Why are transgenders so evident in Asia?

A transgirl performing a traditional Sinulog dance in the Philippines. Pic: Rod Fleming

Almost all credible authorities, according to GIRES in the UK, now agree that the baseline minimum for gender non-conformity as ‘at least 1%’ and this has been borne out, again according to GIRES, by recent studies in New Zealand, The Netherlands and Belgium.

Now ‘gender non-conformity’ is a broad church and by no means all of these would identify as transgender. However, research carried out by Professor Lynn Conway and also by the Williams Institute for Law, part of the UCLA, suggests about half of these are, for a prevalence of around 1:200. This is supported by census results from Malaysia, which put the incidence there — a country that is officially very hostile towards transgender — at 1:170 of male-born individuals.

This should tell us two things: transgender is innate and appears in all populations at roughly the same rate; and that as such it is a part of normal human variation.

Of these transgender populations, the vast majority are what is called by science ‘Blanchard HSTS’, ‘Early Onset Androphile’ or ‘transkids.’ These are almost always, uniquely, attracted to men. They appear as transgender very young and frequently begin dressing as girls, wearing their hair long and, in recent decades, taking feminising hormones, in their early teens. They should not be confused with another, much less frequent type of MtF transgender, known as ‘autogynephiles’. These latter are fetishistic transvestite men, for whom dressing and pretending to be a woman is a sexual thrill: think Bruce ‘Caitlyn’ Jenner. (We will deal with these elsewhere; they are almost entirely restricted to white, middle-class Western men and globally are a tiny population.)

But why are MtF transgenders so obvious, and so open, outside the West?

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Bonobos: our pansexual cousins

Bonobos chilling to the beat — as well as being pansexual, bonobos like music. How cool is that?

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at how societies might have been structured before the development of agriculture.  Clearly, we can’t directly study the human groups that existed outside Africa between 50,000 and 5,000 years ago, because they no longer exist. So I  also looked at relatives of humans, particularly our closest, bonobos, Pan paniscus.

Our ancestors left very little evidence. Although they did use stone and bone, a great deal of their artefacts were made of wood or leather and were perishable. The few that we do have are somewhat mysterious.

To try to shed light on this, we reviewed a wide range of anthropological literature. We especially concentrated on extant traditional societies, of which there are a surprising number, despite the attempts by the patriarchy, especially the Christian and Muslim ones, to eradicate them. (As a matter of fact, Islam has been less damaging to many traditional societies than Christianity, as we see from the number of traditional groups still living, and respected, in Indonesia.)

We reviewed the mythology that was recorded soon after the invention of writing, in Sumer in the 5th Millennium BCE. We then compared this to modern mythologies which form part of traditional cultures. We also looked at similar species, and that’s where bonobos came in.

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