By Patty A. Gray
For over a century, anthropologists have been writing about non-binary gender, often in celebratory terms. They haven’t limited themselves to America – their scope has been global and comparative. For any anthropologist, listening to current media discussions of gender diversity must feel like déjà vu.
I can’t decide whether this is a great success of anthropology, or a great failing.
I’m more inclined to see failure. It’s not as though these anthropological writings sparked public conversation in their time about gender and inclusion. The anthropologists were primarily conversing with one another, preaching to the choir, publishing in academic journals with tiny audiences of specialists. They can take little credit – if any – for our current public conversation about diversity.
I should change the pronoun “they” to “we,” because I was one of those anthropologists. How could I know that by the time I decided, in 1990, to jump on the bandwagon of academia, it was already rendering itself irrelevant? I thought I was joining a cadre of influential writers. But as Soraya Roberts, a cultural columnist at Longreads, writes, “by the ’80s, the communal philosophical and political conversations of the post-war era slunk back to the confines of academia, which became increasingly professionalized, specialized, and insular, producing experts with less general and public-facing knowledge.” Yup – that was my brilliant anthropological career.
In the course of my current freelancing career, I sometimes spend a day working in the library at UC Davis. On the very day that I got the idea to write this essay – after hearing an NPR story about non-binary gender in the workplace – I happened to pick up an obscure anthropology journal sitting on a library cart to be re-shelved. This was a purely nostalgic gesture on my part, since I spent much of my previous career in libraries like this one, pouring over similarly obscure anthropology journals. It was the latest issue of this journal, and nearly a quarter of its pages were devoted to a special section titled, “Why Don’t We Write More?” This is a question I asked myself continually throughout my academic career, yet seeing it rendered in this slightly whiney tone in a 2019 anthropology journal made me feel like a lucky liberated hamster, no longer condemned to spin a meaningless wheel.
But it’s not the failings of academic writers (myself included) that I want to talk about here – it’s gender, and why the current conversations about it feel like déjà vu to anthropologists. Instead of “non-binary gender,” we anthropologists (along with others) used the term “gender continuum” to talk about the same thing. I loved this stuff, and I heartily embraced the term. Surveying examples all over the world during my graduate studies in the 1990s, I clearly saw that any human had the capacity to manifest gender anywhere along a continuum from hyper-male to hyper-female, and the factors that squeezed an individual into a female slot or a male slot near the ends of the continuum were arbitrary: historical, social, cultural, familial. It seemed self-evident to me. It made me find all gender manifestations completely normal and delightful.
I once wrote a paper on this topic for a graduate seminar on gender. It was de rigueur for anthropology students to orient such papers around specific cultural examples; mine was focused on Chukchi people of the Russian Far North, because I was planning to write my dissertation about them. One of my sources was a book by the Russian anthropologist Vladimir Bogoraz, who wrote about Chukchi people living in the tundra where he was exiled as a Russian revolutionary at the end of the 19th century. I was fascinated by one section in which he reported that Chukchi people recognized seven genders – way back in the 1890s, way over there in Siberia. But I argued with Bogoraz: I didn’t believe the Chukchi had seven discrete genders. It was obvious to me they simply recognized that gender manifests along a continuum, and Bogoraz merely captured seven arbitrary snapshots.
My professor in the course proclaimed this insight to be “elegant” (hey, it was 1991) and suggested I should try to get the paper published in the journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. But I didn’t try to publish it. Even now I cannot account for this. I was intimidated by journal publishing, to be sure – I remained so to the end of my anthropological career. But I think some part of me hated the idea of being ghettoized in a journal for and about (and mostly by) women. I had been working against gender type since my early childhood tomboy days. I wanted to be published in a gender-neutral journal. I’m guessing that my intimidation stemmed partly from knowing that no journals were gender neutral at that time – if they weren’t marked for women’s studies, then they were male spaces.
Or perhaps I simply did not want to relegate my “elegant insight” to the obscurity of any academic journal at all. I probably should have dropped out of grad school right then and pursued a career in journalism instead. I should have joined GLAAD or Lambda Legal. I could have been a brilliant straight ally.
But I didn’t. I got my PhD and I went on to teach in universities. I was called upon to teach gender, which I resisted, even knowing that I was highly qualified on the subject. I resisted because I knew the task was relegated to me on the basis of sex, and because I knew there was an implicit assumption that teaching “gender” really meant I should teach about women. I accepted the task just so that I could teach against the expectation – I assigned a few readings on men and masculinity, lots on non-binary gender, and nothing on women, per se.
It was easy to assign anthropological literature on non-binary gender, because there is so much of it (even if some of it remains stuck within a gender binary paradigm) – like Regina Smith Oboler’s 1980 article “Is the Female Husband a Man? Woman/Woman Marriage Among the Nandi of Kenya” (my first introduction to same-sex marriage); or Walter Williams’ 1986 book The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture (my first glimpse of gender diversity in society); or Serena Nanda’s 1990 book Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India (my first exposure to gender reassignment surgery). But what the hell could college students do with this kind of imparted knowledge? I should have been lobbying Congress with it.
I’m glad that there are plenty of authoritative voices on this subject being heard now in the public sphere. I feel regret thinking that the anthropology of my generation might have done more to help open up the conversation much sooner. If nothing else, I wish for nonbinary folk of today to discover historical sources like these and be reassured that, as much as they are being forced into the role of pioneers, none of this is new, and they are in good company.
Nanda, Serena. 1990. Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India. Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Noguchi, Yuki. 2019. “He, She, They: Workplaces Adjust As Gender Identity Norms Change.” National Public Radio, Morning Edition, October 16, 2019 (online: https://www.npr.org/2019/10/16/770298129/he-she-they-workplaces-adjust-as-gender-identity-norms-change)
Obeler, Regina Smith. 1980. “Is the Female Husband a Man? Woman/Woman Marriage Among the Nandi of Kenya.” Ethnology 19(1):69-88.
Roberts, Soraya. 2019. “The Artificial Intelligence of the Public Intellectual.” Longreads, May 2019 (online: https://longreads.com/2019/05/31/the-artificial-intelligence-of-the-public-intellectual/)
Williams, Walter. 1986. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.