American indigenous cultures have traditionally held intersex, androgynous people, feminine males, and masculine females in high respect. The most common term to define such persons today is to refer to them as Two Spirit people…”, he writes.

(It should be noted that Dr. Williams has applied some of his observations and theories to the world of fiction, co-writing the oft-praised Two Spirits.)

But, the ATSW isn’t just the work of one man; It includes papers from his students, and links to news stories.  And it’s not just about presenting information.  He calls for action from academia.  For instance, at the 1997 Harry Benjamin International Gender Association conference, he refers to something he learned at a similar convention in Chicago, in 1994.

“What emerged as a strong theme of this Placek conference was the need for academics to take a more direct role in activism benefiting sexual minorities.  Academics and other researchers are needed to assist activist organizations, which do not have much research base on which to make their strategic decisions.”

What could be the most fascinating aspect of the ATSW is the look at gender identity in non-Western cultures.  There’s already plenty of material on the Internet about crossdressers in Europe, and non-op transsexuals in North America, but what about the rest of the world?  Relying solely on pop culture, one may think that transgendered Brazilians are either porn stars, or not unlike their American counterparts.  However, one study points out there are transsexuals and travestis: “travestis do not merely crossdress from time to time. Travestis present themselves as women through adopting feminine names, pronouns, clothing, etc and making changes to their bodies through the injection of hormones and industrial silicone… Remember the important distinction: they never, ever identify as women. They are very firm in the fact that they not only differ from transsexuals, but that transsexuals are psychologically ill. Travestis identify as homosexual males who fashion themselves up to be objects of desire for straight men.”

Iran has gained a reputation as having a more liberal attitude toward gender reassignment surgery.  The religious establishment not only condones it, but the state pays for it.  And there too is a certain niche for transgendered citizens who aren’t interested in surgery, as there is what could be called an equivalent to the Western drag show.

Other papers cover China, Japan, and South Asia, including India.

The research shows there are differences in gender identity, and how cultures treat those with non-binary ideas on gender expression, but it also demonstrates that there is a spectrum, and that gender is not binary.

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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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