Gender-variant identities worldwide

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From ancient history to the present, many cultures around the world that have established gender-variant identities worldwide, some of which are accepted as an essential part of their societies. These are the gender identities and roles that Western anthropologists have called third gender, because they are different than the Western gender binary idea of cisgender, heterosexual, masculine men and feminine women. Identities that have been called "third gender" are often transgender and nonbinary, and the "third gender" label pushes that interpretation. However, many of the identities that anthropologists call third gender are not nonbinary identities: some are instead lesbians, gay men, and intersex people. This is part of why "third gender" is a problematic colonialist label. Calling these identities by outside labels such as "transgender" and "nonbinary," in cases where the people in question haven't said that they would call themselves by those words, can also be colonialist and problematic.

Although it is challenging for Western writers to do so, it is important to talk about these identities without imposing modern Western ideas of gender on them, such as binarism. Sometimes it isn't clear to outsiders whether a certain apparently gender nonconforming or LGBT role was made of people who were like what they think of as gay cisgender people, transgender women, transgender men, or nonbinary people. It can be unwise for outsiders to try to fit them into those modern Western categories. However, it is also difficult to talk about them without doing something like that.

People who aren't members of these cultures and ethnic groups aren't entitled to call themselves by any of the following genders. That would be cultural appropriation, which means taking parts of somebody else's culture to use for yourself. It is acceptable to learn about these cultures, so long as one does not take what is not one's own.

Outsiders should learn about cultures that accept transgender and nonbinary people so that they can support those people on their own terms, and so that they are informed about political challenges that those people face today. Outsiders should also learn about them in order to see that there have been hundreds of accepting cultures throughout history, that it has been done and that it has worked, and that these genders have always been real. This gives hope for other cultures to become accepting as well.

Third gender

Third gender is a catch-all category used by some Western anthropologists when talking about other cultures that have societal gendered roles for people who can be thought of as under nonbinary, transgender, and sometimes larger MOGII umbrellas. Third gender includes Two Spirit, Hijra, and many other gender-variant identities worldwide. The people described do not necessarily call themselves anything analogous to the label "third gender," as the term is applied to them by external anthropologists. Additionally, the culture itself may not necessarily think of there strictly being three genders, either. Some Western writers have used "third gender" only for people who they consider to be on the male-to-female spectrum, and "fourth gender" for people on the female-to-male spectrum. Other writers use "third gender" to include both. A "third gender" label has also sometimes been applied to people more accurately described as cisgender, gay, or lesbian. There have been critical analysis[1] about the use of the term third gender in anthropology and transgender rights movements as perpetuating the romanticization of cultures outside of the Anglo-Saxon West, and for this reason it is important to make the distinction that only people of the ethnic group which uses a particular designation are entitled to use it as an identity. For instance, someone who is not from India or of Indian descent should not refer to themself as hijra, as this would be cultural appropriation. Although there are strong historical patterns of the term "third gender" being used by white colonialist anthropologists to erase ethnic genders among People of Colour, it is important to remember that many phenotypically white cultures have also had nonbinary genders. It would, therefore, also be cultural appropriation for a non-Italian to refer to themself as a Femminiello, or someone who is not from the Balkans to refer to themself as a sworn virgin.

In Whipping Girl, Julia Serano talks about some of the problems of how Westerners have interpreted gender variant people in other cultures as "third gender" in order to support those Westerners' own theories about gender. For example, she says that Will Roscoe, who studied Two-Spirit people in history, interprets those people as nonbinary in every case, even when the people themselves made clear that they identified as women or men. Roscoe does this to support his view that gender is always only a social construct. Serano wrote,

