Third Genders: New Concept? Or Old?

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.


8 thoughts on “Third Genders: New Concept? Or Old?”

  1. I think it’s interesting that some cultures view people with unconventional gender roles as examples of spiritual enlightenment. It does make sense. People who are not bound to society’s expectations of them have, in a way, reached a higher level of knowing than the rest of us. They have taken their own freedom, regardless of the fact that it is different, or viewed as wrong. No matter what conservatives say, being gay, bisexual, or transgender is not a choice. As some fundamentalist Christians so adamantly preach, we cannot all be gay, or humanity would die, which is why such a small percentage of the human population is biologically programmed to be so. No matter what, there should always be a place for them in society. Maybe even a higher place, simply for having the courage to be different.

  2. I really find the topic of gender really interesting. I was watching a rerun of the Colbert Report last night and gender was actually one of the topics on his show. Apparently, Facebook added 50 new gender options in an attempt to accommodate those who do not identify as either male or female.
    I really think that this idea of multiple genders is throughout the globe and people need to start recognizing and identifying these people as they wish to. I may identify myself as just a female but I believe everyone should have the right to identify themselves as they wish without being restricted.

  3. Having Indian roots myself, I’ve had experience with these hijras, not in person, but they’re often found in media. The funny thing is, no one ever talked about it, you know? It was just accepted. In movies and soap operas, they typically play the part of the person who waltz in and out for comedic relief, and many straight actors play hijras every now and then. It was never something that was bad or good, it simply was. And I think that’s awesome 🙂

  4. I think that, even today, people still don’t really understand what being trans is and that looking from the perspective of various cultures all over the world shows how narrow minded the western world truly is when it comes to gender differences. It is interesting to know that in some cultures individuals of the third gender are seen as of a higher social or spiritual standing, as in our modern world they are, at many times, outcasts and perceived as inferior.

  5. I was in a Sociology of the Family class last semester, and we actually spent a lot of time talking about transgendered children, or children who were one gender, but wanted to express themselves in ways that are considered to be the opposite gender. There was one story about a boy, who thought of himself as a boy, but loved to play dress up and wear dresses to school or pink ballet shoes with his “fashionable outfits”. The school and community looked down upon the mother for supporting her son in this, so she wrote a book about how people should not care how their children choose to dress, they should just want them to be happy and confident with themselves. It was a great class you might enjoy if you need a sociology class (It was Soc030)
    I enjoyed the stance that you took on this topic!

  6. I find this really interesting. We do not often think of the Western culture as the one that is ignorant or wrong, however, I think that this is just one perfect example of the western culture’s inability to look past the social norms we have today in order to accept something as out of the box as a third gender. All of the stories about the third, fourth and fifth genders in very old societies like the Incan and the one from Madagascar are really interesting and something I had no idea about. I think it really comes to show how much we have changed in history and maybe not for the better.

  7. It’s interesting to see how the early world could be much more accepting of differences than the world today. Society today can be very black and white especially when looking at gender and sex. One is either male or women in most culture’s today but it was interesting to see how in India with the hijras behavior and the overall lack of understanding from the rest of the world.

  8. I find it rather interesting that a topic that has become so contentious today, has been a consistent undercurrent to many civilizations. We hear a lot about the ideas of being trans and cis, but these labels are the product of modern ideas concerning gender. It’s cool to see that different cultures have interpreted gender in their own ways.

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