The more equal a society is, the more opportunities available to all of its diverse citizens, the more prosperous that society becomes carrying benefits for all. Increased understanding of non-binary gender communities and their significance in the human story will aid in removing social stigma, leading to kinder, more productive societies. This is a crucial factor in our becoming both an economically and ecologically sustainable species.
With that in mind, let’s talk about diversity!
Before we begin: The ‘sex’ of a person is usually defined by anatomical primary indicators, i.e. genitalia, whereas ‘gender’ is defined by internal biological/neurological factors. What’s more, gender is reinforced by social constructs built around the perceived behaviours and roles within a society (which can be dangerous when one culture’s inclusive notions surrounding gender come up against another culture’s discriminatory ones).
Although the science surrounding the specific neurology of gender isn’t clearly defined yet, we do know that the genetic factors, processes and hormones that assign gender before and after birth come from at least 70 different genes on different chromosomes. Gender diversity/fluidity is an integral part of human history and culture. Before Western colonisation of indigenous peoples and the introduction of binary gender systems with their own specified behaviours, roles and clothing, gender diversity was widely accepted and celebrated in many cultures around the world. However, these introductions have reshaped modern societies, and the idea of gender fluidity has unfortunately been lost or suppressed, but there are some cultures that still honour these ancient traditions today.
Muxes are a third gender that exhibit both male and female qualities within indigenous communities of Mexico’s Oaxaca Peninsula. Muxes are one of the longest standing examples of indigenous gender diversity, tracing back to the intersex gods and deities of Aztec and Mayan iconography.
Although there are similarities to transgenderism, Muxes wish to emulate femininity but do not necessarily identify as women. In fact, it is the blend of both male and female characteristics that makes Muxes so distinct. In Ivan Olita’s short documentary (above) modern Muxes explain the third gender in their own words.
“I myself represent duality of two things, because I have the strength of a male and the sensitivity of a female; in the Zapotec vocabulary Muxes means both feminine and fear… In Zapotec we use la-ave if we talk about people… this is our language there is no him or her”
Despite past prejudices, Muxes are now fully accepted and play an important role in local communities.
Indonesia, Bugi Culture
Bugi society in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi actually recognises five genders. These consist of male and female; Calabai, biological males who embody feminine gender qualities and social roles; Calalai, biological females who take on a masculine identity; and Bissu, those who encompass all of these gender aspects.
Calabai live as heterosexual women, whilst Calalai live as heterosexual men, both taking on roles synonymous with their gender identity within said culture.
Bugis people who are bissu are referred to as gender transcendent, meaning they socially and even sometimes biologically encompass characteristics of all Bugis genders. Though not true of every several-gender culture, people who exhibit more than one gender, or indeed all gender types, are commonly appointed as shamans, priests or other spiritual figures. For instance, bissu act as spiritual advisors and bequest protection for those about to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Before the Spaniards conquered the Inca Empire an ancient third gender was recognised. Quariwarmi were androgynous shamans tasked with performing rituals in honour of the god chuqui chinchay, a dual gendered jaguar deity. These shamans were representations of the dual forces in Incan mythology; male/female, past/present, living/deceased.
However, these Incan beliefs toward gender were wrong in the eyes of the conquistadors and thus were persecuted. Unfortunately, this is just one of many multiple-gender cultures that has been historically victimised.
Two-Spirit, Several Native American Cultures.
Colonial influence is a common factor of cultural shift, either by force or assimilation over time. In similar fashion to South America, the new order brought by European settlers didn’t hold the ideas of gender fluidity in high regard, with English colonists condemning them as “sodomites”.
Though a longstanding part of Native American cultures the all-encompassing term ‘two-spirit’ was relatively recently adopted by consensus in 1990. Prior to this tribes exhibiting this social quality had their own words to define it. For instance, Winkte was the Lakota definition of males assuming the traditional roles of women, such as keeping the tribe’s oral traditions. The Navajo words for both genders in one person Nadleehi and Dilbaa refer to males embodying feminine spirit and females embodying male spirit respectively, both of which often assuming roles as healers. Similarly, the Mojave tradition included Hwame, male-identified women, and Alyha female-identified males. And the Zuni tradition Lhamana consists of people living as both genders simultaneously, taking on the societal roles of both men and women within the tribe. These traditions play a crucial societal role within each tribe, with two-spirit people often held in high esteem.
It is crucial to remember the cultural value of gender expression, both current and historical, especially now as the current administration of the country that was stolen from them tries to push an ‘unchangeable definition’ gender-binary system through legislation. This is a threat to gender fluid Native and Modern Americans alike.
It is worth noting that cultures are diverse in and of themselves and subject to change over time from various factors and influences. However, as we progress it’s important not to lose sight of how diverse humans have been and will continue to be, especially when a natural phenomenon we’re only beginning to understand is called into question.
Other multiple gender cultures across the world include, but are not limited to:
Ankole – Uganda.
Sekrata – Madagascar.
Mashoga – Kenya & Tanzania.
Bakla – Philippines.
Waria – Indonesia.
Sistergirls & Brotherboys – Aboriginal, Australia.
Whakawahine & Wakatane – Maori, New Zealand.
Kathoey – Thailand.
Acault – Myanmar.
Metis – Nepal.
Aravani – Tamil Nadu.
Burnesha – Albania.
Femminiello – Italy.
Mahu – Hawaii.
Fa’afafine – Samoa.
Fakaleiti – Tonga.
Chuckchi – Siberia.
Guevedoche – Dominican Republic.