It’s important to honor and support the stories and artistry of our people of color artisans. But what about our people of color transgender artisans? Unfortunately, even as moves are made to celebrate people of color artisans, people of color transgender artisans are often forgotten. This Pride Month, let’s take the first step necessary in honoring and supporting these artisans—learning about them.
We’ll start by going over some basic information. As defined by GLAAD, a prominent US queer advocacy organization, transgender is an umbrella term that refers to anyone “whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth”. (To contrast, someone who is cisgender is someone whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.) People may identify as “transgender”, and/or as a more specific term under this umbrella, such as “non-binary” or “genderfluid”.
It’s important to note that in some of the cultures we explore below, a person who is transgender may be considered to occupy a distinct “third” or “fourth gender” rather than to occupy strictly “man” or “woman”, like they commonly are considered to do in white, Western societies.
South Asia - Hijra
“Hijra” is used in South Asian countries to describe male-assigned people who “identify [...] as women, [...] ‘not-men’, [...] ‘in-between man and woman’ or ‘neither man nor woman’”. Depending on the region, different terms for and conceptualizations of hijra are used.
In India, hijras are considered to bring good luck for some special occasions. Accordingly, they sometimes find work giving blessings at births or dancing at weddings. Besides the sporadic special occasion job and the unfortunate circumstances of largely being restricted to prostitution and begging, some Indian hijra work as artisans, like Tripthi Shetty. In addition to crafting jewelry, Shetty is also a transgender activist and entrepreneur. In December 2017, she was the first hijra to get an artisan ID card in Kerala, a southern Indian state.
Native American - Two Spirit
Two Spirit is an umbrella term that describes Native Americans who are transgender or are intersex. However, as with the transgender umbrella term and “hijra”, there are many differences between the identities under the Two Spirit umbrella. That being said, some tribes share commonalities in their conceptualizations of Two-Spirit people and the roles they play in their community. For example, Two Spirit people traditionally occupied important positions as healers and shamans in many tribes.
Zapotec (Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico) - Two Spirit/Biza’ah
Specifically, in the Mexican village of Teotitlán de Valle, Zapotecs acknowledge a third gender known as biza’ah. In Lynn Stephen’s ethnography of seven biza’ah people, she found that several were accomplished ceremonial candle-makers, and were even celebrated by some for their artisanal expertise.
Crow - Two Spirit/Boté/Badé
Boté is a Crow term for male-assigned Two Spirits that loosely translates to “not man, not woman”. Dr. A.B. Holder, a physician who worked with the Crow in the 1800s, observed that the Boté usually wore female clothing and hairstyles and performed traditionally female domestic work such as dish-washing and sweeping. They were also considered to be highly skilled in needlework. One of the most respected boté was Osh-Tisch (1800s), who was a trader and just one shining example of a talented, Two Spirit artisan.
Zuni - Two Spirit/Lhamana
The Zuni refer to male-assigned Two Spirits as lhamana, or “[one who] behave[s] like [a] woman”. Lhamana were experts in various crafts such as textiles, basket-weaving, and pottery. We’Wha (1849-1896) was yet another Two Spirit artisan and was well-known for great artistry in some of these crafts (weaving and pottery) in addition to blanket-making.
In 1886, We’Wha traveled to Washington as a cultural ambassador and shared knowledge of Zuni weaving techniques (such as traditional wool-spinning methods) with anthropologists at the Bureau of Ethnology. We’Wha’s contributions were so valued that We’Wha stayed considerably longer and experienced more fame than most another 19th century Native American cultural ambassadors.
Navajo - Two Spirit/Nadle
Nadle (“one who changes”) is a Navajo two-spirit category used to describe intersex and male- or female-assigned Two Spirits. Historically, they held high social and/or political status, like medicine man and artisan Hastiin Klah (1867-1973). As an artisan, Klah challenged traditions by including sacred images in weaving—a move that opened up the market and introduced a piece of Navajo culture to a white audience. Like We’Wha, Klah also met a US president (Franklin D. Roosevelt), further serving as testimony to the important role that transgender people of color play as cultural teachers to other societies.
Issues Faced by the Transgender Community
Despite their many contributions as respected figures, artisans, and cultural ambassadors, many transgender people face harsh societal issues every day. Unfortunately, these issues are often heightened for transgender people of color, like the transgender groups and individuals we detailed above.
To start with, transgender people often face employment discrimination. In the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 55% of Native American “transgender or gender non-conforming” (note: the survey did not use “Two Spirit”) respondents reported they were not hired for a job because of their gender identity (white: 42%). Even when transgender people do find jobs, they can have limited economic prospects and can also be dangerous, as with the hijra often being limited to prostitution and begging.
These employment issues are strongly linked to health issues transgender people face. The low pay of prostitution and begging makes it difficult for hijras to afford safe surgeries that transform their physical bodies into traditionally more “feminine” ones. Unfortunately, they may have no choice but to turn to unsafe, unlicensed procedures that can result in death. Suicide is another heightened transgender health issue that is linked to employment, with 51% of unemployed transgender or gender non-conforming respondents in the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey reporting suicide attempts in comparison to 37% of those employed.
In addition to employment and health issues, there is also the matter of cultural erasure. Historically, Westerners made horrifyingly substantial efforts to destroy Native American culture (through forced assimilation in boarding schools, war, etc.), including their Two Spirit categories and traditions. For these Westerners, only their strictly men/women two-gender system was correct.
Today, efforts to erase transgender people are still employed. In many countries (including Western ones), transgender people face ridicule and hatred. In India, some people use “hijra” as an insult, similar to the way “gay” is twisted into a pejorative term. Both historical and contemporary ridicule and hatred create a culture of fear that silences transgender voices and expression—a silencing that results in losing awareness of transgender people’s existence, their contributions to art, and their impact on our cultural knowledge.
What Can be Done?
Of course, these are only just a few of the issues transgender people face. What can be done to combat them? Learning just exactly what the issues are is a necessary step. Of course, once issues are highlighted, systemic solutions such as anti-discrimination policy in employment and healthcare access (and enforcement of such policy) are needed to prevent these issues on a large scale. That being said, performing individual actions can still make a huge difference in a transgender person’s life.
Just take a look at Dr. Annie Saji, who played a major role in transforming Tripthi Shetty’s (the first transgender artisan we looked at) dire situation. Not only did Dr. Saji physically treat Shetty after she was attacked by two men, Dr. Saji also helped Shetty’s quality of life heal by introducing her to the vibrant world of jewelry-making and crafts. Dr. Saji’s aid and introduction helped Shetty “lead a decent life” and be “what I am today”—a determined entrepreneur who now plans to launch a large crafts business.
At Terra Adorn, we’re thankful for women like Dr. Saji who help out all our fellow sisters, not just our “cisters” ! (And of course, any transgender artisans who do not identify as women as well!)
As you'd expect, we’re also extremely thankful to people of color transgender artisans not only for sharing their art and culture with the world, but, most importantly, for their bravery to exist, speak out, and pursue their craft even in the face of people of color and LGBTQIA+ intolerance and erasure.