Thursday, May 3, 2012

GUEST POST: Beyond His And Hers: Breaking the Gender Binary

Beyond His And Hers: Breaking the Gender Binary

For the majority of people, sex and gender are not only interchangeable, but also pretty cut and dried. There are your males, and there are your females. If you're XY, you're male; if you're XX, you're female. But among a growing number of anthropologists, sociologists, and even biologists, that conception is changing. In addition to the growing number of recognized intersex conditions which result in the expressed gender of a person being incongruent with their genetically-coded sex, a number of animal species have been identified that exhibit more than two genders. And while this may be revelatory to Western culture, elsewhere in the world, the concept is nothing new.

As far back as ancient Mesopotamia over 4000 years ago, literature has been rife with examples of person who were neither man nor woman. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all described a third gender that inhabited a space between male and female. Even the quintessential sex manual, the 4th century CE Kama Sutra makes specific reference to three distinct genders, which they call prakrti, or "natures". Today, India is home to what is probably the most populous and well-known third gender group in the world -- the hijra. While physiologically male, the hijra express a feminine gender identity. Many of them consider themselves to be a third gender, enough so that in 2005, India allowed for an "other" category to be available on government documents like passports and voter rolls. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the kathoeys of Thailand, the hijra of Pakistan, the fa'afafine of Samoa, and the third genders of Nepal have all made significant advancements in becoming recognized by their respective governments as legally separate from both men and women. In addition, the khanith of Oman, the waria of Indonesia, the ashtime of Ethiopia, and the mashoga of Kenya are other (but by no means an exhaustive list of) examples of recognized third genders in other cultures around the world.

Ancient and modern cultures on this side of the world, too, have long been aware of the existence of more than two genders. The Aztec, Mayan, and Incan civilizations all recognized a distinction between sex and gender and understood the fluidity of the latter. Many Native American tribes to this day – including the Lakota, Navajo, and Mohawk – have adopted the term two-spirit as a way to identify persons expressing a non-binary gender variance. Throughout Latin America and the Carribean, third gender roles are also called, variously, muxe, biza'ah, travestis, guevedoche, and kwolu-aatmwol, among others.

As more research becomes available, it becomes increasingly more clear that it is only the West – Western Europe and the United States – that are slow to acknowledge what most of the rest of the world appears to take for granted. In fact, some scholars have gone to great lengths to redefine third gender persons in terms of sexual orientation rather than gender identity. Rather than accept the truth that is before them, many choose to ignore the facts in favor of an interpretation that they can accept – one that doesn't make them nervous or uncomfortable. And that's the wrong attitude to take when dealing with something as precious as a person's identity.

The simple fact is that there are more people in the world who accept some form of non-binary gender than there are those who don't. And there is enough solid science backing up the first group that I believe it's time to put aside our preconceptions and deal with people on their terms rather than the ones we force upon them.

Roger Armstrong is the webmaster for Storm Moon Press and a sometimes author. He can be found on Twitter @slutbamwalla.


Today's guest post is in celebration of the first Trans* title to be offered by Storm Moon Press, Kelly Rand's Pearl:

Edith sleepwalks through a life so normal as to be boring. She lives with her mother, works a mundane job to support them, and makes no waves among the ladies of her sleepy 1920's Canadian town. Secretly, though, she watches the flappers and so-called "loose women" with envy, dreaming of what glamorous lives they must have. And that's before Clark walks into her life.

Clark embodies the world that Edith wishes she could be a part of. He's slick and dangerous and sexy in a way Edith has never experienced. So when Clark offers her a window into his world, she dives through without thinking. On the other side, though, her black and white world explodes into shades of gray, challenging Edith in ways she never imagined.

Be sure to stop back later today for my review!


  1. As that term is very specific and important to me, as I've researched with the elders of my People as well as interact regularly with other natives, I'm sorry but the term two-spirit is not solely "to identify persons expressing a non-binary gender variance." It is more than that. Very specifically, we believe and use it to apply to anyone who chooses it, whether they identify also as strictly homosexual, bisexual, transgender or are intergender. My point is, for some who are two spirit, they do not feel as you say "non-binary gender variance" so I feel that definition is misleading and certainly not what we have expressed it as.

    I wrote an article “Two Spirit”-Tradition, History & Future" in which this is discussed from an American Indian perspective and understanding.

  2. The limitations of this blog entry didn't allow me to go into huge detail about any of the classifications that I mentioned, so I am certain that there are nuances and variations to many of them that I was unable to cover. I'm sure that entire blog entries could be devoted to each one of these cultural labels.

    I didn't mean to imply that two-spirit was used solely to identify non-binary gender, only that the term existed and was used for that purpose by at least some individuals. Thank you for your clarification.