Beauty and power : identity, cultural transformation and transgendering in the Southern Philippines
This thesis addresses general questions about the relationship between the making of gender, the politics of national and ethnic identities, local - global articulations and the process of cultural transformation amongst Muslim Tausug and Sama communities in Sulu, the Southern Philippines. Specifically, I am concerned with the meaning, and experience, of the bantut, transvestite / transgender, homosexual men in Sulu. There is a long tradition of transvestism and transgendering in island Southeast Asia, where transvestites were considered to be sacred personages, ritual healers and/or, as in Sulu, accomplished singers and dancers who performed at various celebrations and rites of passage: embodiments of, and mediatory figures for, ancestral unity and potency. More recently, however, transvestites have emerged as the creative producers of an image of beauty defined in terms of an imagined global American otherness. This thesis is an attempt to understand and explain this phenomenon. In particular, I explore the relation between the collective endowment of the bantut as the purveyors of beauty, and their symbolic valorisation as impotent men and unreproductive/defiling women: those who are seen to have been overexposed to and transformed by a potent otherness. What is ultimately at stake, I argue, (and what is being asserted through the symbolic circumscription of the bantut) is local persons' autonomy over the process and consequences of cultural and political transformation in the face of the exclusionary violence of state enforced assimilation. However, the thesis is also concerned with the expressed transgenderal projects of the bantut themselves, a project which is variously about status and gender transformation, the elation and pleasure they experience in the production and performance of beauty, and the attempt to overcome the prejudice of the local populace, whilst establishing relationships that are based on mutuality and shared respect. What this thesis demonstrates is that there is nothing ambiguous about ambiguity, sexual or otherwise. Rather, it is the specific product or effect of different historical relations of power and resistance through which various cultural subjects are created and re-create themselves.