A Bissu from the Bugis people of South Sulawesi performing a wedding ritual; an example of a culture specific identity
A Bissu from the Bugis people of South Sulawesi performing a wedding ritual; an example of a culture specific identity

On #TransDayOfVisibility we wanted to do our extra best to give the spotlight to the least visible members of the transgender and gender diverse communities around the world. Thank you to Michael for reaching out and writing this piece on culture specific identities they titled “What an Indigenous person would like the queer community to know”:

These are without a doubt scary times for the queer community. We live in a time of rising hatred and violence towards the queer community because of fascist politicians who openly try to erase the existence of non-cis and non-straight identities and who align themselves with TERFs, the new face of white feminism. Because of this rising hatred we also live in a time where solidarity and unity are very important to overcome this hatred and the impact it has on the community. This is also the time that many people with culture specific gender identities and sexualities are very lonely because, despite all the efforts the queer community undertakes, we are invisible in the queer community, even excluded from it. As a person with a culture specific identity I want to explain what this exclusion looks like, why it is harmful and how you can start making a difference. To explain everything in detail would be too much information at once so I will address the different aspects in detail in future publications.

The intersection between genderism and racism. 

The first thing many people with culture specific identities want you to understand is that for us racism is always intertwined with genderism, to us they are not separable. I will explain it shortly from my people’s perspective. I can’t name my people in this article because my people’s laws forbid us to center our people in the media. The editors do know what my Indigenous culture is.

A meme where colonial people are approaching a group of indigenous people and saying "we'll decide what perspectives on gender and sexualities are legitimate and which are not! We are the deciders of everything!" As a means of making fun of western people deciding culture specific identities aren't legitimate
A meme where colonial people are approaching a group of indigenous people and saying “we’ll decide what perspectives on gender and sexualities are legitimate and which are not! We are the deciders of everything!”

Since 1492 and throughout the centuries following Columbus’ invasions, gender has been used as a tool for colonialism and cultural genocide across the globe. In my ancestral culture, people with my identity are considered sacred because we have the powers and wisdom of a woman and of a man, so we are seen as a whole and balanced spirit. We are also the only ones who can perform important ceremonies that are crucial for our culture. Because of that we were very respected and revered in our communities. The protestant Church understood that, to be able to assimilate our people to European and Christian standards, it was crucial to criminalize people like me because without us it would be impossible to live like our ancestors have done for many generations. I hope this short explanation makes clear to you how genderism and racism were both used for colonialism.

Because my identity is unique to my culture, violence against my Indigenous identity is always violence against my gender identity and violence against my gender identity is always violence against my Indigenous identity. Therefore it is very important for me that racism is included in the narratives about gender. Sadly this rarely happens, and when it does we are only included to validate western identities because of our historical existence. Because of this, many people with culture specific identities but also many other Indigenous, Black, brown and other non-white people often don’t feel represented or welcomed in the queer community.

There are more perspectives on why genderism and racism are intertwined, you can read about them here. 

Inclusive or exclusive language?

A Bissu from the Bugis people of South Sulawesi performing a wedding ritual; an example of a culture specific identity
A Bissu from the Bugis people of South Sulawesi performing a wedding ritual; an example of a culture specific identity

 A Bissu from the Bugis people of South Sulawesi performing a wedding ritual 

Another reason why people with culture specific gender identities are invisible and are being erased in the queer community is because of the language that is used in topics about gender. The terminology used by queer activists is western centered because many people with culture specific identities don’t identify as transgender or non-binary because our identities are or were acknowledged in our cultures. My ancestral culture, for instance, acknowledges 5 gender identities so we don’t exist in a binary and since we are acknowledged as our own specific identity we are not transgender. This also means that the definition for ‘cisgender’ that many people use is also exclusionary because many people that aren’t considered cis weren’t assigned a gender but chose their gender identity or come from cultures where they don’t have gender identities.

I do need to emphasize that this doesn’t mean that none of the people with culture specific identities identify as trans or non-binary. I share with you my culture’s perspective so you understand how the umbrella terms ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’ are often exclusionary for people like me and are in reality misgendering us.

There are also many differences in western and culture specific identities. For example: in my ancestral and many other cultures gender and sexuality aren’t separable. That means that who, for instance, is considered a gay cis man in western cultures is considered a gender identity or part of what makes a gender identity in our cultures, when we acknowledge “het” we put some people with culture specific identities in the western sexuality box  when from our culture’s perspective they belong in the western “gender” box and thus make them invisible. This is kind of hard to explain because we don’t know the concept of ‘gender’ and western language is just too restricting to explain the nuances that many Indigenous languages do have the words for. But here you can find an excellent essay that describes this problem.

