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The terms third gender and third sex describe individuals who are categorized (by their will or by social consensus) as neither man nor woman, as well as the social category present in those societies who recognize three or more genders. The term "third" is usually understood to mean "other"; some anthropologists and sociologists have described fourth, fifth, and even some genders. The concepts of "third", "fourth" and "some" genders can be somewhat difficult to understand within Western conceptual categories.
Although biology usually determines genetically whether a human's biological sex is male or female (though intersex people are also born), the state of personally identifying as, or being identified by society as, belonging to neither the male or female genders is considered relative to the individual's gender role in society, gender identity, and sexual orientation. While some western scholars have sought to understand the term 'third gender' in terms of 'sexual orientation,' several other scholars, especially the native non-western scholars, consider this as a misrepresentation of 'third genders.' To different cultures or individuals, a third gender may represent an intermediate state between man and woman, a state of being both (such as "the spirit of a man in the body of a woman"), the state of being neither (neuter), the ability to cross or swap genders, another category altogether independent of men and women. This last definition is favored by those who argue for a strict interpretation of the "third gender" concept. In any case, all of these characterizations are defining gender and not the sex that biology gives to living beings.
The term has been used to describe hijras of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have gained legal identity, Fa'afafine of Polynesia, and Sworn virgins of the Balkans, among others, and is also used by many of such groups and individuals to describe themselves.
Like the hijra, the third gender is in many cultures made up of individuals considered male at the time of birth who take on a feminine gender role or sexual role. In cultures that have not taken on Western heteronormativity, they are usually seen as acceptable sexual partners for male-identifying individuals as long as the latter always maintain the "active" role.
In animals that are gonochoristic, a number of individuals within a population will not differentiate sexually into bodies that are typically male or female; this is called intersex. The incidence varies from population to population, and also varies depending on how femaleness and maleness are understood. Biologist and gender theorist Anne Fausto-Sterling, in a 1993 article, argued that if people ought to be classified in sexes, at least five sexes, rather than two, would be needed.
Evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden argues that, in addition to male and female sexes (as defined by the production of small or large gametes), more than two genders exist in hundreds of animal species. Species with one female and two male genders include red deer who have two male morphs, one with antlers and one without, known as hummels or notts, as well as several species of fish such as plainfin midshipman fish and coho salmon. Species with one female and three male genders include bluegills, where four distinct size and color classes exhibit different social and reproductive behaviours, as well as the spotted European wrasse (Symphodus ocellatus), a cichlid (Oreochromis mossambicus) and a kind of tree lizard, Urosaurus ornatus. Species with two male and two female genders include the white-throated sparrow, in which male and female morphs are either white-striped or tan-striped. White-striped individuals are more aggressive and defend territory, while tan-striped individuals provide more parental care. Ninety percent of breeding pairs are between a tan striped and a white striped sparrow. Finally, the highest number of distinct male and female morphs or "genders" within a species is found in the side-blotched lizard, which has five altogether: orange-throated males, who are "ultra-dominant, high testosterone" controllers of multiple females; blue-throated males, who are less aggressive and guard only one female; yellow-throated males, who do not defend territories at all but cluster around the territories of orange males; orange-throated females, who lay many small eggs and are very territorial; and yellow-throated females, who lay fewer, larger eggs and are more tolerant of each other.
Since at least the 1970s, anthropologists have described gender categories in some cultures which they could not adequately explain using a two-gender framework. At the same time, feminists began to draw a distinction between (biological) sex and (social/psychological) gender. Contemporary gender theorists usually argue that a two-gender system is neither innate nor universal. A sex/gender system which recognizes only the following two social norms has been labeled "heteronormative".
Anthropologist Michael G. Peletz is an expert in East Asian gender and sexuality. He believes our notions of different types of genders, including the attitudes toward the third gender, deeply affect our lives and reflects our values in society. In Peletz book, "Gender, Sexuality, and Body Politics in Modern Asia", he describes:
For our purposes, the term "gender" designates the cultural categories, symbols, meanings, practices, and institutionalized arrangements bearing on at least five sets of phenomena: (1) females and femininity; (2) males and masculinity; (3) Androgynes, who are partly male and partly female in appearance or of indeterminate sex/gender, as well as intersexed individuals, also known as hermaphrodites, who to one or another degree may have both male and female sexual organs or characteristics; (4) the transgendered, who engage in practices that transgress or transcend normative boundaries and are thus by definition "transgressively gendered"; and (5) neutered or unsexed/ungendered individuals such as eunuchs.
much of the existing work on cultural systems that incorporate a 'third sex' portray simplistic visions in which societies with more than two sex/gender categories are cast as superior to those that divide the world into just two. I argue that to understand whether a system is more or less oppressive than another we have to understand how it treats its various members, not only its 'thirds'."
