Skip to content

Indigenous Americans and transsexuals

2009 February 6
by Hannah Mueller

Sorry to make the conversation even more gigantic, but I have to talk to about colonialism now and say how excited (i.e. disgusted) I was to realize how many similarities there are between how transsexuals were/are treated by the medical community and how indigenous people were/are treated by eurocentrists. In Sandy Stone’s article, there is a passage on the bottom of pg 327 that describes how a male-to-female transsexual feels upon waking up after the operation (in the 1950s). Stone says it has an “oriental quality.” All these descriptions of the transsexual’s emotions coincide with what the Spanish conquistadores/Catholic church/crown (my Spanish class is inspiring me here) would have wanted/expected of the “indians” they encountered in America:

  • The patient no longer had responsibility for herself, for her fate. (No longer could govern themselves)
  • no will of her own. (Made slaves)
  • no past. (No history; burned libraries)
  • ready to obey, happy to submit. (“)
  • the doctor is her creator. (Europeans are the inventors of culture; will charitably “create” civilized savages)
  • she has been “salvaged” (“Saved” by Christianity and European culture)

Stone describes the similarities later. In her words both the medical literature about transsexuals, and colonial discourse include:

  • the initial fascination with the exotic
  • denial of subjectivity
  • lack of access to the dominant discourse
  • rehabilitation

Then she ties it to technology (!!) by saying, “The clinic is a technology of inscription” that uses the body as a “screen” on which to project its current moral beliefs.

This is a wood carving from 1630 that I’ve studied in 2 Spanish classes here, because it’s such a blatant picture of how the Europeans thought about the “new world” at the time. There are two bodies in the foreground: one is naked, female, and reclining. The other is upright, male, and clothed. It’s not hard to see how colonialsim is another “technology of inscription” that used bodies to set up categories/barriers between civilized Europe and savage America [note the cannibals BBQing a human leg in the background], employing an already well-formed Western category (binary gender) in the process.

I bring all this up because for me, thinking about the covering up of native identities is helpful in thinking about how transsexuals were set apart as exotic others. The first mistake of the clinics/Europe was thinking that there existed a “we” and a “them”, when if there were true mutual understanding there would be no need for such categories. The second mistake is equal-but-opposite: the dominant discourse tried to incorporate the indigenous people or transsexuals into itself and make them “normal,” a concept which we’re working to abolish, or at least change. I use the past tense, but of course all this still goes on all the time, if in more sutble ways.

Comments are closed.