"Because Roscoe is determined to demonstrate that Native American berdaches [Two-Spirit people] represent 'third genders,' he plays up the ways in which these groups showed signs of being separate from and/or a mix of female and male, while playing down evidence that some berdaches may have actually seen themselves as, or wanted to be, the other [binary] gender. While this is not difficult to do for certain berdaches (as these roles varied significantly between Native American nations), Roscoe sticks to his 'third gender' hypothesis even when analyzing the historical record of the Mohave alyha (MTF spectrum) [...] Despite the fact that the alyha 'insisted on being referred to by female names and with female gender references,' used 'the Mohave word for clitoris to refer to their penises,' received female facial tattoos, and took part in rituals where they simulated pregnancy, Roscoe still argues that they should be considered 'third gender' [...] Roscoe resorts to giving more credence to the judgments of non-gender-variant Mohave [...] Roscoe himself purposely uses inappropriate pronouns and favors birth sex over identified sex when writing about berdaches."[2]

The alyha in the case above is more analogous to Westerners' idea of a trans woman than a nonbinary gender. Serano says Roscoe interprets gender variant Two-Spirit people as a nonbinary "third gender" even when it means ignoring things the people in question said about themselves. Roscoe interprets them in his way, not theirs, in order to support his own views. He also did cissexist things such as calling people by different pronouns than the ones they asked for. This is common for how Western anthropologists talk about people who they call "third gender". The people in question might not identify as a nonbinary third gender like the anthropologists say they do at all. Outsiders need to be careful that they do not interpret gender roles in other cultures in ways that just support those outsiders' own views. Outsiders also need to be careful to not take the word of an anthropologist that a gender variant role is really a nonbinary "third gender," as it might not be a true fact. Third gender is a problematic and often misrepresented concept in anthropology.

List of gender-variant identities

This list focuses on identities that are most analogous to nonbinary gender. However, due to the problems of imposing outsider's views on these identities, this isn't clear in all cases. Some of the identities in the list below may be more analogous to binary transgender women and transgender men than to nonbinary identity. This should not list identities that are known to be more analogous to cisgender identities that are simply gender nonconforming or non-heterosexual.


The word "sekhet" in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.[3]
  • Writings from ancient Egypt (Middle Kingdom, 2000-1800 BCE) said there were three genders of humans: males, sekhet (sht), and females, in that order. Sekhet is usually translated as "eunuch," but that's probably an oversimplification of what this gender category means. Since it was given that level of importance, it could potentially be an entire category of gender/sex variance that doesn't fit into male or female. The hieroglyphs for sekhet include a sitting figure that usually mean a man, but the word doesn't include hieroglyphs that refer to genitals in any way. At the very least, sekhet is likely to mean cisgender gay men, in the sense of not having children, and not necessarily someone who was castrated. [3]
  • In Benin, when it was the Kingdom of Dahomey, it had the Mino, warriors who were AFAB and considered masculine.
  • In Ethiopia, the Maale people had a gender role called Ashtime, for assigned-male-at-birth (AMAB) eunuchs who live as women, though later this became an umbrella term for all kinds of gender non-conforming AMAB people.
  • In Madagascar, the Sakalava people have the Sekrata, who are analogous to binary transgender women.


We'Wha, a famous Zuni Two-Spirit (Lhamana) person who lived 1849-1896.

Hundreds of cultures throughout North and South America had gender roles for those other than cisgender women and cisgender men. Internationally (that is, across all Native American nations), these transgender and nonbinary people are called two-spirit. Depending on the nation, and on the individual, a two-spirit role is not necessarily analogous to what Westerners consider nonbinary. That is, some two-spirit roles and persons may be more analogous to what Westerners categorize as gay men, lesbian women, bisexual people, trans men, or trans women. However, those roles and persons listed here can be considered analogous to nonbinary, in that they are distinct from-- or combine characteristics of-- male and female gender roles and expressions, in their cultures.

  • The Blackfoot Confederacy recognizes Ninauposkitzipxpe, "manly-hearted women," who are AFAB and occupy a gender role different from that of women and men.
  • The Lakota recognize Winkte, who are AMAB and occupy a gender role like that of women.
  • The Navajo recognize Nadleehi, who are AMAB and feminine, and the Dilbaa, who are AFAB and masculine.
  • The Zuni recognize lhamana, who take on roles and duties associated with both men and women, and they wear a mixture of women's and men's clothing. They work as mediators.[4][5]
  • In Mexico, the Zapotec people recognize the Muxe, who are AMAB and feminine. This term also includes gay men.
  • In Peru, the pre-colonial Incas recognized Quariwarmi, a nonbinary mixed-gender role.
  • The Ojibwe people of Canada recognized the ininiikaazo and the ikwekaazo pre-colonization. Ininiikaazo means "woman who functions as a man," and ikwekaazo means "man who functions as a woman."

