The concept of gender identity refers to how individuals perceive themselves, how they express themselves, and what terms they use to identify themselves. An individual in our society can identify as male, female, both, neither, or something more nuanced. Some societies around the world have even more options! Gender identities outside the binary may appear as a relatively new concept in Western society, but many societies and indigenous cultures have embraced more than two genders as well as their associated behaviors and expressions for many generations.
Gender identity has found its place in our contemporary vocabulary because of the urgent need for western societies to differentiate between biological sex – the one assigned at birth, and gender identity – the way people see and express themselves. One person might accept that their sex assignment and gender identity are the same (cisgender), or they might accept that these could be different (transgender). And that is natural!
In a society that sees beyond the gender binary system, there would be more terms that better express people’s lived experiences and they wouldn’t have to rely on big and ambiguous categories like gay or straight, transgender or cisgender, in daily life. These limiting terms were designed to enforce multiple binary systems that only allow for two sexes (male and female), two genders (man and woman), two gender expressions (masculine and feminine), and one sexuality (heterosexual, with homosexuality considered as an illness until the 1970s in the U.S.).
Recently, western nations have had to accept that they could not erase or exclude people who exist outside of the binary forever, as advancements in technology have aided people in finding peers and communities all around the world. While the controversy over expanding the concept of gender identity seems rather new in the United States, and the need for accepting people who identify with alternative genders is dividing the so-called “progressive” countries of Europe and the U.S.A, other cultures have recognized more than two genders for centuries. However, many people do not know that. When colonization and imperialism started sweeping the globe these more nuanced and expansive categories of gender began to be oppressed and started to disappear.
Historically, western countries that were colonizing the world passed laws to punish individuals who did not fit neatly into the binary system of gender and sexuality used in many Christian/Catholic countries. More recently, as these nations have “progressed” they have had to pass new laws to confirm and protect the existence of genders outside the binary system, proving what many global communities have known all along! At the same time, they are also sending the message that non-binary genders now require protection because there are people refusing to accept them as societal norms and behaving in ways that are harmful to these communities.
The binary gender system is not a universal concept, and many cultures both contemporarily and historically had no issue embracing different genders and even bestowing high positions and elevating the status within their societies of non-binary individuals. Let’s take a quick trip around the world to learn about some of these gender identities!
The Two-Spirit people of North America
Native American cultures had found a place for non-binary individuals in their world many hundreds of years ago. The Guardian explains that in Native communities, people who identify as a different gender than the one attributed at birth are included in the category of two-spirit individuals. This is a word used to define intersex, terms that are roughly translated to mean half-male and half-female, female-male, and male-female. A two-spirited person is often considered to be a good omen. They can assume any of the social roles of men and women. In many Native communities two-spirit persons were well respected, considered divine, and often held ceremonial positions, conducting marriage ceremonies, peace talks between tribes, and carrying ancestral knowledge to share. It is normal for male-females to marry women and female-males to marry men.
We might see these marriages as gay marriages, but Native Americans do not consider these unions as such because of the existence of the two-spirit gender category. Contact with colonizers beginning as far back as the 15th century led to the ostracization of two-spirit people who were discriminated against and oppressed by Christian missionaries, who refused to negotiate or even acknowledge their existence as people and tribal representatives. Many two-spirit people lost their lives due to hostile interactions with colonizers. The term used to define two-spirited persons varies depending on the tribe where the individuals are born. The Zuni tribe, one of the many Native American tribes that have embraced this gender, calls a two-spirited person lhamana. The most famous lhamana was We’wha. We’wha was born in a male body, wore both men’s and women’s clothes, and performed mostly female roles, like cooking and gathering food.
Muxes in Mexico
Most muxes live in Oaxaca, Mexico. Muxes are individuals born in a male body who identify as neither male nor female. They may dress as women and adopt a “feminine” social role working, for example, in embroidery, hairstyling, or cooking, but there are also muxes who decide to pursue office careers or other professions. The Zapotec people recognize muxes as a third gender. Their name is derived from mujer, which means woman in Spanish, but muxes refuse to be identified as women or as gay, transgender, or bisexual.
In the Zapotec language, muxes is a gender-neutral noun, which makes it a bit more complicated when it comes to writing about them in a different language. Muxes are part of a culture with ancient traditions and are respected and celebrated in Oaxaca, during the Vela de las Intrepidas festival, as well as in Los Angeles, a city that has its own Muxe Vela.
Sekrata in Madagascar
The third gender of sekrata is widely accepted by the Sakalava people of Madagascar. A sekrata is a boy raised as a girl from a young age. Parents who notice their child exhibits feminine behavior decide to raise them as a girl and will not intervene in any way to contradict their behavior or personality. Sekratas are considered to be women in a man’s body due to their predominantly feminine characteristics. They identify, talk, and act like a woman, usually having long hair and wearing make-up and jewelry.
The sekrata are considered a gender category of its own – people who have a male body and identify as a female. The Sakalava people of Madagascar understand that having a third-gender child is natural. Sekratas usually avoid male associated roles like joining the army, often performing as dancers in tribal ceremonies. Moreover, they are believed to be sacred and have magical powers and they may be feared by people who follow the tradition associated with their existence.
Hijras in South Asia
Hijras have been considered a third gender in India for thousands of years and are mentioned in sacred Hindu writings. Moreover, the hijras have their own ancient language (Hijras Farsi) and were often associated with sacred powers. Hijras are individuals born males who don’t identify with the sex attributed at birth. Hijras have been legally recognized as the third gender in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.
However, following British colonization, penal law changed in 1897, classifying hijras as criminals, and they have been marginalized by society. Many of them have abandoned their communities and have gone underground. Unfortunately, they continue to face discrimination in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh even after the British left. Society considers them outsiders and excludes them from various economic activities, while doctors refuse to treat them and police officers harass them. Despite their marginalization, the hijras continue to speak their own language and demonstrate that gender diversity is and has always been a natural part of society.
Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama in Samoa
The island of Samoa has males, females, and it also has two fluid gender roles: fa’afafine and fa’afatama. Samoan culture recognizes assigned at birth males who identify as females as fa’afafine and assigned at birth females who identify as males as fa’afatamas. The term “fa’afafine” is quite representative of the concept it defines since fa’a means “in the manner of” and fafine means “woman”.
The fa’afafines do not approve of being described as transgender or homosexual because these terms are often used to describe categories in binary systems, whereas there are four categories historically in Samoa. Fa’afafines assume the gender and sexual roles associated with women. In addition, they can have relationships with women, as well as other fa’afafines. The Samoan culture is open to many gender identities. Whether you identify as a fa’afafine, fa’afatama, male, female, neither, or fluctuate in your identity and/or expression, the Samoan culture accepts you as you are.
These are just a few examples of the many welcoming and diverse expressions of gender that exist around the world. You might see communities with three, four, five, or more recognized gender identities as you do your own research into the wonderful and nuanced world of gender.
This post was written by Jamez Ahmad.
Jamez (they, them) is a proud member of the LGBTQIA2S+ community. They have over fifteen years of experience educating groups on issues relating to gender identity and sexual orientation. As a mixed-race individual, they are passionate about social justice and dismantling systems of oppression. They have an MA from USC and an MSW from Smith College. They are a Taurus who enjoys travel, fiction writing, and film.