Alain Soldeville’s photos of the transgender community in Singapore in the 1980s are startlingly intimate. They invite not just curiosity, but also empathy. Who were these beautiful lady boys on the outside looking in? Did they live at home with their families? What did their families think of them? What was/is it like to live such a grey life in a society that only saw black and white?
But the transgender in Asia were not always so marginalized.
In the pre-colonial cultures of Asia, human sexuality was viewed on a spectrum: On the one end was the masculine and on the other the feminine, and a man could fall anywhere between the two extremes.
Masculinity was not understood in the modern sense of martial or sexual prowess. Instead, it referred to an intellectual potency, derived from asceticism. Femininity had little to do with women but was associated with what we moderns would identify as the “masculine” values of violence, power and activism.
The enlightened being transcended the narrow labels of “masculine” or “feminine” to achieve a sort of androgyny (such as the divine incarnation of Ardhanareshwar or “half-man, half woman”). This androgynous superman combined asceticism with violence. One can see how the transgendered might have easily found a place for themselves within this worldview (see, for example, the powerful positions held by eunuchs at royal courts).
Then came the European colonizers, who brought with them their middle class values, born of both the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rise of imperialism was paralleled by an increasing tendency to divide the world into polar opposites such as masculine vs. feminine, evolved vs. primitive and adult vs. child.
From there, it was easy enough to jump to a worldview where the West was the righteous, hyper-masculine conqueror and the Asia the corrupt, effeminate colonized. Speculation and introspection were scorned as feminine values (what good would they have done colonial administrators?), and competition, achievement and productivity were the new masculine ideals.
Within this rigid dichotomy, one could only be male or female. There was no room in-between, and the enemy of the masculine was not the feminine but the feminized masculine, as personified by the writer Oscar Wilde who was jailed for being homosexual.1
This, then, is the society we have inherited today. And while the post-modern West has become more inclusive, in resolutely modernizing Asia we continue to marginalize one of the more authentic segments of ourselves.