Some people might shrug it off as a fad; others take the path of self-righteousness and judgment. But gender identity and the concept of a person identifying as something other than “male” or “female” is an ancient question. And in some cultures, there are more than two options.

Take Native Americans, or First Nations people, in North America. When Western Europeans arrived in North America, they found indigenous people with their own tales, traditions and beliefs; among them, that people could belong to one of up to five different genders.

two-spirits
A Navajo two-spirit couple is seen in this historic photo from the collection of the Museum of New Mexico. Image: Bosque Redondo, 1866.
two-spirits
We Wha, a Zuni “berdache” (two-spirit) of New Mexico, circa 1871-1896. Image: John K. Hillers / Wikimedia.
We’wha
Another photo of We’wha (1849-1896). We’wha was biologically male and engendered with a female spirit. Image: the-numinous.com

All Native American tribes had words for these gender constructs, including the idea of “Two Spirit” people, either Two Spirit female or Two Spirit male, in addition to transgendered, male and female. The term “Two Spirit” comes from an Ojibwe word (Niizh Manidoowag)—other tribes had their own word, including Nádleehí (Navajo for ‘one who is transformed’), Winkté (Latoka for a male who acted like a female) and Hemaneh (Cheyenne for ‘half man, half woman’).

Additionally, it wasn’t common to assign gender roles to children when they were young; it wasn’t until they grew old enough to wear “male” or “female” clothes, closer to 10 years old, that that facet of their identity was established.

This concept was, of course, strange and probably abhorrent to the uptight puritanical Western Europeans, backed by various religious organizations. But it’s really kind of easy to understand: the concept comes from the idea that a person can have two souls within themselves, balancing traditionally male and female attributes and characteristics.

Further, people identified at Two Spirits were considered special, highly revered and families that counted Two Spirits among their relatives were deemed fortunate and lucky.

India’s third gender

A similar concept exists in India, where a third gender is very much a currently acceptable idea. There is a third gender, hijra, a title used for male-to-female transsexuals.

Hijras
Hijras in Bangalore. Image: Johanan Ottensooser on Flickr
Old Hijra
Portrait of a Hijra, physiological males who have feminine gender identity. Image: Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images
Hijra Pride Festival
Hijras watch a performance backstage at the Hijra talent show in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In 2013 Bangladesh officially recognized Hijras as a third gender, though homosexuality still remains illegal. Image: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

But this is an ancient tradition in India, going back at least 4,000. Hijra were considered almost godlike, able to spread good fortune and fertility. While hijra might not be called upon frequently for their blessings, some families in India might still invite hijra to dance and give blessings at weddings.

The Bugis and their five gender roles

And then there’s the Bugis, the largest ethnic group in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, where members can identify as one of five genders: makkunrai (female woman), oroani (male man), calalai (female man), calabai (male woman) and bissu (transgender priest).

Bissu, or transgender priests, are one of five genders recognized by the Bugis. Image: theconversation.com
Embodying all genders, Bissu priests communicate with the spirit world through shamanic rituals. Image: akkadium.com
Bissu Priest
A Bissu priest holding a purification ceremony in Bone, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Image: ZephyraMilie on DeviantArt

Note that, again, those who identified as having more than one gender are considered a kind of spiritual person, someone with wisdom and a direct line to the divine. Researchers into Sulawesi culture stress that bissu have “their own distinctive clothing” and “are a combination of all genders. To become a bissu, one must be born both female and male, or hermaphroditic.

(To be precise, the Bugis believe that a bissu who appears externally male is internally female, and vice versa.) This combination of sexes enables a ‘meta gender’ identity to emerge,” wrote Sharyn Graham in 2007.

Calabai, or false woman, and calalai, or false man, are not outcasts but are considered simply part of the gender spectrum. To limit all people on the planet as simply male or female is to limit the expanse of human existence, Graham wrote, and to deny this spectrum is a waste of humanity.

Calalai are people who are born female but take on roles traditionally viewed as male, including taking on heavy, intense labor jobs while wearing men’s clothing. Calabai, in turn, are people born male but taking on many traditionally female roles, often serving important roles in the organization of wedding ceremonies within Bugis society.

Gender acceptance within different societies has been a challenge

Of course, nothing’s perfect and no society is without moments of rejecting those who are different from the majority. Indonesia is largely Muslim and, even with centuries of tradition and acceptance, bissu were oppressed under fundamentalist Islamic rule from 1949 through the early 2000s.

And then there’s the laws on the books in North Carolina, in the US, trying to mandate that people use the public restroom that matches the genitalia they were born with, not how they identify. But that’s another story for another day.

The hijra in India have legal protections against discrimination as of 2014; similar protections are also in place in Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Australia now allows the selection of a third gender, in addition to male and female, on passport applications. In the UK, people are allowed to use the “Mx” title on government and other official documents.

Maybe someday the ideas of “love is love” and “gender is meaningless” will become the sane, humane, overriding norm of a more inspired and enlightened society around the world.

Selected Sources

Amber Healy

Amber Healy has been writing, both personally and professionally, since she nagged her hometown paper to give her an internship in 1996. She's a big believer that the most fascinating stories are hidden under layers of seemingly boring drivel.

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Amber Healy

Amber Healy has been writing, both personally and professionally, since she nagged her hometown paper to give her an internship in 1996. She's a big believer that the most fascinating stories are hidden under layers of seemingly boring drivel.