Third-Gender Societies and Identities: We Have Always Existed
The intentions are to reframe the trans experience through a humanistic, holistic frameworks that promote embodiment, uplifting and honoring trans people and gender variance; away from our current, oppressive frameworks that perpetuate harm.
The trans experience is a lifetime experience from birth for those who embody a trans identity, despite any social, physical, medical, or body changes that are perceived by the world. We as people are born with unique energy that is alive and conscious through embodiment. Being transgender is about the embodiment of an authentic self, beyond the material world and what the “binary” world values based on anatomy. Gender is a significant part of life and our world and for some, gender identity and expression can change and evolve over the lifetime. Gender is an emotional, spiritual, whole body part of self, not inherently distressing or just “in one’s head”.
I define transgender as a third gender that is not socially acknowledged as a gender due to transphobia and the construction of a gender binary society that upholds “cisgender”, heteronormative ways of being, subscribing gender identity and expression to one’s anatomy. We live in a world that has embodied on social levels relating to people based on the perception of their body and the prescribed gender expectations, which unfortunately has been socio-emotionally detrimental to every single one of us, causing defense due to social shame of fluid gender and sexual expressions and ways of being.
A trans identity can be a gender identity of trans, transgender, non-binary, non-conforming, genderfluid and anyone who does not identify as cisgender. I acknowledge transgender to be no different from other third gender or gender variant people in history, through evolution and present day.
Third gender societies and cultures have existed across time and humanity. White supremacy, colonialism, imperialism, alongside a toxically gendered society and largely homophobic and transphobic has attempted to annihilate third gender communities. This has simultaneously forced all women and men (including cis) into limiting beliefs of the body and gender expression. A western world that upholds conventional models of medicine and health has contributed to the dehumanization (disembodiment) and ostracization of trans and queer people throughout history. We cannot erase or forget history. Our bodies, our policies, our systems and our mindsets hold our histories.
In addition, a conventional, western model of medicine and health has largely contributed to how we perceive and interact with concepts of gender, sexuality and ultimately trans people in our society. “Gender dysphoria” rhetoric and diagnosis is an example of the inherent transphobic mindsets in practice and policy that are based on conventional models of health.
A conventional model of medicine emphasizes:
1) binary gender structures or man equals “male” and woman equals “female” and is thus “controlled” by the biology of our bodies as related to gender identity and expression.
2) a brain-body disconnect or the “physical” body and “the mind” or brain as separate entities that operate separately; for example the compartmentalization of "mental" and "medical" healthcare.
3) a “curing” or “fix me” mentality that takes a passive approach to healing, prescribing someone virtually powerless in their healing and health, and the body as the enemy or helpless.
4) band aid treatment models that keep the “symptoms” or pain/discomfort down enough or manageable, but do not necessarily promote whole body health and healing from the pain/discomfort completely.
Conventional medicine models take on a passive approach, while holistic, energy models honor an active, integrative approach to health and healing. “Gender dysphoria” and the DSM are a function or western, conventional models of health that reinforce limiting beliefs of self, causing further disembodiment and powerlessness. Energy medicine enforces integration, interconnectedness, holistic health and embodiment; the body as whole and energy as power. The body is right and wise, not wrong and “dysphoric”.
It’s hard to live in modern society without being bombarded by the belief system that only two genders exist, “male” and “female” because of conventional models of health and social oppression. Even well-meaning people are being taught that trans people are “born in the wrong body,” further validating the belief that trans people are “other”, “unstable” and “undesirable”.
Despite these commonly held beliefs, examples of third gender identities have existed throughout history dating back as far as the Iron (3,000 years ago) and Copper Ages (3,000+). Ironically other societies and cultures historically have uplifted and honored third gender people and communities, unlike here in the United States and other western countries. Although trans identities have often been perceived as a new phenomenon, that is simply false. Third gender and gender variance across body types and sexualities have existed for millenia, often regarded with reverence for their unique spiritual roles.
In the Native-American culture, the term, “Two Spirit” was coined in 1990 at an Indigenous LGBT gathering to replace the anthropological term, “berdache” which described certain spiritual gay, lesbian, bisexual and gender-variant people in their communities. Two Spirit or TwoSpirit is not interchangeable with LGBTQIA Native Americans. It isn’t a term that identifies a person’s sexuality or gender identity but rather is one that is sanctioned by Elders of the two-spirit community and serves as a sacred and spiritual role. Not all Native cultures conceptualize sexuality and gender in this manner. Each tribe has its own language to express this role but Two Spirit has overarchingly been accepted and embraced more than the term it replaced.
