A very brief introduction to gender non-conforming cultures around the world
BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE
“The workings of gender are key to our identities, intimate relationships, everyday experiences, and social and cultural positioning,” begins Sally Hines, associate professor at The University Of Leeds and author of recently published book Is Gender Fluid? “Understandings, and thus practices, of gender have never been consistent… The ways in which gender is experienced in everyday life emerge from different historical, social and cultural frameworks. Traits seen to be typically masculine or feminine,” in the West, for example, “have changed greatly over time.” Harry Styles’ current wardrobe, anyone?
As Sally explains, the way humans think about gender and identity varies widely across different societies, cultures and communities, as well as historically over time, and yet, many think this is somehow a recent, Western phenomenon. As Teen Vogue’s news and politics editor Lucy Diavolo wrote recently, “[While] the transgender community continues to fight for civil rights in the US, one of the most common arguments against progress is that transgender people are a recent phenomenon… a symptom of the postmodern condition, or identity politics on steroids.”
In reality of course, and as Diavolo quips, “It’s nothing new”. The way we think about and understand gender is everevolving. Take the commonly given example of the consumerism-driven, “gendering” of the colours blue and pink (in western culture, at least). As I’m sure you’ve all read somewhere, someplace, indeed pink was originally put forward as the colour for boys and blue for girls. Advertising, as ever, has a lot to answer for. Secondly, trans, non-binary and otherwise gender nonconforming people (inclusive of those around the globe who don’t use or identify with the aforementioned western terms) have been around for centuries. In short, as many a Gen Z’s badge-emblazoned backpack proudly declares today: “Gender is a social construct!”
But how have, and how do different cultures and societies around the globe experience and interact with gender as it’s understood in their own cultures? What models exist outside of the male/female binary-based one we know oh-so-well here in the west? And where, indeed, might gender non-conforming* communities flourish? In a bid to expand our gender horizons a little further, here’s an introduction to just a handful of those communities who have lived beyond binaries…
*A little note on terminology… In this article, we use gender non-conforming as shorthand for people around the world who sit outside of their culture’s most usual understandings of gender. However, as Lucy Divalo crucially reminds us, “While it might be tempting to apply a label like ‘transgender’ to all of these people, it’s important to respect their sovereignty in defining their own identities.”
“One of the oldest gender non-conforming communities in the world,” according to Is Gender Fluid?, “Hijra is a South Asian term describing a person assigned male (or intersex) at birth, but who lives as female. Historically, many Hijra communities have existed in South Asia and they continue to be part of contemporary society.” In fact, as Jacob Ogles writes in 19 LGBT Hindu Gods, “For centuries, Hindu literature, mythology and religious texts have featured deities that defied the gender binary.” Sally continues, “The Hijra community has long been a part of Indian culture” and were “renowned for their sacred qualities.” Though today in contemporary India, “many earn money through sex work and from performing certain religious blessing.”
Fact: In 2014, Hijra people were legally recognised as a third gender in India (though the situation remains complex).
“Though the label has only been used since the 90s, the concept of the two-sprit is something indigenous groups have identified with for centuries,” begins educator and storyteller Geo Soctomah Neptune in a video for website, them.us. “It’s an umbrella term that bridges indigenous and Western understandings of gender and sexuality.” If you’ve seen Desiree Akhavan’s film The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, you’ll have come across Two-Spirit character, Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck). In the film, Adam tells his father he’s winkte and two spirit. These are “words that exist on a Lakotan spectrum of gender”. As Goodluck told online magazine Hero, “winkte is specifically a Lakotan term.”
Fact: The Two-Spirit tradition has been identified in some of the earliest discoveries of native artefacts and today, is celebrated in Pride events in North America (and may be included as the “2” at the end of LGBTQI2).
“Recognised as a gender identity by Samoan society since at least the 20th century,” explains Kimberley Troung for Refinery29, “Fa’afafine means ‘in the way of a woman’.” But how do the fa’fafine themselves explain the identity? “Western society tries to fit us [in] a box, to put us under gay, under trans and queer… but I think fa’afafine is our cultural identity – it defines us,” Lee Hang, a Samoan fa’afafine, told Reuters. “Despite the body that you have, if you love it, accept it and beautify what you have, it’s all that matters.”
Fact: According to the BBC, between 1-5% of the Samoan population identifies as fa’afafine.
“In some South American cultures,” our friend Sally Hines writes, “a travesti is a person who was assigned male at birth but identifies as female. Travesti often appear more feminine but may not identify fully as women or as men, rather claiming a separate gender identity with its own rules.” It seems that historically, travesti people were understood as “both men and women”, but, today, they are more often considered “a third gender”.
Fact: As we’re in the Americas already… There’s also the “muxe” people of the Mexican Zapotec culture who were recognised “as a third gender in a system predating Spanish colonialism”.
As Lucy Diavolo wonderfully summarises, “[These] stories offer up a simple lesson: There are always people who find themselves on the outside of simple binaries.”
This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!