The Impact of Culture on Gender Variance

The Bryan/Gruhn Graduate Anthropology Research Award enabled Kevin Laxamana to conduct his research on the ground in Asia

Sasha Roeder Mah - 8 December 2017

When Kevin Laxamana embarked on his first year of university, he only knew that he wanted to be in an arts program, and that whatever he did would involve writing. It was during an introductory anthropology degree class on race and racism that a light bulb went off.

"That changed the course of my undergrad; it was amazing," he says. "I realized I wanted to make change, impact people and give back to the community."

Now, several years later, Laxamana is nearing completion of a master's degree in anthropology at UAlberta. He spent the summer in Singapore and Indonesia conducting a cross-cultural study in gender variance. He's particularly interested in what he calls the "disrupted life cycles of transgender individuals," or, as he describes: "From transitioning, which is a kind of birth; through involvement in sex work, beauty pageants, romance and family life; to death."

Through his work, Laxamana aims to spark a conversation around two main arguments: "One, there is no correct or superior way to organize gender. And two, the transgender experience is very different depending on the region, society, religion and culture."

His work - and other timely and topical graduate research taking place in the Department of Anthropology - is, in large part, thanks to the support of a significant donation from one of the department's co-founders, professor emerita Ruth Gruhn.

Established in 2016, the Bryan/Gruhn Graduate Anthropology Research Award is named in honour of the pioneering work of Gruhn and her late husband, Alan Bryan, both of whom began teaching at UAlberta in 1963. For decades, the two were anchors of the program, conducting fieldwork, teaching generations of budding anthropologists and even donating their entire professional library of related texts to the university in the late 1980s.

Why is it important for Gruhn, who retired from teaching in 1996, to support the work being done today in the department that she began? "Now that we all have global contacts, it is urgent that people have the knowledge and understanding of other societies," she argues.

"It's difficult for students at the master's level to get funding for research in anthropology, which often requires fieldwork that costs a fair bit, especially if you're working overseas."

Andie Palmer, associate chair of graduate anthropology programs, concurs. "[Funding] can be all a student needs to make the difference between doing a library thesis and doing something on the other side of the world."