The last decade or so has seen a change in the way we view gender. There has been an increase in the number of people who feel they do not identify their own gender as male or female and instead classify themselves under the umbrella term of non-binary.
The new label encompasses both trans and intersex people that have embraced an identity that simply means anything other than a binary idea of gender, meaning they can identify with more than one gender or see themselves as an entirely different third gender.
The recognition of nonbinary people has been mixed, many people now have a vague idea of what the term means, however, it has yet to gain widespread legal or social acceptance. As of February 2022, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada now give out passports that offer “X” as an alternative to male or female in under the gender category. Here in the UK, there is no such thing, with the government rejecting a petition of 130,000 people to legally recognise non-binary as a gender identity as recently as 2021.
To simply recognise the existence of non-binary people contradicts the long-held belief that gender and sex are the same. They are not, in fact, the same and the two terms should not be used interchangeably, but for simplicity they often are.
This is actually a very reductive view of gender because it intrinsically links the social and cultural aspects that make up someone’s gender identity with the biological characteristics that make that person’s sex. This thinking has proved to be harmful to the acceptance of trans and non-binary people, arguments against trans acceptance point out the possibility that thinking about gender as anything other than two separate categories entirely determined by biology is ridiculous. In particular, suggestions that there are more than two genders are mocked as if the very notion is absurd.
After all, isn’t it just common sense that you’re either male or female? Well, many don’t think so, not today and not in the past. It will come as a great surprise to most, but the idea of a third (or even fourth) gender is not at all modern and many cultures around the world and throughout history, acknowledge another gender identity that is neither male nor female.
Here are a few of them:
In the time period known as Edo Japan (1681- 1867) the country was subject to strict rules on gender. Its people were expected to adhere to strict social conventions on what was expected of men and women. District hairstyles and particular sets of clothes were expected to be kept to, and disobeying this code often carried a legal punishment. However, there was another group that defied these ideas. Known as the Wakashu, they have been called Japan’s “third gender”.
The Wakashu were all young men that were governed by unique social rules, they had distinctive hair compared to other men and wore colourful kimonos with long flowing sleeves like unmarried women of the time. What’s more, they were allowed to have sexual relationships with both men and women.
Interestingly, this “gender” was often temporary. The Wakashu was an in-between state between boyhood and manhood, but it should also be understood that Japanese concepts of maturity were also very different, growing into an adult was understood more fluidly than just depending merely on age. So while many of these young men did eventually transition into a traditional male role when they were older, some remained Wakashu for a large part of their lives.
Without a doubt, the Wakashu represent one of the world’s most unique beliefs around gender and sexuality, so why have you not heard of them? This era of Japanese history is known as Sakoku meaning “locked country”, there was little to no trade with other countries and foreign nationals were almost entirely barred from Japan. As such, they developed their own unique practices and view of gender. This started to change as the country opened up, particularly to the west who brought with them their technological, scientific, and military advancements but also their culture.
As Japan became more westernised, its people began to adopt western views rooted in Christianity and Victorian morality. New versions of masculinity and femininity were enforced as the country evolved from a reclusive feudal society to a modern centralised nation. Men were fined for having anything but a close-cropped haircut, women were forbidden to have any kind of short hair, and both were explicitly banned from cross-dressing by law.
With these new restrictive rules, a fluid gender identity had no place in modern Japan. The Wakashu effectively ceased to exist and Japan’s “third gender” was lost.
Among the native American tribes in North America, there were people who were said to have one body but two spirits. The term appears to have been used to describe intersex or just androgynous people that were believed to carry both a male and a female spirit simultaneously. The belief was held by a number of tribes including the Zuni, Blackfoot, Lakota and the Mojave tribe who recognised four genders, which included Hwame (male-identified females) and Alyha (female-identified males).
Two spirit people were considered not generally looked down upon but were actually seen as blessed. As such, they were often made religious leaders, teachers and were generally incredibly respected members of their tribe. For example, in the Navajo, a family was believed to be economically benefited by having a “nadleh” (meaning two spirit) person as a relative.
Two spirits also had a unique place in their community. They could perform both traditionally male roles like hunting, perform female roles like pottery and crafts, and were given more sexual freedom than would be expected. European explorers of the time were shocked when they found biological men and women married to members of the same sex, what’s more is that there is no evidence for the existence of any stigma for the spouse who chose to marry a two spirit of the same sex.
This didn’t last, however, as European influence on the American continent increased. There was a marked effort to wipe out the culture of the indigenous population and the distinctive status of the two spirits were no exception. Under new Christian marriage laws, the union of same sex couples was invalidated and the US government, Christian missionaries and even members of their own community forced people that had been known as two spirits into their binary western gender roles.
However, recently these beliefs have received some attention in relation to the debate about non-binary and trans rights in the LGBT community. Two spirits are now often seen as part of this movement but the unique spiritual aspects that are present are still acknowledged.
One of the only third gender communities, not only to still exist, but also to be legally recognised, is the Hijras of India. Officially recognised as a third gender by India, Nepal, and Bangladesh in 2014, they have a long history that stretches back over 2000 years. The Hijra are a varied and complex group with some that are intersex, but the majority are made up of biologically male people who dress and present as female, with some undergoing a castration ceremony as a part of an ancient Hindu tradition.
Some have classified the Hijra as transgender but generally the Hijra reject that label and describe themselves as neither male nor female. There is an argument for understanding the Hijra as non-binary but it’s important to view the Hijra, not in a western context, but an entirely different view of gender. The Hijra occupy a unique space in Indian culture and are closely linked with Hindu spirituality: depicted in the holy texts of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as gifted singers and dancers, a role which they traditionally performed at weddings or traditional Hindu ceremonies in the past.
In modern times though, the Hijra are now the victims of discrimination, for decades they have been the target of violence and prevented opportunities for employment. For most Indians, the Hijra are now most associated with street begging and sex work, so much so that the HIV rate for Hijra people is 100x the national average.
But it wasn’t always this way. The Hijra were respected by the Mughal empire, which ruled India from the 15th to 19th century and could be found in many positions of power in the period. But, in a familiar story, this changed under British control of the subcontinent. An 1871 law criminalised the existence of the Hijra and required the police to register men who publicly wear women’s clothing. The legacy of this law continues to fuel hatred against the Hijra, but the community has endured, and as of 2014 there were 3 million of them in India alone.
What does this mean?
These examples are just a few, but there are hundreds of cultures across almost every continent that at one time accepted and even celebrated the people that do not fit into the male/female binary.
It can be hard to fit all these different ideas of gender under the umbrella of the non-binary label currently used by the LGBT community, because so much of their gender identity is tied up in local traditions in a way that’s not comparable to any modern group. Yet, it does show each society comes to a unique conclusion about gender that is deeply rooted in their social, cultural, and spiritual understanding of the world. Since this is the case, our ideas of what exactly constitutes a gender identity is open to changes over time and modern discussions around the subject make it unclear what the future of gender identity will be.
What is clear, is that non-binary people are nothing new and that the lack of acceptance for a non-binary gender identity seems to be a particular feature of western culture, not a universal truth. While there were definitely other societies that have a dualistic understanding of gender, European colonialism played a vital role in imposing this strict binary onto cultures where it did not exist.
And it continues to this day, despite increasing awareness about non-binary people, governments still take actions to preserve adherence to our current gender roles as strictly as possible. Whether this means the UK rejecting an alternative category for non-binary people on passports, or China introducing new regulations banning “effeminate” men from tv and media to promote their “traditional values”.
For the past, and even the present, the story of non-binary identity is one of repression and erasure. The future, however, remains to be seen.