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There have ALWAYS been people who were gender non-conforming, we have examples going back to the Iron Age(article, and further back to the Copper Age(article,study). Anthropologists have documented cultures around the world that acknowledge more than two genders.
Long before Cook’s arrival in Hawaii, a multiple gender tradition existed among the Kanaka Maoli indigenous society. The mahu could be biological males or females inhabiting a gender role somewhere between or encompassing both the masculine and feminine. Their social role is sacred as educators and promulgators of ancient traditions and rituals.
In pre-colonial Andean culture, the Incas worshipped the chuqui chinchay, a dual-gendered god. Third-gender ritual attendants or shamans performed sacred rituals to honor this god. The quariwarmi shamans 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.”
Prior to colonization, the Ankole people in what is now Uganda elected a woman to dress as a man and thereby become an oracle to the god Mukasa.
Among the Sakalavas of Madagaskar, little boys thought to have a feminine appearance were raised as girls. The Antandroy and Hova called their gender crossers sekrata who, like women, wore their hair long and in decorative knots, inserted silver coins in pierced ears, and wore many bracelets on their arms, wrists and ankles.
The indigenous Zapotec culture of Oaxaca is not divided by the usual dichotomies: gay or straight, male or female. There’s a commonly accepted third category of mixed gender — people called muxes. (said to derive from mujer — Spanish for “woman”). Some are men who live as women, or who identify beyond a single gender.
Fa’afafine are people who identify themselves as a third-gender in Samoa, American Samoa and the Samoan diaspora. A recognized gender identity/gender role since at least the early 20th century in Samoan society, and some theorize an integral part of traditional Samoan culture, fa’afafine are male at birth, and explicitly embody both masculine and feminine gender traits, fashioned in a way unique to this part of the world.
Indonesia recognizes a third gender, “waria”. One ethnic group, the Bugis (numbering around 3 million people) recognizes five genders. Their language offers five terms referencing various combinations of sex, gender and sexuality: makkunrai (“female women”), oroani (“male men”), calalai (“female men”), calabai (“male women”) and bissu (“transgender priests”). These definitions are not exact, but suffice.
In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the hijras are officially recognized as third gender by the government, being neither completely male nor female. In India also, transgender people have been given the status of third gender and are protected as per the law despite the social ostracism. The term more commonly advocated by social workers and transgender community members themselves is khwaja sira and can identify the individual as a transsexual person, transgender person (khusras), cross-dresser (zenanas) or eunuch (narnbans).
Kathoey or katoey refers to either a transgender woman or an effeminate gay male in Thailand. A significant number of Thais perceive kathoeys as belonging to a third gender, including many kathoeys themselves, while others see them as either a kind of man or a kind of woman. However, when considering transgender women (MtF) as a group in Thai society, most refer to themselves as phuying (“women”), with a minority referring to themselves as phuying praphet song (a “second kind of woman”) and only very few referring to themselves as kathoey.
Anthropological research indicates well over 100 instances of diverse gender expression in Native American tribes at the time of early European contact. The most common modern term for the gender non-conforming members is “Two Spirit” (also two-spirit or twospirit) used by some indigenous North Americans to describe certain spiritual people – gay, lesbian, bisexual and gender-variant individuals – in their communities. The term was adopted in 1990 at an Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering to encourage the replacement of the anthropological term berdache.
“Two Spirit” is not interchangeable with “LGBT Native American”; this title differs from most western, mainstream definitions of sexuality and gender identity in that it is not so much about whom one sleeps with, or how one personally identifies; rather, it is a sacred, spiritual and ceremonial role that is recognized and confirmed by the Elders of the Two Spirit’s ceremonial community. While some have found the term a useful tool for intertribal organizing, not all Native cultures conceptualize gender or sexuality this way, and most tribes use names in their own languages. While some terms are not always appropriate or welcome, “two spirit” has generally received more acceptance and use than the term it replaced.
Individual tribes often also have their own classifications, there’s the wíŋkte among the Lakota, the mixuga among the Ponca, the badé among the Crow, and many others. These are all third gender roles adopted by males, somewhat analogous to what we might think of as a transgender woman today. They’re not exactly equivalent of course. In general, these third gender roles were liminal social positions, standing somewhere between the categories of Man and Woman – being neither, but having traits of both in addition to traits that are unique unto itself.
The degree to which a third gender person could shift fluidly between Man, Woman, and Third Gender roles varied among cultures. Osh-Tisch, the most famous badé, for example generally adopted the attire of women and engaged in women’s work, but when war came to the Crow, Osh-Tisch adopted men’s clothing and fought with the men (earning the rather badass name Finds-Them-and-Kills-Them). Among the Crow of that time (late 1800s), Osh-Tisch’s gender fluidity was considered less remarkable than the fact that a woman,The Other Magpie, also fought alongside Osh-Tisch. Like most badé, Osh-Tisch never married but did have at least one long-term relationship with a man and perhaps another with a woman (who may be The Other Magpie). When the US forced their own ideas of gender on the Crow, the people rallied in defense of the badé. Though Osh-Tisch was eventually forced by US agents to adopt what they deemed appropriate attire and labor for a man, the badé managed to keep many of the traditions associated with that gender role alive.
In Diné (Navajo) society, they traditionally have had five genders: female-in-woman (asdzaan), male-in-man (hastiin), nadleeh (like hermaphrodite or androgyny or gender fluidity), woman-in-man nadleehi (feminine gender), and then man-in-woman nadleeh (dilbah – masculine gender).
For the Navajo, it has less to do with sexual preference or biology than societal role. Most of the time, there was not much special about these people – they just were. Though society hierarchy meant that female-gendered individuals were more dominant (I guess that is the right word) because the feminine is the first gender. Nadleeh could be revered because they might express both male and female spirits perfectly, whereas every other gender could express only one spirit (it is with noting though that not every Nadleeh does, which is why sometimes people say “at least” five genders – there is some wiggle room in there).
Even in the heart of Catholic Italy, in Naples, there is the centuries-old phenomenon of femminielli, those assigned male at birth who dress and behave as women. They are respected figures, traditionally believed to bring good luck, which may date back to pagan rituals of crossdressing, or eunuch priests.
This vast anthropological and archaeological evidence of multiple gender expression is often willfully ignored, but the reality is that gender non-conformity has been a part of human society since the very beginning, and it’s not going anywhere.