In Hindu society, holy texts such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata uphold the belief of a hero, Arjuna who becomes the third-gender. This gender is revered throughout South Asian history where many third-gender people have risen to power under Hindu and Muslim rule. In 2014, 3 million third gender people were estimated to reside in India alone. The most common of these third-gender groups is the Hijra . Hijra consider themselves to be neither male nor female despite being assigned male at birth. Few identity as transgender. The hijra remove themselves from wider society to privately learn their teachings in secret. Hijras perform dances, songs and blessings at births and weddings which are believed to yield fertility, prosperity and a long life. It is widely believed that Hijras sacrifice their own fertility through castration to the goddess in exchange for this magnificent power. A Hijra can also curse a family who refuses to pay for their blessings though this is not commonplace as most families welcome them and their customs. Hijras are usually regarded with respect and fear. Although British rule has attempted to make their practices illegal and incarcerate Hijra due to a worship of binary identities, in 2014 India, Bangladesh and Nepal recognized third gender people as citizens with equal rights.
In Hawaii, multiple-genders have been a part of the indigenous society of Kanaka Maoli. The mahu were considered to inhabit both the male and female genders, encapsulating the masculine and feminine, serving as sacred educators and guardians of ancient ritual and tradition.
Fa’afafine are Samoans whose recognized identity is third gender, playing a key role in traditional Samoan culture. Fa’afafine embody both male and female traits. Having been assigned male at birth, they style themselves in a way that is unique to their culture.
The Ankole people in Uganda select a person assigned female at birth to dress in traditionally masculine ways and serve as an oracle to the god Mukasa. In Madagaskar, young boys thought to have a feminine appearance are raised as girls and are named sekata. They wear their long hair in ornate knots and adorn themselves with silver coins as earrings and bracelets on their wrists and ankles.
The Incas of early Andean culture prayed to chuqui chinchay, a third gender god. Shamans and other third gender attendees honored this god with sacred rituals. Shamans known as quariwarmi negotiated between present, past, living, dead, masculine and feminine, wearing gender non-conforming dress to acknowledge this “third space.”
In Oaxaca, there exists a third category of people known as muxes (deriving from the Spanish word, mujer). Some are assigned male at birth but identify as muxes while others identify as multiple genders.
In Thailand the term, Kathoey refers to a trans woman or a gay male who presents in a feminine manner. Kathoeys are often regarded as a third-gender and typically identify that way themselves. Some, however identify as phuying which simply means “women” while others prefer the term, “phuying prophet song” or a second kind of woman. Very few Kathoeys identify themselves as such, preferring the aforementioned terms.
Indonesians refer to a third gender as waria. The Bugis, an ethnic group of Indonesia account for 3 million people who recognize five genders. These terms include makkunrai which loosely translates to female woman, oroani or male men, calalai or female men or bissu meaning transgender priests.
During the Edo period in Japan from 1603-1868 wakashu was considered to be a third gender. Wakashu were assigned male at birth, had reached puberty but were not considered to be “full-fledged men.” They shaved their heads into a recognisable V shape with side locks. Wakashu, roughly translated to “beautiful youths,” were encouraged to engage in sex with both men and women. Much of what is known of wakashu is from the woodblock paintings that were popular at the time. The wakashu are depicted practicing flower arranging and playing specific musical instruments as well as other traditionally feminine disciplines such as flower arranging. They are shown as beautiful and desirable in these prints, which range from everyday milieu to more explicit erotica. Wakashu show us that the Edo period embraced a more fluid gender expression where broader sexualities were accepted.
In Naples, Italy exist a group of femminielli who may have evolved out of pagan ritual and eunuch priests. Femminielli serve as respected figures who have been thought to be a beacon of good luck. These individuals are typically assigned male at birth yet dress and behave in traditionally feminine ways. Despite the seeming rigidity of the Catholic religion adhered to in Naples, femminielli are held in high-esteem.
We are holistic creatures that function through energy exchange, interconnected internally and even externally (beyond our bodies). There is not one way to be a “man” or “woman” or “transgender” or to embody gender in society. If you look around, men and women, or masculine and feminine energy are all around us in various forms. We live in a “cisgender” world. Transgender people are different because we are born into a world where we inherently do not exist from birth (day one) in societies that do not honor third gender, or gender identities outside of traditional, oppressive social values. This does not make anyone wrong or the body wrong. Our bodies are whole and complete, and energy is always seeking health and healing (which sometimes means accessing medicines and interventions that help facilitate embodiment, like in gender-affirming care).
In order to create a world where we all belong, we must start honoring trans people and start challenging our current status quo of gender. A sense of belonging is a human need for health from birth, day one. I believe instead of continuing to “fix” or “change” trans people to fit binary mindsets of gender as related to the physical body, we must start honoring trans people as worthy, meaning integrated into our social systems, mindsets and structures as we are. Conceptualizing trans people as a third gender, I believe is one step toward dismantling harmful binary, rigid structures of gender that have disembodied all of us across a grotesque history of gender violence. Trans people are not “new.” “Gender dysphoria,” however, is new. Trans people are hundreds of thousands of years old. Many trans people have embodied many identities on this earth and hold wisdom that the world and healthcare can learn from.