Masculinities and femininities in South East Asia

Findings from a case study of gender and sexuality confusions and contradictions were presented by DLP research fellow Gillian Fletcher as part of a seminar series at Monash Asia Institute, Melbourne, on 11 March.

The inaugural roundtable discussion of the series examined trans-Asian approaches to sex and sexualities through insights from speakers from a range of disciplines.  Globalisation has increased the visibility of trans-border gender and LGBT issues in Asia such as human trafficking, vulnerability to armed conflicts and disasters, violence against women and LGBTs, gender/sexuality workplace inequalities and same-sex marriage.

Gillian’s presentation, “Reconsidering masculinities and femininities in the South East Asian context”, discussed findings from her pilot research project that explored understandings of gender, sexuality, and the intersections between the two in two non-governmental organisations in a South East Asian country. The focus of the roundtable was to ask how ideas of masculinities and femininities distinct to the Southeast Asian context feed into gender inequalities, particularly in political and economic participation.

Gillian’s data drew on participatory workshops and interviews with staff members of two NGOs, one focusing on sexual health that saw gender as a defining framework, and the other working to address issues of sexuality and poverty among lesbians and trans men. They revealed the perceived ‘naturalness’ of categorical thinking about ‘man’ and ‘woman’, rather than masculinities and femininities, and the way this constrains both the lives people live and the programs developed by NGOs and aid agencies.

International development tends to treat gender and sexuality as separate silos; gender programming is about women and girls, and has few nuances – sex workers and trans women are rarely part of the ‘category’.  They generally end up in the health silo, taking part in HIV prevention programmes, often with limited choice. This makes such work technological (Wilson hyperlink here) and reduces the social and relational complexity of human existence to categories.

This categorical thinking, argued Gillian, can mean that inequalities – particularly intersectional inequalities – are lost sight of. For instance, some participants were able to talk of ‘gender-based violence’ in lesbian relationships where each partner was perceived as having a masculine or feminine role, but found the idea of gender-based violence in a same-sex male relationship difficult to grasp. There was also a general assumption that trans women were more privileged because their ‘born’ gender was male.

Gender and sexuality are historical and social processes that create or recreate social inequality or injustice. Rather than trying to differentiate them, Gillian concluded that it is often more helpful to ask how they work together to further marginalise disadvantaged people in developing countries.

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