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Not Man, Woman, Gay or Straight

Updated on April 30, 2015
Contemporary Hijra
Contemporary Hijra | Source

© Nicole Paschal, All Rights Reserved

Throughout history we have viewed gender in many different ways. Many cultures have acknowledged and included numerous gender categories. In some cultures, a person could move freely in and out of gender categories depending on his or her actions. In other cultures, it was not so easy because rituals binded an individual to a gender category for life. However, most often a 3rd gender category was still considered an absolute right, not a deviation from normalcy or an “other.”

In her book, “Gender Diversity: Cross-Cultural Variations”, Serena Nanda suggests that not every culture acknowledges man and woman while ostracizing any other variation. Some cultures, primarily before colonization, have accepted a third or even fourth gender category. Having done extensive research on the Hijra of India, Nanda uses this culture as well as distinct Native American, Polynesian, and Euro- American cultures to support her claims. Nanda suggests that the lines between male and female are indeed blurred.

A Zuni two spirit weaving.
A Zuni two spirit weaving. | Source
Navajo same sex couple
Navajo same sex couple | Source

Native American Two Spirit

In many Native American cultures, gender categories were often role based rather than a product of sexual orientation. How one chose to dress and act, or even his occupation could serve as justifiable means to thrust one into another gender category. The terms for variation, however, differed from tribe to tribe. The Navajo’s “Nadleeh”, for example, were biological males that chose to portray a female way of life. Adopting women’s work, dress, and behavior, they easily moved from one category to another. Arctic tribes, however, would sometimes force their girl children to assume a male gender role if there were not enough male children in the family. Some plains society Native Americans considered the dreams of the mother as rationale for the child’s gender transformation, while the “Alyha” of the Mojave were forced to change their gender if they showed signs of the opposite gender before puberty.

While the Europeans called them “Berdache”, or prostitute, in Native American “Two-Spirit” individuals were not so negatively viewed by their own. They would sometimes serve as holy persons, post battle ceremony participants, or as go-betweens in marriage practices. These individuals would also be associated with Shaman-like powers. Options existed where a biological male transgender could wear male clothes in war and dress as a female when in peace. Biological women variants could wear women’s dress, but carry male weapons. Male variants, in some native cultures were prized for their abilities to excel in both women’s and men’s work, thus allowing them to prosper. Same sex marriages were allowed as long as gender roles varied. In general, Native American cultures presented many variations. Although views differed per ethnic group, Native Americans, at one time, possessed an almost egalitarian view in regards to gender.

A Hijra of Mumbai
A Hijra of Mumbai | Source

The Hijra of India

The Hijra of India often came into being by one of two manners. Considered eunuchs, or as having some sort of sexual dysfunction, the biological male adopted all aspects of female dress and behavior to present it in an “over the top” manner. Those without the faulty sex organs would insist it was their calling by the “Mother Goddess”, a Hindu deity that served as a representation of the transgender way of life. They asserted that if they did not honor the goddess’ wishes, they would suffer for seven reincarnated rebirths. Upon this great confirmation, a ritual followed where the variant male would chant in meditation while having his penis removed. Nanda notes that in comparison to Euro-American culture, where ones’ sexual orientation is most important in determining his gender status, the Hijra method of gender transformation relies heavily on ritual, not just who he chooses as his partner.

Interestingly, the Hijra are not entirely excluded from South Asian society, but occupy a unique place. The term “neither man nor woman” takes on an interesting meaning. Perhaps due to the influence of Hindu myth, they are regarded as a distinct gender category and, by many, are even feared for being so. Being associated with transgendered deities, these variants were thought to bear extreme supernatural powers. Their acquaintance with the supernatural has earned them a place in Hindu society that somehow overshadowed the negativity of not being able to bear children. Like the mythic deity, Arjun, those in the Hijra community regularly engage in ceremonial events like marriages and the birth of a child. For a price, they may be hired to bless a household and its offspring, or if the price does not suffice, they can curse it all the same. They were seen as being incomplete for not being able to bear children, but not for assuming another gender role, The Hijra existed in both the acceptable and unacceptable realms of society.

Tahitian Mahu gender variants
Tahitian Mahu gender variants | Source

Mahu of Tahiti

The Mahu of Tahiti could move freely from one gender role to the next without social prohibition. Like Native Americans, rather than being categorized by sexual orientation, they endured an occupation-based categorization. Changes were not permanent and one was allowed access again into his previous gender status. Social researchers considered these individuals as “gender liminal”, because they were not so restricted from changing their gender categorization or social status as in other cultures.

Although they could move freely in and out of gender categories, their status and rank changed with the move. When a male Mahu was in his variant role (such as assuming women’s dress, occupation etc.) he was considered lower ranked and may have been the subject of rape and ridicule. Those who engaged in sex with a variant was believed not to be able to find a woman, for although variants were considered to be a third category, they were still an unacceptable category to pursue a relationship with.


Gender Views Always Changing

Although Nanda helps us all to think outside the rules of binary opposition, we have to remember that gender systems change. A gender system is the product of a number of variables and is susceptible to outside or migrant influences. Native North Americans often held their transgendered brethren in high regard if they earned that right. Today, after European influence the transgendered are generally not so welcomed. Polynesian transgendered males were lower ranked, but today they are more accepted. In medieval Europe, for that matter, female gender variants were despised by the church, but thought to have to have a saint–like personae amongst the people. Today, a female who acquires masculine characteristics often suffers negative backlash for doing so.

It's also fair to note that in 2013, the Bangladesh government approved a measure to allow individuals to select Hijra as an official gender designation.That means that the term can be used on official documents such as passports. The option will allow access to better education, healthcare, and justice for acts committed against them. So, as these examples would suggest, gender systems are always changing and any group can suffer persecution or progress with the passing of time.


Like Bangladesh, so you think American documents should have options besides "man" or "woman"?

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    • Virginia Matteo profile image

      Virginia Matteo 20 months ago

      Thank you for this insightful hub! I think it is very telling that some cultures that many people would view as "primitive" have actually a much more flexible concept of gender than most Western societies. Considering gender as something natural, assigned on the basis of one's anatomy can be very harmful to transgender people, for instance.