Abigail Fenton 27th June 2018
Gender non-conformity is often regarded as a new concept. The anti-trans camp would even have you believe that it’s a passing fad, catalysed by “Tumblr snowflakes” and peddled by social justice warriors that have gone too far.
But, the fact of the matter, is that non-binary genders have existed for as long as civilisation has — hundreds of distinct societies, spanning continents and thousands of years, have not only embraced, but revered, more than two genders.
The term ‘third gender’ is used to describe non-binary people in non-Western societies
In non-Western societies, the term “third gender” is often used to describe non-binary people — the word “third” generally being understood to mean “other”, as many cultures acknowledge upwards of three. To different cultures or individuals, a third gender may represent someone who is agender or genderless, genderfluid (having the ability to swap between genders), both a man and a woman at the same time or neither a man nor a woman.
This year, the Netherlands and multiple US states have passed bills recognising non-binary gender options on all relevant legal documents, including driver’s licenses and birth certificates. Though these developments are new, genderqueer people have been around for most of recorded history. Here are just a few of them.
The Navajo are a Native American people of the Southernwestern US who traditionally recognise four basic genders: women, men, the masculine female and the feminine male. Those who demonstrate characteristics of the “opposite” gender are called nadleeh or nadheeli, meaning “one who is transformed” or “one who changes”, or two spirits — a relatively newer term coined by LGBT+ Native Americans for those who are androgynous or gender fluid.
Non-binary tribe members are accepted, but only as long as they perform heterosexuality
Masculine females traditionally act as men in Navajo culture, opting out of having children to hunt and fight, while feminine males fulfil the role of women and take on the responsibility of child-rearing, cooking and weaving.
The Navajo are unique in that they approve of transness more than gayness. Nadleeh tribe members are accepted, but only insofar as they perform heterosexuality. A masculine female is expected to have sex with women, and a feminine male, with men. It is possible to be with the other genders, but deemed “inappropriate”.
Additionally, two spirits are often regarded as brothers and sisters and it may be seen as incestous for them to have relationships with each other.
The subject of the 2009 documentary Two Spirits, Fred Martinez, was a Native American student of Navajo ancestry and a nadleeh. Not a transgender woman, but both a boy and a girl; one who embodies both male and female spirit — something close to what might be called bigender in modern Western society.
The term meti is an indigenous one for a third gender in Nepal with a long history in the Himalayas. Meti are people of the male sex who assume feminine dress and carriage, and marry men, but do not consider themselves transgender women nor homosexual men by Western standards — they are a male/female-hybrid third gender who are romantically and sexually interested in men.
For the last 30 years, most metis have made their living as sex workers. Recently, they have been the targets of hate-violence by Napalese police and gangs calling themselves “maoists”.
Like metis, India’s hijra are not men or women, but a seperate third gender. Hijras have a long recorded history in the Indian subcontinent that stretches back over 4,000 years — from the Mughal Empire, onwards. Per Hindu mythology, they are said to represent the half-man/half-woman image of the god Shiva and his consort Parvati — otherwise known as an ageless and sexless being called Ardhanarisavara.
The hijra, along with the khrusa of Pakistan, are people who are assigned male at birth but eventually adopt conventionally feminine gender roles. In the past, the word has been used to refer derogatorily towards eunuchs and intersex people. A tradition of castration still unfortunately lingers but is no longer necessary in order to be recognised as hijra.
Hijra have long been structurally oppressed and discriminated against. During the British Raj, authorities attempted to eliminate them for “breaching public decency”, and under British rule in India they were placed under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 and subjected to compulsory registration and restrictions on movement.
Hijra were decriminalised after Indian independence and legally recognised in 2014, after years of lobbying by activists and non-government organisations. However, the marginalisation continues. Prevalent stigmas mean that alienation, stereotyping by the police and media, and economic hardships are still very much an issue. Many hijra live on the outskirts of society and survive only by begging or sex work, while others live in hijra-only sanctuaries.
Bogoraz described no fewer than seven gender categories besides man and woman
The Chukchi of Siberia are a nomadic, shamanic people who believe in multiple genders. Russian revolutionary, writer and anthropologist Vladimir Bogoraz, who lived among the Chukchi for 18 years (1890-1908), described observing no fewer than seven gender categories besides man and woman.
Among these, is an androgynous gender who fulfil the role of animistic priests. These Chukchi are usually people of the male sex who adopt some more “feminine” roles and aspects of appearance, but aren’t subject to the social restrictions placed on women; they can partake in male-designated activities, such as war and hunting, and have access to sweat lodges, as well as undertake domestic responsibilities usually assigned to women, like taking care of the family.
Non-binarism is also a centuries old idea in Indonesia. The largest ethnic group in South Sulawesi, the Bugis, conceive of five genders: men, women, calabai and calalai (trans men and women, respectively) and bissu.
While it’s a somewhat troubling notion that trans men and women may be categorised as entirely separate genders from their cis counterparts, bissu are considered to be a “transcendent” gender, combining all aspects to form a whole, or lacking gender altogether — what we’ve recently come to call being multigender or agender, in the West.
Bissu play an important role in Bugi society and religion. The word bissu means “clean” and they are sometimes equated with priests, as they are considered sacred and pure beings, and were the religious leaders of ancient Sulawesi before the arrival of Islam.
Indonesian Hindus believe that when the supreme god Batara Guru was sent to bring life to Earth, he was flanked by two bissu who helped him to create art, culture, language and everything else that is needed for civilisations to blossom.
Additionally, bissu are believed to be capable of communicating with the gods through sacred rituals and ceremonies, due to their dual nature, as well as gender; bissu are believed to be both human beings and spirits. The origin of these beliefs is unknown, but thought to date back to Sureq Galio — a Bugi creation myth recorded as a manuscript sometime between the 18th and 21st century, and previously spread through word of mouth.
Abigail Fenton 27th June 2018