In Western societies, people often struggle with the concept of gender, both in and outside of the queer community. How often haven’t we heard comments like: “If you’re born female, you stay female. You can’t just CHANGE your gender…Period.” Or “What’s the dealio with gender non-conforming people? Jeez, just pick one gender.” Luckily, there’s more and more people who realize that life isn’t so simple. Yay for us, right?
Yet, when we look outside this Western Worldview Bubble, we see that there are quite some cultures that don’t have these limiting constraints on the concept of gender. This doesn’t mean that they are heaven for queer people, or that they’re doing everything right. However, they do try to go around the binary or simply never had the solely male/female gender distinction to begin with. As we will see, European colonialism made an end to some of these cultures and changed the nature of many others. But overall, quite some cultures persevered. In this blogpost, I will not address all cultures with a non-western perception of gender, but if you’re interested in more gender-diverse cultures, here is a link!
Until western ideologies were placed upon African communities during the colonization period, gender was a fluid concept in many African cultures. These days, the African Union officially recognizes only two genders (male and female) (Mahtab & Haque 2017, 182), but some communities still maintain their view of gender as a spectrum.
Swahili (Kenya, Tanzania)
Among the Swahili in Kenya and Tanzania, for example, the mashoga are born male, but are viewed as neither men or women and occupy their own social space in society. They generally have relationships with men, but are usually not deemed gay, as they are not seen as ‘male’. They perform both male and female tasks and can have a male or female name. They have a unique role in ceremonies, such as women’s feasts, where they play drum, and preparing weddings.
In Madagascar, we find the sekrata. Although the Sakalava people in Madagascar keep a binary gender distinction of male/female, they regard little boys who behave in a very feminine manner to be girls. I couldn’t find that much information about the sekrata. One thing I did find was that they usually stay sekrata for the rest of their lives. So it is not just a phenomenon limited to childhood. Reaching puberty, the sekrata practice their voice to keep sounding feminine. The Sakalava people are generally very protective of the sekrata and defend them fiercely when someone does them harm. However, I couldn’t find if they exist until today. I also couldn’t find if the sekrata themselves felt sekrata/identified as female from the beginning, or that their parents just judged it to be the right way to raise a feminine boy.
On many islands in Oceania, the inhabitants maintain a more relative perspective on gender as well. On Samoa, something similar to the sekrata on Madagascar can be found. Young male children with a strong feminine gender expression are quickly recognized by the parents as a third gender child. From then onwards they are raised as fa’afafine. As adults, they usually assume the role of the one who care for the family, as do women traditionally. But they also often take a role in other spheres of society. Although the introduction of Christianity meant an initial marginalization of fa’afafine, they still thrive to this day and there are actually quite some well-known fa’fafine! Examples are painter and writer Dan Taulapapa McMullin, fashion designer Lindah Lepou and artist and curator Shigeyuki Kihara.
A similar culture can be found on Tonga, but here the name of the third gender is fakaleiti. The Samoan and Tonga third gender view seems to be different from the Madagascar sekratas in that they are regarded as their own gender and are not thought to be a ‘special kind of women’, which seems to be the case in Madagascar. However, in all three cultures, their gender is already recognized during their childhood.
Fa’afafine and fakaleiti, as do other (western) gender non-conforming people, often run into trouble when going abroad. Many fa’afafine move to New Zealand, where generally only two genders are recognized. However, the Māori inhabitants of New Zealand have a less extreme perspective on gender.
I talked about whakawahine (feminine men performing female roles (such as weaving) and preferring the company of women) and whakatane (masculine women who fight or do heavy physical labor) a bit already in my post about travelling in New Zealand. They are not necessarily trans, but can be. Although Māori have developed the term tangata ira tāne (trans man) and tangata ira wahine (trans woman) for this purpose. So it seems that whakawahine and whakatane specifically denote a separate expression of gender altogether. Regardless of sexual orientation.
When the European settlers (and Christianity) came to New Zealand, this elaborate take on gender diversity and sexual preference became marginalized. Yet, it is making a come back these days! Among other things, the New Zealand government is undertaking steps to recognize more than two genders.
When you look for gender expression in Asia, you’ll find an amazing amount of cultures that to this day have an extremely varied take on gender diversity. Among many others, there’s the bakla in the Philippines, the third gender hijra in South Asia and the bissu in Indonesia. They all have their own unique culture and are accepted in varied degrees. Below, I will elaborate on a few takes on gender that I found most interesting.
As a linguist, the Philippine bakla immediately got my attention. The Tagalog term bakla actually covers a great number of sexual and gender identities, but it generally describes a male-born person who has adopted a female gender role, but is part of a third gender: the bakla. Over the centuries (and probably since they were heavily marginalized by the introduction of western doctrine) they developed their own code or slang, named Swardspeak. Swardspeak is a combination of Tagalog and English and a variety of other language spoken in the region, such as Cebuano, Waray, Bicolano and Hiligaynon and is combined with hyperfeminized inflections.
