Currently reading : Layering gender: Two Spirits, Conchita and Machines

Layering gender: Two Spirits, Conchita and Machines

22 May 2014

Author : monique-todd

Quechan Khwerhame, a female Two-Spirit


Conchita Wurst (Tom Neuwirth), Eurovision Song Contest winner 2014.
Conchita Wurst (Tom Neuwirth), Eurovision Song Contest winner 2014.

Apparently the process of sex assignment at birth differs across the world, that is, not everyone looks at a vagina or penis in the same manner. To have a variance in gender not through transformation, but a trip across continents seems like the best kind of superpower. Firmly known as a woman in all aspects of my life (payslips, equal opportunity forms) I’m woo’d by the possibility that some unspecified region may accept me as a man. I’m also woo’d by the possibility that right now, I am both man and woman, only to be categorised singularly depending on where I am, how I feel and who the doctor is. Conchita Wurst, the Eurovision song contest winner, has floated across countries (and newspapers) having gender assigned and reassigned with every hair flick and beard trim but I wonder if the ‘either this or that’ debate reduces potential for alternatives with its very rigid criteria and language.


Recently, whilst reading ‘Men, Homosexuality and the Gods’ (the best text on gender i’ve read this year) I came across the term Two Spirit. These idols of indigenous North American culture were born intersex or had the appearance and an affinity to the opposite sex. Two Spirits weren’t assigned as such based on sexual orientation either but on an ambiguous combination of feminine and masculine characteristics. In short, they were both man and woman simultaneously, and serenely. Healer, spiritual leader and warrior were a few of the roles that accompanied their gender malleability (which was mostly thought of as a blessing) often placing them on a pedestal for appreciation and wonder.

A Two-Spirit couple, Chief Shonga-Sa-Pa (translates as ‘Black Dog’) and Chief Paw-Ne-No-Pa-Zhe (translates as ‘Not afraid of the Pawnees’), 1874

Unfortunately, the phenomenon of Two Spirits has largely dissolved, due to governments, religions and settlers deeming it immoral and unnatural. And though the appreciation for them re-emerged in recent years, their cultural stature in indigenous populations globally (since many other countries embraced their own version of a ‘third gendered peoples’) is consigned to history.

It might be a slightly disjointed comparison, but Conchita’s gender fluidity harkens back to these two spirited marvels. Her simultaneous embodiment of a Bratz doll, a bearded lady, a husky voice and a Tom Neuwirth (her ‘real’ self when the drag is removed) nurtures hope for multiple ways of being, and I think it’s good.

A male Two-Spirit from the Zuni tribe, date unknown. The Zuni Tribe are a federally recognised Native American Tribe mostly based in New Mexico

This isn’t to suggest that we must over-romanticise ancient cultures that (occasionally) embraced gender flexibility both in practice and in language. It’s comforting to know that machines are too transcending the dictates of genitals. ‘Machine to be Another’ has emerged as a flag bearer, a virtual reality application that allows you to experience the opposite gender. As the video here reveals, you can see through the eyes of another sex, you can see what isn’t yours, you can feel what you can’t touch, all through a headset.

Still, the title of this technology – ‘Machine to Be Another’ – says more than the tech itself. Reading like an unfinished phrase, we might question …’well, another what?’ But perhaps that’s it; ‘Another’ means more of the same. The last word indicates a kinship with rather than difference from the experience it proposes; ‘Another’ rather than ‘an other’ – the idea of aligning with what isn’t entirely different, only biologically separate. As such, a gender limbo seemingly manifests, where putting on a headset (or wearing a beard with fake eye lashes) means you embody neither gender by being both.

We’Wha, a Zuni native American from New Mexico, a man who chose to live as a woman, born in 1849

Of course, the architecture of everyday life doesn’t allow much room for those two spirited at heart. The apprehension that might occur, be it minor, before cutting/growing your hair (it took me 2 years to chop off what was, to me, stringy leather) or shaving/not shaving (I’m pro-fur) highlights the stiffness of gender and sex categories. Even bathrooms, sites for the most basic human function, are coded with the strict Victorian ideals of what is man or woman (Sheila Cavanaugh offers an awesome study of toilet politics in her book ‘Queering Bathrooms’)


Yet what machines, Two Spirits and Conchita embrace, or propose, is gender as unisex, gender as apparel that can be interchanged and combined…Nike air max one day and Adidas originals the next…with brand loyalty sidelined, if not temporarily suspended. It can be picked and mixed, embraced wholly, singularly or avoided altogether for lack of interest.

Its there if you want to take it, because it’s yours too.

A Tolowa Shaman, a Two-Spirit man circa 1910, wearing a basket hat traditionally worn by women. The Tolowa were an Indigenous American-Indian group numbering 2400 in the early 19th century.

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