In response to legal developments in Australia and Germany, the third International Intersex Forum, held in November/December 2013, made statements for the first time on sex and gender registration:
- To register intersex children as females or males, with the awareness that, like all people, they may grow up to identify with a different sex or gender.
- To ensure that sex or gender classifications are amendable through a simple administrative procedure at the request of the individuals concerned. All adults and capable minors should be able to choose between female (F), male (M), non-binary or multiple options. In the future, as with race or religion, sex or gender should not be a category on birth certificates or identification documents for anybody.
First reported in January 2003, Australians can use "X" as their gender. Alex MacFarlane is believed to be the first person in Australia to obtain a birth certificate recording sex as indeterminate, and the first Australian passport with an 'X' sex marker in 2003. This is stated by the West Australian to be on the basis of a challenge by MacFarlane, using an indeterminate birth certificate issued by the State of Victoria. The West Australian newspaper reported in January 2003 that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade "had decided to accommodate people whose birth certificates recorded their sex as indeterminate ... Alex is also believed to be the first Australian issued with a birth certificate acknowledging a gender other than male or female. Alex's says “indeterminate - also known as intersex”. It was issued in Alex's birth State of Victoria, which unlike WA, changed its policy to allow the category".
In 2011, the Australian Passport Office introduced new guidelines for issuing of passports with a new gender, and broadened availability of an X descriptor to all individuals with documented "indeterminate" sex. The revised policy stated that "sex reassignment surgery is not a prerequisite to issue a passport in a new gender. Birth or citizenship certificates do not need to be amended."
Australian Commonwealth guidelines on the recognition of sex and gender, published in June 2013, now extend the use of an 'X' gender marker to any adult who chooses that option, in all dealings with the Commonwealth government and its agencies. The option is being introduced over a three year period. The guidelines also clarify that the federal government collects data on gender, rather than sex.
Norrie May-Welby is popularly - but erroneously - often regarded as the first person in the world to obtain officially indeterminate, unspecified or "genderless" status. May-Welby became the first transsexual person in Australia to pursue a legal status of neither a man nor a woman, in 2010. In April 2014, the High Court of Australia ruled that NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages must record in the register that the sex of May-Welby is "non-specific".
Tony Briffa of Organisation Intersex International Australia and former mayor of City of Hobsons Bay, Victoria, previously acknowledged as the world's first openly intersex public official and mayor, states on Briffa's website that "my birth certificate is silent as to my sex".
Intersex organisations in Australia, such as Organisation Intersex International Australia are keen to establish a difference between intersex status and non-binary gender identities, stating that many intersex people regard themselves as men or women.
Germany is thought to be the first European country that identifies "indeterminate" sex on birth certificates, from November 2013. A report by the German Ethics Council stated that the law was passed because, "Many people who were subjected to a 'normalizing' operation in their childhood have later felt it to have been a mutilation and would never have agreed to it as adults." Deutsche Welle reported that an "indeterminate" 'option' was made available for the birth certificates of intersex infants with ambiguous genitalia on 1 November 2013. The move is controversial with many intersex advocates in Germany and elsewhere suggesting that it might encourage surgical interventions, or simply fails to address the key health concerns of intersex people.
The Hijra of India are probably the most well known and populous third sex type in the modern world – Mumbai-based community health organisation The Humsafar Trust estimates there are between 5 and 6 million hijras in India. In different areas they are known as Aravani/Aruvani or Jogappa. Often (somewhat misleadingly) called eunuchs in English, they may be born intersex or apparently male, dress in feminine clothes and generally see themselves as neither men nor women. Only eight percent of hijras visiting Humsafar clinics are nirwaan (castrated). Indian photographer Dayanita Singh writes about her friendship with a Hijra, Mona Ahmed, and their two different societies' beliefs about gender: "When I once asked her if she would like to go to Singapore for a sex change operation, she told me, 'You really do not understand. I am the third sex, not a man trying to be a woman. It is your society's problem that you only recognise two sexes.'" Hijra social movements have campaigned for recognition as a third sex, and in 2005, Indian passport application forms were updated with three gender options: M, F, and E (for male, female, and eunuch, respectively). Some Indian languages such as Sanskrit have three gender options.
