What can we learn from different approaches to gender diversity?
Dr. Paul Vasey garners a lot of attention for his work and he’s not the least bit surprised as to why
“Not to make a pun but, the stories are sexy,” says the University of Lethbridge psychology professor and Board of Governors Research Chair who heads the University’s Laboratory of Comparative Sexology.
“You can’t study sex and monkeys and evolution and third-gender individuals in other cultures perceived as being exotic without getting attention,” says Vasey, who was recently recognized by the the Canadian Sex Research Forum (CSRF) for his significant input to the field of sex research with the CSRF Outstanding Contribution Award.
Vasey’s research programs have literally taken him around the world. He first gained notoriety in 2000 for his work studying the female homosexual behaviour of Japanese macaque monkeys. The study, which formed the foundation for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Montréal, challenged decades of received wisdom about how animals should behave sexually.
After short post-doctoral positions at Concordia University and York University, Vasey was initially hired by the U of L to teach a class on sex and gender. Not wanting to talk about men and women because he felt others were already covering that territory, he turned his attention to cultures with more than two genders.
“It took me a long time to wrap my head around the third gender phenomenon, but I became completely fascinated with it,” he says. “I thought it’d be really interesting to have that as an anchor for a class on sex and gender, that idea of gender and sexual diversity.”
Working to write a paper with a colleague on distress and gender atypicality, they sought a field site where they could collect data that would speak to the issue. They settled on Samoa, where the fa’afafine community resided – feminine, biological males who are recognized as a third gender.
“In 2003, we headed off to Samoa to do that work and, to make a long story short, 15 years later I’m still working there,” says Vasey. “I’ve moved on from that initial work and have studied issues related to the evolution of male same-sex sexuality, basically using the fa’afafine as a model for testing hypotheses about how genes related to male same-sex sexual attraction persist in the population over time.”
In 2015, Vasey initiated another field site in Juchitán, Mexico, where the local Zapotec people identify feminine males as a third gender, known locally as muxe.
Over the years, National Geographic, The New York Times, The Nature of Things, Oprah, Discovery Channel and more have worked with Vasey, highlighting his research. He has carved out a reputation as the go-to voice for cross-cultural issues related to sex and gender.
All the while, he brings his experiences back to the U of L, teaching one of the most popular courses on campus and working with an impressive group of award-winning graduate students as they continue to push the research envelope.
“There’s no question that, in Canada, we have probably the most important group of sex researchers working in the world today,” he says. “When I read about the situation in the U.S., things appear to be very politically touchy on campuses, so I feel extremely lucky to be in an environment where I can get my work done.”