The Corner

Gender Bender

This is a genuinely fascinating piece describing how rural Albanians dealt with shortages of male heads of clans in the days when no family dared be without one. In a nutshell, an oldest daughter could choose to eschew her female life, remain a virgin, wear men’s clothes, carry a gun, avenge family wrongs, and become the feared ruler of the group. Most fascinating, was that the virgin women who decided to become acting men were henceforth treated as men by all of the other men, let alone the women. Having only two available sexual roles, each of which corresponds to a specific social function, the choice required that one permanently forego the opportunity to get married and have sex. Nonetheless, the benefits of being a man, in terms of freedom, options, and status seemed an attractive option for these women.

Such hard-and-fast gender roles are alien to our contemporary experience. Our society has so thoroughly embraced a point by point spectrum of sexual identity that none can escape knowing, for instance, about the West Coast woman who became a transgendered man, but only had her breasts removed, and didn’t tamper with the other parts, who chose to carry a baby (since his/her “wife” couldn’t). And then there was the New York Times Magazine story this spring about women who were becoming men but still wanted to go to traditional women’s colleges, like Barnard, and were upset that other women did not wish to room with them. 

Not surprisingly, some of the few remaining Albanian women who switched think that today’s economically and sexually liberated women have a better deal — and ”it might be fun to be a woman now.” 


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