In nearly all of human history and, in particular, human culture, we have recognized and integrated at least two genders. For most societies, this means labeling two sexes (male/female) and two genders (man/woman) with the ideas of transsexualism and homosexuality being their own separate sect as novel and unprecedented, however cases of a “third gender” are well documented in multiple societies.
There are an overwhelming amount of examples of another or “third gender” in cultures in the past:
- In indigenous Hawaii, before its colonization, there was a long standing multiple gender tradition, where the mahu could be a male or female biologically, but decide to inhabit a gender role either opposite theirs, somewhere in between the traditional sex roles, or even both masculine and feminine roles. Instead of being written off as outcasts, as persons of atypical gender identities often are today, these mahu were revered in their social roles as sacred educators of ancient traditions
- In ancient Incan culture, the Incas worshipped a “dual gendered god” known as chuqui chinchay, who could only be attended and honored by third gender shamans or servants who wore androgynous clothing as “a visible sign of a third space that negotiated between the masculine and the feminine, the present and the past, the living and the dead.”
- Among the Sakalavas of Madagascar, there is a third gender group reserved especially for little boys thought to have a feminine appearance and personality. These boys, rather than labeled as “gay men” after maturing and experiencing the upbringing of a male, are instead raised by their parents as girls from a young age.
Though many of these societies may refer to transsexuals or homosexuals as a third or separate gender, most of the time, these extra genders represent individuals who identify neither as men nor women. To most of these cultures, this means that the third gender symbolizes the intermediate condition between the genders or a state of being both. (This is often described as the “spirit of a man in a woman’s body” and vice versa.) In layman’s terms, this means that individuals included in this third gender either have no gender affiliation, have the ability to cross or swap between genders, or are a gender category all together independent of the traditional male and female roles.
It doesn’t always stop at third. Third genders are widely accepted as being understood as an “other” gender, but fourth, fifth, and sixth genders have been documented by anthropologists as well.
In contemporary societies, people have started to draw a line between sex (biological and anatomical nature) and gender (social and psychological nature). Many modern societies continue to be conservative with their idea of gender and only recognize a two-gender system, which they, ethnocentrically, believe to be the social norm. This is known as “heteronormativity”:
- female genitalia = female identity = feminine behavior = desire male partner
- male genitalia = male identity = masculine behavior = desire female partner
Third genders are still documented in contemporary society today. The most well known of these cases are recorded in the Indian subcontinent in the roles of the “hijras”. Hijras are born intersex or male, but dress in feminine clothing, retaining a gender that is neither male nor female. They are often misrepresented as eunuchs to the Western world, when very few hijras are castrated. British photographer Dayanita Singh wrote about her friendship with an Indian hijra where she reported, “When I once asked her if she would like to go to Singapore for a sex change operation, she told me, ‘You really do not understand. I am the third sex, not a man trying to be a woman. It is your society’s problem that you only recognise two sexes.'” Hijras are widely recognized and accepted in Indian culture and since 2005, there has even been a third gender option to choose from on Indian passport applications.
Many modern Western societies have no direct correlation to the “dual gendered”, masculine and feminine third gender group, (often referred to as “two-spirited” in Navajo culture) or even an equivalent for communities that have very loose and fluid conceptions of sex, sexuality, and gender. Gender expression varies greatly from culture to culture globally and you can go online to PBS’s website to take a worldwide tour of other cultures to explore gender diversity.