Dec 14, 2014 09:25 AM

Gender on the Edge: Transgender, Gay and Other Pacific Islanders

Gender on the Edge is a compilation of 15 academic essays with a focus on "non-heteronormative" behaviors, self-references and attitudes, that – by virtue of being outside of "normative" practices – are marginalized, often discriminated against, yet at the same time also actively engaged in by experimental individuals and groupings often subversive of "normal" social order.

This book moreover concentrates on Pacific Island cultures, themselves "on the edge" of the world. Ironically however, non-heteronormative men and women in such Pacific cultures are usually more accepted by these cultures, and are more visible, than in other non-Pacific communities, despite the strong Christian dogmatism prevalent in many of the islands covered here.

In their long and cogent introduction, the editors stress that terminology, labels, definitions are blurred here and that there are indeed many dynamics at play: social, historical, familial, local and global, religious, legal, economic, rural and urban.

The authors of the contributions to this collection distance themselves from the straitjacket of identity definitions, realizing fully the futility of attempting to define identities of any kind.

What follows is a rather mixed assemblage of contributions ranging from discussions of "Hollywood" and the emergence of a Fa'afafine Social Movement in Samoa 1960-1980 – which discusses not the U.S. state of California, but downtown Apia and the harbinger role of a homosexual group settling themselves further into the collective social psyche of Samoa by virtue of congregating and making home in a distinct physical space – through to "Television Transgender: Hybridizing the Mainstream in Pasifika New Zealand," in which Sarina Pearson draws distinct parallels and cross-connections between two sets of popular New Zealand performers, where one set is made up of straight Samoan men who dress as women (The Laughing Samoans) and the other the transgender Topp Twins, who are well-known in New Zealand for their sly and not so sly digs at mainstream culture there.

The book, then, is something of a pot pourri of rather specialized thematic approaches. A wide swathe of Pacific cultures is covered: Samoa is represented in 4 chapters, Fiji in 3, Tonga in 2, Tahiti, the Society Islands, Hawai'i, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand in one each. I would have like to have cited a chapter or two on the bading or bakla culture in Philippines, where non-heteronormative individuals are in fact "par for the course;" very visible and valuable members of society. The Philippines is, of course, literally on the edge of the Pacific.

There is however one strong thread rippling through the chapters I read: power and domination is implemented in a surprising manner of ways, and not "merely" via top-down governmental decrees and religious edicts, but also by transgender groups' own quiet and effective responses and contributions.

Gender on the Edge will have a selective readership, not so much due to its contents and themes, but more because it focuses on a set of communities on the global edge of the world's diurnal perceptions. It is also rather a heavy academic tread in places; the notes and references per chapter can take up several pages. It may be best, therefore, to dip into the book selectively and sporadically: the book is not entertainment, not light reading, but a very strong call for so-called heteronormative people like myself to reflect further on the significant and fluctuating roles that liminal people play, wherever they may reside, however society decides to designate them.

In this tome, self-knowledge as a rite of passage for Pacific transgender peoples becomes also a form of empowerment, a form of Foucauldian "knowledge is power" for the very cliques all too often suppressed and repressed in other cultures. The so-called edge in these island communities here manifests itself as very much a vibrant and dynamic part of their respective centers.

Vaughan Rapatahana is a Maori writer and poet who lives and works in Hong Kong.

Reprinted with permission from The Asian Review of Books

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