Another island with it’s own queer vocabulary is Sulawesi (Indonesia). Although their queer culture doesn’t have their own slang (as far as I know), they do have a variety of words to describe their very elaborate take on gender and sex. They recognize three sexes (male, female and intersex) and five genders. First, the two we are all familiar with; men and women. Next, they distinguish between calabai (biological males who identify as female), calalai (biological females who identify as male) and bissu. Bissu are deemed to be above gender. Dependent on whom you ask, they are either ‘all genders’, or ‘none of them’. As is frequently the case with cultures acknowledging more than two genders, they are often regarded as priests or shamans and perform ritual roles.
Overall, the status of queer people in Indonesia can’t exactly be called ‘good’ or even ‘safe’, but that seems to be due to recent developments. Older cultures in Indonesia often still have a much more open approach to gender and sexuality.
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh
The same is the case in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the hijra used to form a close-knit group before the coming of the British. They consist mostly of biological born males and intersex people who assumed a female role and weir ‘feminine clothes’. However, they are not necessarily trans, as many of them consider themselves to be neither male or female. When the English came to India, the hijra were prosecuted as a ‘criminal tribe’ and their status in society quickly diminished. Yet, in recent years, the hijra community is making a come-back. In 2014, the third gender of ‘hijra’ has been officially recognized in India. They are allowed to have a proportional representation in jobs and education. But is this a positive change?
At first glance, one would say: ‘yes, duh, they are officially recognized by India now, right?’ However, with this recognition comes the assumption that they are in some way ‘less’ than the other two sexes. In the past, hijra were often (made) eunuch’s and eunuchs, gays, trans and intersex people were not very much accepted in India (since the British occupation). Especially since they do often not have the means or feel the need to procreate, they are regarded by the government as somewhat useless or incomplete. But not all hope is lost, because many hijra and Indian LGBT+ organizations see these law changes as positive and as a new step towards recognition and equality and a tool to build further on their road to acceptance.
Native Americans or First Nation People living in Northern America held and hold less rigorous believes in gender diversity than many of the people who came to live their later in time. The Navajo, for example, acknowledged nadleehi (a biologically male-born individual who possessed both a feminine and a masculine spirit) and dilbaa (a female-born individual with a more masculine spirit). They were not necessarily trans or gay, but ‘two spirit’, both male and female. Another source I found identified nadleehi as intersex as well.
Another interesting thing in Navajo culture, is that they judge gender to come first and sexuality second. This means that a relationship between two men or two women is homosexual, but one between a man and a nadleehi is not. This also indicates the third gender-ness of nadleehi or dilbaa.
The Zuni have a similar idea about gender. In this culture, lhamana are regarded as a separate gender from men and women and have their own role in society. The most famous example of a lhamana person, was We’wha; a Zuni ambassador to the US who spent six months in Washington, D.C. in the 19th century.
Lastly, the Dominican Republic shows an interesting gender case called guevedoche. People that are guevedoche, have a heritable pseudo-intersex trait called 5-α reductase deficiency. Don’t ask me how it works precisely. I’m a linguist, not a medical doctor. Apparently, this deficiency causes an unusual large percentage of people in the Dominican Republic to be born with both male and female bodily characteristics. In the past, guevedoche used to be raised as girls (due to their absence of male genitalia) and were, most of the time, only recognized as guevedoche in their puberty (when they developed testicles). As soon as they were recognized as guevedoche (which means ‘eggs at twelve’, denoting the appearance of testicles at puberty), they were treated as members of the third gender.
However, this phenomenon attracted the attention of western researchers, who explained that although it might be confusing, guevedoche were biologically male and they provided the Dominicans with technology to identify the sex of a baby at birth. This was the end of guevedoches, although the 5-α reductase deficiency is still there. It is unclear if the Dominican and guevedoche people were actually happy with this ‘improvement’.
Apparently, there is no information on how these guevedoche children felt about themselves and their gender identity, although many chose to live as men and married women when they grew up. So maybe the influence of ‘modern technology’ wasn’t only bad in this case.
Although I’ve looked around quite a bit for information on gender diversity in South America, the only phenomenon I found, was the travesti’s. These male-born people typically dress as women and feel attracted to many men, but don’t identify as female and rarely seek gender reassignment.
As we’ve seen, there’s quite a bit of gender diversity when we look outside the Western Bubble. It seems that most of these cultures don’t necessarily link sexuality to gender, as we in the west sometimes tend to do. Another tendency of these cultures, is to already identify children as a third gender when they are very young. I couldn’t find much on the topic, but it would be interesting to see if the children themselves chose to identify as this third gender or that it was solely a decision by the parents.
A less positive topic coming back in almost every instance, is the decline of either status or whole existence of the third gender in non-western cultures, as soon as the Europeans arrived. Not only do we Europeans tend to tell ourselves and each other that ‘there’s only two genders’, but we also try to put this view into action in other cultures.
As I said before, this post only addresses some of the variety of genders out there. There’s many more that are interesting to look into (although I couldn’t find that much on South America, please tell me if you do), but that just didn’t fit in this already outrageously long blogpost. And as always; tell me in the comments if you’ve anything to add (or change) on this topic and maybe either me or Tiaan can even write another blogpost about it!
Mahtab N. & Haque T. (2017) Handbook of Research on Women’s Issues and Rights in the Developing World. IGI Global; USA