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South-East Asian Gender Crossing
In Toraja society ... any warrior who had lost his taste for war and severing heads could abandon the warpath and become a woman and learn the religious arts. No one in Toraja society would condemn or ridicule him for his change in roles.
... boys who received a holy calling through spirit visitations were considered sacred and as basir were expected to live as women in honour of the tribe's bisexual godhead.
Across South East Asia there is an ancient tradition of crossing gender. In the folk tales of many societies we meet beings that change sex as a source of power. The famous witch of Balinese mythology, Rangda, is always impersonated by men in the ritual plays. In the traditional theatre of Java, Ludruk, a key figure is the transvestite, who teaches her audience the proper values of Javanese society. Before the arrival of Christianity and Islam, two religions which are particularly intolerant of gender-crossing, traditional priests and shamans from the Philippines to Indonesia permanently lived as women and were highly regarded by their societies. In this article we shall look at some of these social attitudes and compare them with modern day gender-crossing in Thailand, Java, Vietnam and elsewhere.
Perhaps a good place to start is with the tribal societies of Borneo because here perhaps we see the purest manifestation of the ancient practice of crossing gender. Among the Sea Dyaks gender-crossers were known from the first contact with European mariners, but our best reports are of a Land Dyak tribe known as Ngadju. Schwaner, a nineteenth century Dutch bigot, made this remark about the Ngadju trannies: "In spite of their loathsome calling they escape well-merited contempt". Harleland, another nineteenth century traveller to Borneo, cast a disapproving eye over the Ngadju with this comment about their shamans: "Dressed as women they are made use of at idolatrous feasts and for sodomic abominations and many of them are formally married to other men." What these early travellers to the region failed to appreciate due to their ethnocentric prejudices was the essential role of the tranny priests (basir or "unfertile") in Ngadju society.
The way anthropologist Hans Scharer interprets it, boys who received a holy calling through spirit visitations were considered sacred and as basir were expected to live as women in honour of the tribe's bisexual godhead. At the important new year ceremony of the Sacred Service the basir performed the ritual of the creation when male and female elements combined. In other words, the basir were essential for making sure that the cosmos remained unified. Without them the world would come asunder.
On the northern Indonesian island of Sulawesi (the Celebes) lived a warlike tribe, the Toradja, greatly feared for their headhunting habits. Men strove to become great war chiefs and take many heads. Yet the society had a place for men who abhorred war. These became bajasa (deceivers), or transgender priests who lived as women and were fully-accepted into that role. In a warlike society such as the Toradja any man who chose not to be a warrior had no other option but to become a woman. Incredibly though, any warrior who had lost his taste for war and severing heads could abandon the warpath and become a woman and learn the religious arts. No one in Toradja society would condemn or ridicule him for his change in roles.
Still on Sulawesi but south of the Toradja dwelt the once powerful kingdom of the Bugis. Their priests were a group of trannies called bissu (asexual or bisexual), so highly regarded that they lived in the palace with the king, who wanted always to be close to their source of magical power. The bissu behaved as women in every regard, but due to their intimacy with the court they were restricted to certain behaviours. According to the sixteenth century Portuguese traveller Paiva, any impropriety with the princess, into whose bedchamber the bissu could enter, could end in their drowning, or if found having sex with any of the courtly women they were boiled in oil.
Bugis culture has been totally uprooted with the intrusion of Islam. Yet the bissu still have an important role to play in Sulawesi society today, as healers, as custodians of sacred cult objects and as prophets. Even among the Muslim community of Sulawesi bissu are respected. One bissu and successful businessman, Haji Gandaria, who also became a Muslim, has been to Mecca eight times, including once dressed as a woman. Contrast this to the outrage expressed by the Muslim community of Java who opposed the return of Ruben Vivianto to Indonesia after a sex-reassignment operation.
Gender crossing was also widespread across the Philippines. When the Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century they found Tagalog shamans on Luzon dressed as women praying to a hermaphrodite god. Once again we see the divine influence of bisexual gods on the society's holy men. However, to the south on the island of Negros the transgenders (bayot) of the Cebuans do not seem to have been priests or shamans. Today the bayot are only found in rural communities where they dress ambivalently and dress fully as women only during fiestas. They are not condemned by other Cebuans, nor are they highly regarded. A kind of joking relationship exists between them and their communities in which harmless teasing takes place. In Cebu City and Manila, though, we find the hardened attitude of Catholicism towards transgenders (or binabae as they are called in Tagalog). The binabae respond by adopting the western like attributes of transsexualism, with drag shows, prostitution and a strong desire for a sex-change dominating their lives.
Roberta Perkins established the Gender Centre (then known as Tiresias House) in 1983. She is also a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at The University of New South Wales and has conducted many government-funded research projects into prostitution. A transsexual herself, she has the confidence of the people she interviews; a sociologist, she has counselled transsexuals for a number of years; an activist, she has worked with them in the struggle to overcome the problems they face every day of their lives. Roberta is also the author, and co-author of five books and scores of journal articles on sex work research in Australia and has also taught Native American Studies for many years in Sydney
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