In November 2009, India agreed to list eunuchs and transgender people as "others", distinct from males and females, in voting rolls and voter identity cards. On April 15, 2014, the Supreme Court of India recognized a third gender that is neither male nor female, and as a class entitled to reservation in education and jobs, stating "Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue." This verdict made India one of the few countries to give this landmark judgment.
In addition to the feminine role of hijras, which is widespread across the subcontinent, a few occurrences of institutionalised "female masculinity" have been noted in modern India. Among the Gaddhi in the foothills of the Himalayas, some girls adopt a role as a sadhin, renouncing marriage, and dressing and working as men, but retaining female names and pronouns. A late-nineteenth century anthropologist noted the existence of a similar role in Madras, that of the basivi. However, historian Walter Penrose concludes that in both cases "their status is perhaps more 'transgendered' than 'third-gendered.'"
In 2012 Gopi Shankar, a gender activist from The American College in Madurai, coined the regional terms for genderqueer people in Tamil. Gopi said that, apart from male and female, there are more than 20 types of genders, such as transwoman, transmen, androgynous, pangender and trigender etc. and in ancient India it was referred to as Trithiya prakirthi (loosely translates to "Third Type"). "
In April 2014, Justice KS Radhakrishnan, of Supreme Court of India declared transgender to be the third gender in Indian law, in a case brought by the National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa) against Union of India and others. The ruling said:
Seldom, our society realises or cares to realise the trauma, agony and pain which the members of Transgender community undergo, nor appreciates the innate feelings of the members of the Transgender community, especially of those whose mind and body disown their biological sex. Our society often ridicules and abuses the Transgender community and in public places like railway stations, bus stands, schools, workplaces, malls, theatres, hospitals, they are sidelined and treated as untouchables, forgetting the fact that the moral failure lies in the society's unwillingness to contain or embrace different gender identities and expressions, a mindset which we have to change.
Justice Radhakrishnan said that transgender people should be treated consistently with other minorities under the law, enabling them to access jobs, healthcare and education. He framed the issue as one of human rights, saying that, "These TGs, even though insignificant in numbers, are still human beings and therefore they have every right to enjoy their human rights", concluding by declaring that:
(1) Hijras, Eunuchs, apart from binary gender, be treated as "third gender" for the purpose of safeguarding their rights under Part III of our Constitution and the laws made by the Parliament and the State Legislature.
(2) Transgender persons' right to decide their self-identified gender is also upheld and the Centre and State Governments are directed to grant legal recognition of their gender identity such as male, female or as third gender.
On Dec. 27, 2007, the Supreme Court of Nepal issued a decision mandating that the government scrap all laws that discriminated based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity and establish a committee to study same-sex marriage policy. The court took the unique approach of establishing a third-gender category. Nepalese official documents afford citizens three gender options: male, female, and "others". This may include people who present or perform as a gender that is different from the one that was assigned to them at birth. Nepal's 2011 census was the first national census in the world to allow people to register as a gender other than male or female. The 2007 supreme court decision ordered the government to issue citizenship ID cards that allowed "third-gender" or "other" to be listed.
Birth certificates are available at birth showing "indeterminate" sex if it is not possible to assign a sex. The New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs states, "A person’s sex can be recorded as indeterminate at the time of birth if it cannot be ascertained that the person is either male or female, and there are a number of people so recorded."
However, the political correct terminology in Pakistan is khawaja sara (Urdu: خواجه سرا), as Hijra and Khusra are considered derogatory by the khawaja sara community and human rights activists in Pakistan. As most of Pakistan's official government and business documents are in English, the third gender has been chosen to represent individuals (either male or female, neither, and/or both) that identify themselves as, transexual, transgender person, cross-dresser (zenana in Urdu), transvestite, and eunuchs (narnbans in Urdu).