Asia and Middle East

A group of Hijra, circa 1865.
  • In south Asian countries including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the Hijra are AMAB people with a feminine gender expression. This is a very ancient tradition. Today, Hijra are legally recognized as a gender other than female or male. The Hijra of India alone may number as many as 2,000,000.[6]
  • The Bugis people of Indonesia divide their society into five separate genders. These are oroané (cisgender men), makkunrai (cisgender women), calabai (analogous to transgender women), calalai (transgender men), and bissu. To be considered bissu, all aspects of gender must be combined to form a whole. Bissu may or may not be intersex. It is a cultural belief that all five genders must harmoniously coexist.[7][8] [9][10][11]
  • Also in Indonesia, waria refers to a third gender.[12] Because the discrimination they face, most warias only have the option to work as sex workers.
  • In Japan, X-gender (Xジェンダー) is a common transgender identity that isn't female or male.[13]
  • In Turkey, in the 17th century Ottoman Empire, the köçek were feminine AMAB people.
  • In Oman, the Xanith are AMAB people with a partially feminine gender expression.
  • In Nepal, the Metis are AMAB people with a feminine gender expression.
  • In Myanmar, the Acault are AMAB people with a feminine gender expression.
  • In Siberia, the indigenous Chuckchi people have shamans who are a nonbinary gender, usually feminine AMAB people.
  • In Iraq, the ancient Sumerians had several kinds of nonbinary priesthoods, called Assinnu, Kurgarru, and Kalaturru.
  • In Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is a 100 year old tradition in which a family with no sons will choose a daughter to raise as a bacha posh (meaning "dressed as a boy"), a male or intermediate gender role. This lasts until the child has reached marriage age, whereupon the child is pressured to switch to a female gender role.
  • In classical Arabic writings, people called Mukhannathun (Arabic مخنثون "effeminate ones", "men who resemble women", singular mukhannath) were queer people who were assigned male at birth, analogous to transgender women, or to very feminine gay men, depending on the individual. In Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 41, Number 4910, Mohammed said to exile a mukhannath, and said not to kill them.[14] At one point during the Umayyad dynasty, a caliph ordered that all mukhannathun should be castrated. In response to this, a group of mukhannathun are recorded as having this conversation about it: "This is simply a circumcision which we must undergo again." "Or rather the Greater Circumcision!" "With castration I have become a mukhannath in truth!" "Or rather we have become women in truth!" "We have been spared the trouble of carrying around a spout for urine." "What would we do with an unused weapon anyway?"[15]
  • In the Philippines, various pre-colonial ethnic groups had spiritual functionaries called babaylan/balian/katalonan, a few of them being AMAB people with a feminine gender expression called asog in groups in the Visayan islands and bayok in the Luzon islands.[16] Persecution of non-Christian, non-Muslim people and the imposition of patriarchy and binary gender has led to the erasure of these social roles.[17]
  • In Thailand, kathoey refers to trans women or effeminate gay men. However, a lot of people perceive kathoeys as a third gender.[18] Many kathoeys work in traditionally female occupations such as in shops or restaurants, but also in factories. They can also works in cabarets and as sex workers.[19]

Australia and Oceania

  • In Australia, Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities recognize identities called sistergirl (analogous to trans woman) and brotherboy (analogous to trans man).[20]
  • In Tiwi Island culture, "Sistagirl", traditionally Yimpininni, is an identity analogous to trans woman.[21]
Fa'afafine banner at the Auckland pride parade in 2016.
  • In Samoa, the Fa'afafine are AMAB people with a feminine gender expression, who don't think of themselves as female or male. It has been estimated that between the 1% and 5% of Samoans are fa'afafine.[22] Fa'afafines are accepted in the Samoan culture, although in some conservative sectors of the society they are still discriminated. Fa'afafines translates to "in the manner of a woman" in Samoa[23].
  • In New Zealand, the Maori culture recognizes transgender identities called Whakawahine (feminine and AMAB) and Wakatane (masculine and AFAB).
  • Māhū ("in the middle") in Kanaka Maoli (Hawaiian) and Maohi (Tahitian) cultures are third gender persons with traditional spiritual and social roles within the culture. The māhū gender category existed in their cultures during pre-contact times, when they were noted as priests and healers, and they still exist today. Māhū people can be either AMAB or AFAB.[24]
  • In the Cook Islands, people who do not fit the gender binary are called akava'ine[23].


