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Soft Minded Men

South-East Asian Gender Crossing

by Roberta Perkins
Article appeared in Polare magazine: November 1994 Last Update: October 2013 Last Reviewed: February 2014

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

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

The Drag Queen Scene: Transsexuals in Kings Cross
Author: Roberta Perkins Publisher: Allen & Unwin (1983)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0868610474

Through a unique series of frank interviews, The Drag Queen Scene deals with the experiences of male-to-female transsexuals who live and work in Sydney's Kings Cross area. It focuses on twelve people — showgirls, strippers, bar girls and prostitutes. Each of the twelve speaks for herself, providing first-hand insights into life and work in her world — a world a few people understand. Their stories uncover the raw reality behind the shallow popular view of the "Drag Queen". These revealing every-day accounts demonstrate how much accepted attitudes are based on ignorance, prejudice and callousness. By offering the reader a rare opportunity to view a closed subculture as its participants see it, The Drag Queen Scene is an attempt to break down the resistance facing transsexuals, to influence changes in social attitudes and the law. In this book, twelve voices, hitherto silent, challenge the reader to question the stigmatising and ostracising transsexuals endure.

Being a Prostitute: Prostitute Women and Prostitute Men (with Garry Bennett)
Author: Roberta Perkins and Garry Bennett Publisher: Allen & Unwin (1986)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0868616780

Constant media coverage and popular concern about prostitution, recent changes to legal and administrative regulations governing prostitution in its various forms in its several States, and the emergence of organised groups to represent the views and interests of prostitutes in public discussions and to influence policy formation ensure that the subject retains a high level of visibility and social significance. At the same time there have been remarkably few empirical studies of prostitution in Australia and our knowledge is largely confined to sensationalised reports of criminal cases and media exposés. So a book giving detailed accounts of the perceptions and experiences of a variety of prostitutes, male and female, homosexual and heterosexual, of different ages and background, and covering the diversity of forms of occupational types and organisational settings of prostitution at the present time would seem to be timely.

Working Girls: Prostitutes, Their Life and Social Control
Author: Roberta Perkins
Publisher: Australian Institute of Criminology (1991)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0642158765

From Abe Books: External Link This book has three objectives: 1. To demonstrate empirically that prostitutes are basically ordinary women with only their occupation distinguishing them from others; 2. To bring to the general public a balanced, well-informed view of prostitution, shed of its tawdry reputation; 3. To convince legislators to adopt a more practical method of dealing with prostitution.

Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia
Author: Roberta Perkins
Publisher: University of New South Wales Press (1994)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0868401744

From Amazon Books: External Link Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia is one of the most comprehensive books on the sex industry. This book's main focus is on prostitution and it is broken down on many levels: female, male, transsexual, health care, oral histories, and foreign workers (e.g.. Thai). It is very easy to read and one leaves this book with an excellent history lesson as well as viewpoints from both men and women which balances this book.

Call Girls: Private Sex Workers in Australia
Author: Roberta Perkins and Frances Lovejoy
Publisher: U.W.A. Publishing (2007)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 1920694913

From Booktopia: External Link Call Girls casts a penetrating, red light gaze upon the upper echelons of the worlds oldest profession private sex workers who use the telephone as a means to solicit clients. Containing frank accounts from women working in the Australian sex industry. Call Girls puts a human face on this hitherto shadowy, clandestine world as it documents how many women became sex workers; run their businesses; maintain their health; and how the call girls work affects their relationships with husbands, lovers and families. Far-removed from the moralising, victim stereotypes and Pretty Woman-inspired fantasies which pervade popular culture, Call Girls places the world of the sex worker within social, political and legal contexts which will surprise and change the preconceived notions of many readers.

Polare Magazine is published quarterly in Australia by The Gender Centre Inc. which is funded by the Department of Family & Community Services under the S.A.A.P. program and supported by the N.S.W. Health Department through the AIDS and Infectious Diseases Branch. Polare provides a forum for discussion and debate on gender issues. Unsolicited contributions are welcome, the editor reserves the right to edit such contributions without notification. Any submission which appears in Polare may be published on our internet site. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Editor, The Gender Centre Inc., the Department of Family & Community Services or the N.S.W. Department of Health.

The Gender Centre is committed to developing and providing services and activities, which enhance the ability of people with gender issues to make informed choices. We offer a wide range of services to people with gender issues, their partners, family members and friends in New South Wales. We are an accommodation service and also act as an education, support, training and referral resource centre to other organisations and service providers. The Gender Centre is committed to educating the public and service providers about the needs of people with gender issues. We specifically aim to provide a high quality service, which acknowledges human rights and ensures respect and confidentiality.

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