In June 2009, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered a census of khawaja sara, who number between 80,000 and 300,000 in Pakistan. In December 2009, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, ordered that the National Database and Registration Authority issue national identity cards to members of the community showing their "distinct" gender. "It's the first time in the 62-year history of Pakistan that such steps are being taken for our welfare", Almas Bobby, a khawaja sara association's president, said to Reuters. "It's a major step towards giving us respect and identity in society. We are slowly getting respect in society. Now people recognize that we are also human beings." In Pakistan the khawaja sara live in groups (generally 4-12 members) headed by a Guru, normally the oldest. The group earns livelihood by performing/dancing/singing in family functions e.g. birthdays, marriages or child births. It is obligatory for hosts to pay khawaja sara in money, grain or other things. In central Punjab (Pakistan), khawaja sara groups divide areas among themselves and one group may not interfere with another's territory as it is considered unethical.
Also commonly referred to as a third sex are the kathoeys (or "ladyboys") of Thailand. Are people whose assigned sex was male who identify and live as female, a significant number of Thais perceive kathoeys as belonging to a third gender, including many kathoeys themselves, others see them as second category women. Although they are born genetically as male, kathoeys claim to possess a female heart which is the gender they truly are. Males undergoing sex-change operations are not uncommon occurrences but they are still regarded as men on their identification documents. Despite this, the Thai society remains one of the world's most tolerant attitude towards kathoeys or the third gender. Researcher Sam Winter writes:
|“||We asked our 190 [kathoeys] to say whether they thought of themselves as men, women, sao praphet song ["a second kind of woman"] or kathoey. None thought of themselves as male, and only 11 percent saw themselves as kathoey (i.e. ‘non-male’). By contrast 45 percent thought of themselves as women, with another 36 percent as sao praphet song... Unfortunately we did not include the category phet tee sam (third sex/gender); conceivably if we had done so there may have been many respondents who would have chosen that term... Around 50 percent [of non-transgender Thais] see them as males with the mistaken minds, but the other half see them as either women born into the wrong body (around 15 percent) or as a third sex/gender (35 percent)."||”|
In 2004, the Chiang Mai Technology School allocated a separate restroom for kathoeys, with an intertwined male and female symbol on the door. The 15 kathoey students are required to wear male clothing at school but are allowed to sport feminine hairdos. The restroom features four stalls, but no urinals.
Although Kathoeys are still not fully respected, they are gradually gaining acceptance and have made themselves a very distinct part of the Thai society. This is especially true in the entertainment, business, and fashion industries in Thailand, where the Kathoeys play significant roles in leadership and management positions. In addition, Kathoeys or second-category-women are very sought after when businesses are hiring salespeople. In many job posts, it is common to see companies state that second-category-women are preferred as their sales force because they are generally seen as more charismatic and expressive individuals.
Some writers suggest that a third gender emerged around 1700 AD in England: the male sodomite. According to these writers, this was marked by the emergence of a subculture of effeminate males and their meeting places (molly houses), as well as a marked increase in hostility towards effeminate and/or homosexual males. People described themselves as members of a third sex in Europe from at least the 1860s with the writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and continuing in the late nineteenth century with Magnus Hirschfeld, John Addington Symonds, Edward Carpenter, Aimée Duc and others. These writers described themselves and those like them as being of an "inverted" or "intermediate" sex and experiencing homosexual desire, and their writing argued for social acceptance of such sexual intermediates. Many cited precedents from classical Greek and Sanskrit literature (see below).
In Wilhelmine Germany, the terms drittes Geschlecht ("third sex") and Mannweib ("man-woman") were also used to describe feminists – both by their opponents and sometimes by feminists themselves. In the 1899 novel Das dritte Geschlecht (The Third Sex) by Ernst Ludwig von Wolzogen, feminists are portrayed as "neuters" with external female characteristics accompanied by a crippled male psyche.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, the term "third sex" was a popular descriptor for homosexuals and gender nonconformists, but after Gay Liberation of the 1970s and a growing separation of the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity, the term fell out of favor among LGBT communities and the wider public. With the renewed exploration of gender that feminism, the modern transgender movement and queer theory has fostered, some in the contemporary West have begun to describe themselves as a third sex again. One well known social movement that includes male-bodied people that identify as neither men nor women are the Radical Faeries. Other modern identities that cover similar ground include pangender, bigender, genderqueer, androgyne, intergender, "other gender" and "differently gendered".
The term transgender, which often refers to those who change their gender, is increasingly being used to signify a gendered subjectivity that is neither male nor female – one recent example is on a form for the Harvard Business School, which has three gender options – male, female, and transgender.
