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Exploring the history of gender expression

Editor’s note: Link welcomes guest writer Ianna Urquhart of the UCOP Gender Pronoun Education/Awareness Initiative for this informative background of gender identity in societies throughout the world. Learn more about Ianna in her 10-Second Bio.

Although contemporary culture likes to position gender non-conforming people as a new phenomenon, history shows otherwise. Anthropologists have long documented cultures around the world that acknowledge more than two genders. There are examples going back 3,000 years to the Iron Age, and even further back to the Copper Age. In this article, we’ll explore cultures from around the world in which the boundaries between male and female gender expressions have been fluid — and celebrated for being so.

Pacific Islands

Long before Cook’s arrival in Hawaii, a multiple-gender tradition existed among the Kanaka Maoli indigenous society. The mahu referred to biological males or females who inhabited a gender role somewhere between, or encompassing both, the masculine and feminine. They held a sacred social role as educators and promulgators of ancient traditions and rituals.

Fa’afafine are people who identify themselves as a third-gender in Samoa, American Samoa and the Samoan diaspora. A recognized gender identity/gender role since at least the early 20th century in Samoan society — and some theorize an integral part of traditional Samoan culture — fa’afafine are male at birth and explicitly embody both masculine and feminine gender traits, fashioned in a way unique to this part of the world.


Prior to colonization, the Ankole people in what is now Uganda elected a woman to dress as a man and thereby become an oracle to the god Mukasa.

Among the Sakalavas of Madagaskar, little boys thought to have a feminine appearance were raised as girls. The Antandroy and Hova called their gender-crossers sekrata. They, like the society’s women, wore their hair long and in decorative knots, inserted silver coins in pierced ears and adorned their arms, wrists and ankles with many bracelets.

Latin America

In pre-colonial Andean culture, the Incas worshipped the chuqui chinchay, a dual-gendered god. Third-gender ritual attendants or shamans performed sacred rituals to honor this god. The quariwarmi shamans wore androgynous clothing as “a visible sign of a third space that negotiated between the masculine and the feminine, the present and the past, the living and the dead.”

Today, the indigenous Zapotec culture of Oaxaca is not divided by the usual dichotomies: gay or straight, male or female. There’s a commonly accepted third category of mixed gender — people called muxes. (Their name is said to derive from mujer — the Spanish word for “woman.”) Some are men who live as women; others identify beyond a single gender.


Indonesia recognizes a third gender, waria. One ethnic group, the Bugis (numbering around 3 million people) recognize five genders. Their language offers five terms referencing various combinations of sex, gender and sexuality: makkunrai (“female women”), oroani (“male men”), calalai (“female men”), calabai (“male women”) and bissu (“transgender priests”). These definitions are not exact, but suffice.

In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the hijras are officially recognized as third gender by the government, being neither completely male nor female. In India also, transgender people have been given the status of “third gender” and are protected by law, despite the social ostracism. The term more commonly advocated by social workers and transgender community members themselves is khwaja sira. This can identify the individual as a transsexual person, transgender person (khusras), cross-dresser (zenanas) or eunuch (narnbans).

Kathoey or katoey refers to either a transgender woman or effeminate gay male in Thailand. A significant number of Thais perceive kathoeys as belonging to a third gender — including many kathoeys themselves — while others see them as either a kind of man or a kind of woman. However, when considering transgender women (MtF) as a group in Thai society, most refer to themselves as phuying (“women”), with a minority referring to themselves as phuying praphet song (a “second kind of woman”) and only very few referring to themselves as kathoey.

Native America

Anthropological research indicates well over 100 instances of diverse gender expression in Native American tribes at the time of early European contact. The most common modern term for gender non-conforming members is “Two Spirit” (also two-spirit or twospirit) used by some indigenous North Americans to describe certain spiritual people — gay, lesbian, bisexual and gender-variant individuals — in their communities. The term was adopted in 1990 at an Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering to encourage the replacement of the anthropological term berdache.

“Two Spirit” is not interchangeable with “LGBT Native American.” This title differs from most Western, mainstream, definitions of sexuality and gender identity in that it is not so much about with whom one sleeps or how one personally identifies; rather, it is a sacred, spiritual and ceremonial role that is recognized and confirmed by the Elders of the Two Spirit’s ceremonial community. While some have found the term a useful tool for intertribal organizing, not all Native cultures conceptualize gender or sexuality this way, and most tribes use names in their own languages. While some terms are not always appropriate or welcome, “Two Spirit” has generally received more acceptance and use than the term it replaced.

Individual tribes often also have their own classifications, such as the wíŋkte among the Lakota, the mixuga among the Ponca, the badé among the Crow and many others. These are all third-gender roles adopted by males, somewhat analogous to what we might think of as a transgender woman today. They’re not exactly equivalent of course. In general, these third-gender roles were liminal social positions, standing somewhere between the categories of man and woman — being neither, but having traits of both in addition to traits unique unto themselves.

The degree to which a third-gender person could shift fluidly between man, woman and third gender roles varied among cultures. Osh-Tisch, the most famous badé, for example, generally adopted the attire of women and engaged in women’s work, but when war came to the Crow, Osh-Tisch adopted men’s clothing and fought with the men (earning the rather badass name Finds-Them-and-Kills-Them). Among the Crow of that time (late 1800s), Osh-Tisch’s gender fluidity was considered less remarkable than the fact that a woman, The Other Magpie, also fought alongside Osh-Tisch. Like most badé, Osh-Tisch never married, but did have at least one long-term relationship with a man and perhaps another with a woman (who may be The Other Magpie). When the U.S. forced their own ideas of gender on the Crow, the people rallied in defense of the badé. Though Osh-Tisch was eventually forced by US agents to adopt what they deemed appropriate attire and labor for a man, the badé managed to keep many of the traditions associated with that gender role alive.

Diné (Navajo) society has traditionally had five genders: asdzaan (female-in-woman), hastiin (male-in-man), nadleeh (hermaphrodite, androgyny or gender fluidity), nadleehi (woman-in-man, feminine gender) and dilbah (man-in-woman, masculine gender).

For the Navajo, gender had less to do with sexual preference or biology than societal role. Most of the time, there was not much special about these people. Social hierarchy meant that female-gendered individuals were more powerful because the feminine is the first gender. Nadleeh could be revered because they might express both male and female spirits perfectly, whereas every other gender could express only one spirit. (It is worth noting though that not every nadleeh does, which is why sometimes people say that the Navajo have “at least” five genders — there is some wiggle room in there).

… and beyond

Even in the heart of Catholic Italy, in Naples, there is a centuries-old phenomenon of femminielli, those assigned male at birth who dress and behave as women. They are respected figures and traditionally believed to bring good luck; a cultural tradition that may date back to pagan rituals of crossdressing, or eunuch priests.

This vast anthropological and archaeological evidence of multiple gender expression is often willfully ignored, but the reality is that gender non-conformity has been a part of human society since the very beginning. And, it’s not going anywhere.

About the Gender Pronoun Education/Awareness Initiative

Promoting diversity and inclusion is a key component of our healthy and productive workplace culture. The newest effort to nurture this culture is the UCOP Gender Pronoun Education/Awareness Initiative, which is focused on educating staff around how we can support trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming staff by implementing simple changes in how we use pronouns in the workplace.

This is the third article in a three-part series, which includes “Introducing the Gender Pronoun Initiative” (Sept. 23) and “What is gender?” (Oct. 7). Stay tuned for our next article on Oct. 22.

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