There are more ways in which many culture specific identities are different from western identities but I will write another piece about this because of earlier mentioned reasons.

Why it matters that we are being included in the narratives about gender and how you can make a difference. 

Because genderism is historically a tool for white dominance, colonialism and genocide, genderism comes with white privilege and western privilege. I understand that it’s very difficult to see how transgender people are privileged and that this might cause feelings of resistance. Still, queer people need to understand that despite Indigenous populations are often the smallest demographic group of a country, Indigenous women are, depending on where, around ten times more likely than average to be murdered, in some countries 6 times in other countries up to 13 times, and many of the trans women who get murdered are Indigenous (I use the term ‘trans women’ here because that’s how they are registered in most statistics, not because that’s how they all identify.)

What white queer people also need to understand is that there is a different power dynamics with gender and race. Gender identity and sexuality isn’t passed on throughout generations and are personal while “race” is forced onto people and passed on throughout generations. What I am trying to make clear is that white queer people’s whiteness is always linked to the oppression of Indigenous- , Black -, brown – and other non-white people. It also means that when the queer community excludes us from the narratives about gender/sexuality that they enforce western standards onto us. This is unintentionally a repetition of what white settlers have done to Indigenous people worldwide and thus racist.

Another reason why it matters I already mentioned; misgendering. I assume that I don’t have to explain why misgendering is harmful so I will skip that part and jump to another very important reason to include us. As you might have noticed I used words like “we were” when I mentioned my identity in relation to my ancestral culture, that’s deliberate. Colonialism was so effective in assimilating Indigenous peoples that nowadays many Indigenous societies also reproduce genderism. Many Indigenous cultures have been damaged so much that their ancestral knowledge and ways are erased or endangered. Many Indigenous people lost their connection with their ancestors because of aggressive methods like the Indian residential schools or because of the paper genocide that erased their Indigeneity with racist criteria like blood quotum, so many Indigenous people with mixed ancestry have been told they aren’t Indigenous despite that their own culture uses different criteria to determine who is one of theirs.

The positive news is that many young Indigenous people are actively embracing and restoring their Indigenous identities, that means that many Indigenous people are also reclaiming their culture’s views on gender and sexuality. I can tell you personally that this is a very emotional and traumatic process because, when you are reclaiming your Indigenous gender identity or sexuality, you also get confronted with how destructive colonialism is, because the knowledge is so hard to find. This means that being excluded from the communities that should support you is extra stressful because your support is very needed. It also makes it harder for us to find other people with culture specific identities and we really need them to share our experiences and traumas. And when you exclude us, our identities are also less quickly acknowledged in mainstream media and spaces.

You can help us by making your community also safe for people with culture specific identities. I call it your community because it really isn’t our community as for instance this research shows. At least it is not yet also our community.

Here are some actions you can take to start making queer spaces Indigenous inclusive

  • Always include us when you mention transgender and non-binary. You can use the umbrella term ‘(people with) culture specific (gender) identities (and sexualities)’ for example.
  • Nuance your language in other situations like defining ‘cisgender’ or ‘transphobia’. Keep in mind that also people with culture specific identities transition. Alternatives for ‘transphobia’ are ‘cis-sexism’ or ‘genderism’ but I know that you are creative enough to think of alternatives that include us.
  • Include the racism/genderism intersection in topics or conversations about gender/sexuality. Be careful that you don’t whitesplain our identities though.
  • Call out racism in your community.
  • Don’t correct people with culture specific identities when they use different terminology. I witnessed a very aggressive racist situation when one of my family members said on Twitter that they stopped using ‘cis-het’ but would use cis from that moment on, because “cis-het” erases Indigenous identities, because in our culture ‘cis’ is automatically ‘het’. Don’t lecture about culture specific identities but give people with these identities your stage to lecture about their identity. Like i mentioned before, western languages are too restricting and you are whitesplaining when you do the talking for us, even when you’re not white because you do explain it with white narratives. Also remember that the many academic sources you find online are often racists and incorrect because they barbarize and stereotype us and are written through a white lens.
  • Don’t use culture specific identities to legitimize your identity. There is no problem in referring to us to show how gender variance is as old as humanity but don’t use it to compare us with your identity. I will write about these differences in more detail in the future.
  • When you’re white, acknowledge your privileges and the historical connection between your whiteness and our oppression/the genocide of our peoples.

If you start with the points above that would already make a huge difference and maybe in the future I can write about other things on Transgender Day of Visibility. Thank you for taking your time to read this and for making your community safer for people like me.