Also very much associated with multiple genders are the indigenous cultures of North America, who often contain social gender categories that are collectively known as Two-Spirit. Individual examples include the Winkte of Lakota culture, the ninauposkitzipxpe ("manly-hearted woman") of the North Peigan (Blackfoot) community, and the Zapotec Muxe of Mexico. Various scholars have debated the nature of such categories, as well as the definition of the term "third gender". Different researchers may characterise a Two-Spirit person as a gender-crosser, a mixed gender, an intermediate gender, or distinct third and fourth genders that are not dependent on male and female as primary categories. Those (such as Will Roscoe) who have argued for the latter interpretation also argue that mixed-, intermediate-, cross- or non-gendered social roles should not be understood as truly representing a third gender. Anthropologist Jean-Guy Goulet (1996) reviews the literature:
|“||To summarize: 'berdache' may signify a category of male human beings who fill an established social status other than that of man or woman (Blackwood 1984; Williams 1986: 1993); a category of male and female human beings who behave and dress 'like a member of the opposite sex' (Angelino & Shedd 1955; Jacobs 1968; and Whitehead 1981); or categories of male and female human beings who occupy well established third or fourth genders (Callender & Kochems 1983a; 1983b; Jacobs 1983; Roscoe 1987; 1994). Scheffler (1991: 378), however, sees Native American cases of 'berdache' and 'amazon' as 'situations in which some men (less often women) are permitted to act, in some degree, as though they were women (or men), and may be spoken of as though they were women (or men), or as anomalous 'he-she' or 'she-he'.' In Scheffler's view (1991: 378), '[e]thnographic data cited by Kessler and McKenna (1978), and more recently by Williams (1986), provide definitive evidence that such persons were not regarded as having somehow moved from one sex (or in Kessler and McKenna's terms, gender) category to the other, but were only metaphorically "women" (or "men")'. In other words, according to Scheffler, we need not imagine a multiple gender system. Individuals who appeared in the dress and/or occupation of the opposite sex were only metaphorically spoken of as members of that sex or gender."||”|
The term "berdache" is seen as very offensive by many Two-Spirit and Native people because of its historical roots; It was first applied by European settlers as a derogatory term, meaning a submissive, effeminate man. The term "Two-Spirit" was created in 1990 as an English word to convey an identity already recognized by many Nations, and is usually the preferred and most respectful term.
The following gender categories have also been described as a third gender:
In Mesopotamian mythology, among the earliest written records of humanity, there are references to types of people who are not men and not women. In a Sumerian creation myth found on a stone tablet from the second millennium BC, the goddess Ninmah fashions a being "with no male organ and no female organ", for whom Enki finds a position in society: "to stand before the king". In the Akkadian myth of Atra-Hasis (ca. 1700 BC), Enki instructs Nintu, the goddess of birth, to establish a “third category among the people” in addition to men and women, that includes demons who steal infants, women who are unable to give birth, and priestesses who are prohibited from bearing children. In Babylonia, Sumer and Assyria, certain types of individuals who performed religious duties in the service of Inanna/Ishtar have been described as a third gender. They worked as sacred prostitutes or Hierodules, performed ecstatic dance, music and plays, wore masks and had gender characteristics of both women and men. In Sumer, they were given the cuneiform names of ur.sal ("dog/man-woman") and kur.gar.ra (also described as a man-woman). Modern scholars, struggling to describe them using contemporary sex/gender categories, have variously described them as "living as women", or used descriptors such as hermaphrodites, eunuchs, homosexuals, transvestites, effeminate males and a range of other terms and phrases.
Inscribed pottery shards from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2000–1800 BCE), found near ancient Thebes (now Luxor, Egypt), list three human genders: tai (male), sḫt ("sekhet") and hmt (female). Sḫt is often translated as "eunuch", although there is little evidence that such individuals were castrated.
References to a third sex can be found throughout the texts of India's three ancient spiritual traditions – Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism – and it can be inferred that Vedic culture recognised three genders. The Vedas (c. 1500 BC–500 BC) describe individuals as belonging to one of three categories, according to one's nature or prakrti. These are also spelled out in the Kama Sutra (c. 4th century AD) and elsewhere as pums-prakrti (male-nature), stri-prakrti (female-nature), and tritiya-prakrti (third-nature). Texts suggest that third sex individuals were well known in premodern India and included male-bodied or female-bodied people as well as intersexuals, and that they can often be recognised from childhood.
