Culture is a universal feature of human societies. Each one is unique in its own way; some are larger; some are smaller; some are more permeable than others. Much like a blood cell, they have barriers that can be passed through but remain selectively guarded from intrusion and extrusion.
Broadly speaking, we can think of the porous membrane of a blood cell analogous to the United States’ cultural selectivity. This is the barrier that stands between the acceptance of different cultural attributes, behaviors, symbols, and features.
Testing this membrane for rigidity on the topic multiple genders is rather simple. Listen to your favorite music, go see a movie, watch some television, read a history book or read a fiction book and you will find that every time a person’s gender is identified or discussed they will be only male or female. Its no wonder that the majority’s of our cultural perception of our own population is binary gender conforming. It’s all we know!
But has it always been so and is it still?
To answer this question I thought to turn my gaze towards one of the most overlooked sets of cultures within the Western culture, the Indigenous cultures of North America.
To my interest I found that many cultures both past a present welcomed mixed, intermediate, cross, non, third and fourth gender categories in their cultures. These gender diverse cultures include, but are not limited to, the Zapotec (Mexico), Blackfoot (Canada, Northern US) and Lakota culture (Great Plains). In depth analysis of each of the culture’s gender categories is challenging because of a complete lack of vocabulary.
The Zapotec of Mexico recognize a group named muxhe, coming from the XVI century Spanish word for women, (mujer, muller, muxhe) this definition intends to tie together the terms masculine-feminine and identifies a person similar to transgender or gay, but with unique characteristics. Read more here or watch this documentary.
The Blackfoot of the recognize a group named ninauposkitzipxpe, meaning ‘manly-hearted woman’, is applied to women who do not behave in the restricted manner of the women with traditional gender roles within the culture. Instead they have freedom and independence that men and women both enjoy. The manly-hearted women embraced a number of traits including aggressiveness, independence, ambition, boldness and sexuality. Read more here.
The Lakota of the Great Plains region recognize a group named winkte, meaning ‘two-souls-person’ and applies to males (sex) referring to someone who is either homosexual or transgender that don’t conform to normative male gender roles.
How about gender on an international level?
India recognizes a 3rd gender called hijras, who are physiological males who have feminine gender identity, adopt feminine gender roles, and wear women’s clothing. It is estimated that there are approximately 5-6 million hijras in India. Read more here.
Just North of Indai, Nepal, legally recognizes a 3rd gender. On December 27, 2007 the Supreme Court of Nepal ruled that official documents must not recognize a 3rd gender option as “other” which include “people who present or perform as a gender that is different from the one that was assigned to them at birth. It can also include people who do not feel that the male or female gender roles dictated by their culture match their true social, sexual, or gender identity.” Read more here.
Similarly, on December 23, 2009 Pakistan’s supreme court ruled that hijras must be given government identification cards that recognize them as a distinct gender. Read more here.
In Thailand kathooey, a 3rd gender term, refers to a male-to-female transgender person or and effeminate gay male. The term is roughly translated to English meaning “lady-boy.” Watch more here.
I’ve considered multiple genders through time and internationally. In doing so it has become more clear that there are a variety of genders throughout the world. Each different in their own ways, defined differently, performed differently, and identified differently.
By observing closely both our own past and foreign cultures I believe that there are many lessons to learn. The first is that gender isn’t as clear cut as feminine and masculine strictly corresponding to female and male. In my next post I will discuss the nature of gender and its relation to legal representation in the United States and propose some needed changes to our legal system.