Sworn virgin in Rapsha, Hoti, Ottoman Albania, at the beginning of the 20th century.
  • In Albania, the Burrnesha, "sworn virgins," are AFAB people with a masculine gender expression and role. This tradition goes back to at least the 1400s, and is still practiced.
  • In Italy, the Femminello, "little man-woman," are AMAB people with a feminine gender expression.

Several world regions

The Archigallus of Cherchel, a marble statue of a priest of Cybele, from 2nd-3rd century CE.
  • Originating in Turkey, and spreading to Europe, many of the ancient priestesses of the goddess Cybele were Gallae. The Gallae were AMAB eunuchs who were analogous to transgender women. Today, some worshipers of Cybele call themselves Gallae. One of their temples is in New York.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • Herdt, Gilbert H. Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. New York: Zone Books, 1994. Print.
  • Nanda, Serena. Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations. Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press, 2000. Print.


  1. The Coloniality of Power: Critiquing the Transgender Paradigm
  2. Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Unpaged.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "The Third Gender in Ancient Egypt."
  4. Matilda Coxe Stevenson, The Zuni Indians: Their Mythology, Esoteric Fraternities, and Ceremonies, (BiblioBazaar, 2010) p. 37
  5. Suzanne Bost, Mulattas and Mestizas: Representing Mixed Identities in the Americas, 1850-2000, (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2003, pg.139
  6. Reddy, Gayatri, With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India, 310 pp., University of Chicago Press, 2005 ISBN 0-226-70755-5 (see p. 8)
  7. "Sulawesi's fifth gender" . Inside Indonesia. Archived from the original on 28 July 2012. Retrieved 2011-07-25.
  8. <a href="">"Sex, Gender, and Priests in South Sulawesi, Indonesia"</a> (PDF). International Institute for Asian Studies. Retrieved 2011-07-25.
  9. Davies, Sharyn Graham. Gender Diversity in Indonesia: Sexuality, Islam and Queer Selves (ASAA Women in Asia Series), Routledge, 2010.
  10. Davies, Sharyn Graham. Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders Among Bugis in Indonesia (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology), Wadsworth Publishing, 2006.
  11. Pelras, Christian. The Bugis (The Peoples of South-East Asia and the Pacific), Wiley-Blackwell, 1997.
  12. Oostvogels, Robert (1995). The Waria of Indonesia: A Traditional Third Gender Role, in Herdt (ed.), op cit.
  13. Marilyn Roxie. "Selected links on nonbinary gender in Japan." March 28, 2013.
  14. USC-MSA compendium of Muslim Text: Partial Translation of Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 41:General Behavior (Kitab Al-Adab), Number 4910
  15. Rowson, Everett K. (October 1991). <a href="">"The Effeminates of Early Medina"</a> (PDF). Journal of the American Oriental Society (American Oriental Society) 111 (4): 671–693. doi:10.2307/603399 . JSTOR 603399.
  18. Winter, Sam (2003). Research and discussion paper: Language and identity in transgender: gender wars and the case of the Thai kathoey. Paper presented at the Hawaii conference on Social Sciences, Waikiki, June 2003. Article online.
  19. Winter S, Udomsak N (2002). Male, Female and Transgender: Stereotypes and Self in ThailandInternational Journal of Transgenderism. 6,1
  23. 23.0 23.1 Wade, Lisa & Myra Marz Ferree. Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.
  24. Kaua'i Iki, quoted by Andrew Matzner in 'Transgender, queens, mahu, whatever': An Oral History from Hawai'i. Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context Issue 6, August 2001