A third sex is discussed in ancient Hindu law, medicine, linguistics and astrology. The foundational work of Hindu law, the Manu Smriti (c. 200 BC–200 AD) explains the biological origins of the three sexes:
"A male child is produced by a greater quantity of male seed, a female child by the prevalence of the female; if both are equal, a third-sex child or boy and girl twins are produced; if either are weak or deficient in quantity, a failure of conception results."
Indian linguist Patañjali's work on Sanskrit grammar, the Mahābhāṣya (c. 200 BC), states that Sanskrit's three grammatical genders are derived from three natural genders. The earliest Tamil grammar, the Tolkappiyam (3rd century BC) refers to hermaphrodites as a third "neuter" gender (in addition to a feminine category of unmasculine males). In Vedic astrology, the nine planets are each assigned to one of the three genders; the third gender, tritiya-prakrti, is associated with Mercury, Saturn and (in particular) Ketu. In the Puranas, there are references to three kinds of devas of music and dance: apsaras (female), gandharvas (male) and kinnars (neuter).
The two great Sanskrit epic poems, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, indicate the existence of a third gender in ancient Indic society. Some versions of Ramayana tell that in one part of the story, the hero Rama heads into exile in the forest. Halfway there, he discovers that most of the people of his home town Ayodhya were following him. He told them, "Men and women, turn back," and with that, those who were "neither men nor women" did not know what to do, so they stayed there. When Rama returned to from exile years later, he discovered them still there and blessed them, saying that there will be a day when they, too, will have a share in ruling the world.
In the Buddhist Vinaya, codified in its present form around the 2nd century BC and said to be handed down by oral tradition from Buddha himself, there are four main sex/gender categories: males, females, ubhatobyanjanaka (people of a dual sexual nature) and pandaka (people of non-normative sexual natures, perhaps originally denoting a deficiency in male sexual capacity). As the Vinaya tradition developed, the term pandaka came to refer to a broad third sex category which encompassed intersex, male and female bodied people with physical and/or behavioural attributes that were considered inconsistent with the natural characteristics of man and woman.
Contrary to what is often portrayed in the West, sex with male (specifically receptive oral and anal sex) was the gender role of the third gender, not their defining feature. Thus, in ancient India, as in present day India, the society made a distinction between a third gender having sex with a man, and a man having sex with a man. The latter may have been viewed negatively, but he would be seen very much as a man (in modern western context, as 'straight'), not a third gender (in modern western context 'gay').
In Plato's Symposium, written around the 4th century BC, Aristophanes relates a creation myth involving three original sexes: female, male and androgynous. They are split in half by Zeus, producing four different contemporary sex/gender types which seek to be reunited with their lost other half; in this account, the modern heterosexual man and woman descend from the original androgynous sex. The myth of Hermaphroditus involves heterosexual lovers merging into their primordial androgynous sex.
Many have interpreted the "eunuchs" of the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean world as a third gender that inhabited a liminal space between women and men, understood in their societies as somehow neither or both. In the Historia Augusta, the eunuch body is described as a tertium genus hominum (a third human gender), and in 77 BC, a eunuch named Genucius was prevented from claiming goods left to him in a will, on the grounds that he had voluntarily mutilated himself (amputatis sui ipsius) and was neither a woman or a man (neque virorum neque mulierum numero). Several scholars have argued that the eunuchs in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were understood in their time to belong to a third gender, rather than the more recent interpretations of a kind of emasculated man, or a metaphor for chastity. The early Christian theologian, Tertullian, wrote that Jesus himself was a eunuch (c. 200 AD). Tertullian also noted the existence of a third sex (tertium sexus) among heathens: "a third race in sex... made of male and female in one." He may have been referring to the Galli, "eunuch" devotees of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who were described as belonging to a third sex by several Roman writers.
Among the 19th century Chuckchi, the “soft men” (yirka-lául) were a category of biologically male shamans who adopted first female hairstyle, then female dress, and finally married males. They were hated and scorned but also feared by the rest of the Chuckchi, as they were considered to be much more powerful than other shamans (Price 2002, 302).
The masculine gendered males who married the yirka-lául were not seen as 'third genders' but as 'men.'
In old Israel there were perhaps what might creatively be viewed in retrospect six genders:
The ancient Maya civilization may have recognised a third gender, according to historian Matthew Looper. Looper notes the androgynous Maize Deity and masculine Moon goddess of Maya mythology, and iconography and inscriptions where rulers embody or impersonate these deities. He suggests that the third gender could also include two-spirit individuals with special roles such as healers or diviners.
Anthropologist and archaeologist Miranda Stockett notes that several writers have felt the need to move beyond a two-gender framework when discussing prehispanic cultures across mesoamerica, and concludes that the Olmec, Aztec and Maya peoples understood "more than two kinds of bodies and more than two kinds of gender." Anthropologist Rosemary Joyce agrees, writing that "gender was a fluid potential, not a fixed category, before the Spaniards came to Mesoamerica. Childhood training and ritual shaped, but did not set, adult gender, which could encompass third genders and alternative sexualities as well as "male" and "female." At the height of the Classic period, Maya rulers presented themselves as embodying the entire range of gender possibilities, from male through female, by wearing blended costumes and playing male and female roles in state ceremonies." Joyce notes that many figures of mesoamerican art are depicted with male genitalia and female breasts, while she suggests that other figures in which chests and waists are exposed but no sexual characteristics (primary or secondary) are marked may represent a third sex, ambiguous gender or androgyny.
Andean Studies scholar Michael Horswell writes that third-gendered ritual attendants to chuqui chinchay, a jaguar deity in Incan mythology, were "vital actors in Andean ceremonies" prior to Spanish colonisation. Horswell elaborates: "These quariwarmi (men-women) shamans mediated between the symmetrically dualistic spheres of Andean cosmology and daily life by performing rituals that at times required same-sex erotic practices. Their transvested attire served 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. Their shamanic presence invoked the androgynous creative force often represented in Andean mythology." Richard Trexler gives an early Spanish account of religious 'third gender' figures from the Inca empire in his 1995 book "Sex and Conquest":
|“||And in each important temple or house of worship, they have a man or two, or more, depending on the idol, who go dressed in women's attire from the time they are children, and speak like them, and in manner, dress, and everything else they imitate women. With them especially the chiefs and headmen have carnal, foul intercourse on feast days and holidays, almost like a religious rite and ceremony.||”|
The natives of modern Illinois decided the gender of their members based on their childhood behavior. If a genetic male child used female tools like a spade or ax instead of a bow, they considered them Berdaches, which is a derogatory term, the better term being Two Spirits, as they were considered to encompass the masculine and feminine.
In Hinduism, Shiva is still worshipped as an Ardhnarishwara, i.e. half-male and half-female form. Shiva's symbol, which is today known as Shivalinga, actually comprises a combination of a 'Yoni' (vagina) and a 'Ling' (phallus). The third genders have been ascribed spiritual powers by most indigenous societies. In the Indian subcontinent, e.g., the Hijras are supposed to have supernatural powers, through which they can bless people or curse them. This gives Hijras a unique space in the society, and traditional Indians still invite Hijras to seek their blessings on important occasions such as marriage.
At the time of the birth of Christ, cults of men devoted to a goddess flourished throughout the broad region extending from the Mediterranean to south Asia. While galli were missionizing the Roman Empire, kalû, kurgarrû, and assinnu continued to carry out ancient rites in the temples of Mesopotamia, and the third-gender predecessors of the hijra were clearly evident. To complete the picture we should also mention the eunuch priests of Artemis at Ephesus; the western Semitic qedeshim, the male “temple prostitutes” known from the Hebrew Bible and Ugaritic texts of the late second millennium; and the keleb, priests of Astarte at Kition and elsewhere. Beyond India, modern ethnographic literature documents gender variant shaman-priests throughout southeast Asia, Borneo, and Sulawesi. All these roles share the traits of devotion to a goddess, gender transgression and receptive anal sex, ecstatic ritual techniques (for healing, in the case of galli and Mesopotamian priests, and fertility in the case of hijra), and actual (or symbolic) castration. Most, at some point in their history, were based in temples and, therefore, part of the religious-economic administration of their respective city-states.
As Holly Boswell notes, "it is very interesting to note that the majority of older world religions perceived their deities as hermaphroditic and whole-gendered. Ardhanarisvara in Hinduism, Avalokitesvara and Kuan Yin in Buddhism, and Dionysus in the Greek pantheon are examples of this. Divine androgyny is reflected in subsequent representations of avatars such as Sri Krsna in Vedanta, Lan Ts'ai Ho in Taoist China, and even Jesus Christ. In the Qabbalah, Adam mirrored an androgynous God before the split into Eve and subsequent fall from grace. As with many nobles, the Pharaohs of Egypt emulated their gods, which were mostly androgynous throughout Africa. Angels and Faeries too, are usually perceived as androgynous beings. The reflections of Transgender Spirit are ancient and deep."
According to some scholars, the West is trying to reinterpret and redefine the ancient third gender identities to fit into the Western concept of "sexual orientation". In her research paper titled "Redefining Fa'afafine: Western Discourses and the Construction of Transgenderism in Samoa," Johanna Schmidt has argued that the Western attempts to reinterpret the Samoan third gender identity of Fa 'afafine in terms of homosexuality is influencing the fa'afafine identity itself which is being reorganised in western ways, i.e. from being a feminine gender space to being a homosexual space. She also argues that this is actually changing the nature of Fa'afafines itself, and making it more 'homosexual.'
As a Samoan Fa'afafine says, "But I would like to pursue a masters degree with a paper on homosexuality from a Samoan perspective that would be written for educational purposes, because I believe some of the stuff that has been written about us is quite wrong."
In his paper, 'How to become a Berdache: Toward a unified analysis of gender diversity', Will Roscoe writes that "This pattern can be traced from the earliest accounts of the Spaniards to present-day ethnographies. What has been written about berdaches reflects more the influence of existing Western discourses on gender, sexuality and the Other than what observers actually witnessed."
According to Towle and Morgan:
“Ethnographic examples [of ‘third genders’] can come from distinct societies located in Thailand, Polynesia, Melanesia, Native America, western Africa, and elsewhere and from any point in history, from Ancient Greece, to sixteenth century England to contemporary North America. Popular authors routinely simplify their descriptions, ignoring...or conflating dimensions that seem to them extraneous, incomprehensible, or ill suited to the images they want to convey” (484).
Western scholars often get confused when analysing the history of sex between males, because they fail to make the distinction between third genders and men, and count the third genders as men. By doing this, they fail to notice the difference between the third genders as primarily being of feminine gender, and tend to put this difference down to the gender role of the third genders, of being anally or orally penetrated. E.g., when analysing the non-normative sex gender categories in Theraveda Buddhism, Peter A Jackson, says that it appears that among the early Buddhist communities men who engaged in receptive anal sex were seen as feminized and thought to be hermaphrodites. In contrast, men who engaged in oral sex were not seen as crossing sex/gender boundaries, but rather as engaging in abnormal sexual practices without threatening their masculine gendered existence.
Gender is organized differently in the eastern cultures than it is in the west. In the non-western cultures there is the ability to cross between the realms of male and female. This is seen as mediating between the worlds of the spirit and the mundane. It is seen as a positive, and is almost revered in most eastern cultures. Whereas in western cultures people who don’t conform to heteronormative ideals are seen as sick, insufficiently formed, or even worse. Gender disphoria is defined by the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders) as “a strong and persistent cross gender identification” and “persistent discomfort about one’s assigned sex or a sense of the appropriateness in the gender role of that sex.” (DMM-IV, p. 537) In comparison with the non-western cultures that are not materially based where there are socially established third gender roles, known neither as male nor female. Although there are many examples given here are a few others that may further illustrate the cultural beliefs of different regions and the impact it has on the acceptance or acknowledgement of a third gender throughout them. In Africa women can be recognized as a “female husband” in which they enjoy all of the privileges of men and are recognized as such, their femaleness although not acknowledged, nor is it forgotten. Hijras, of India, are one of the most recognized and socially accepted groups of third genders. This may be due to the notion of reincarnation which reduces not only gender categorization but sex and species, believing in a more fluid and mutable categorization. There are countless other cultures in which the third gender is recognized as an intermediate being rather than being seen as a movement from one sex to the other conventional gender, either male to female or vice versa. Based on a study of those who thought themselves to be a member of a third gender in the United States, Ingrid M. Sells found that they were aware of feeling different typically from the age of 5. Because of both peer and parental pressure, those growing up with the most ambiguous appearance led the most troubled childhoods and difficulties later on in life. Strangely enough in Sells study she discovered similarities between the third-genders of the east and those of the west. They both tended to have healing powers in that nearly half interviewed were healers or in the medical profession. A majority of them, again like their eastern counterparts, were artistic, to the degree that they were able to make a living from their abilities. The ability to mediate between men and women was again a common skill and oftentimes were considered to possess a wider than typical perspective with the ability to understand both sides. The most notable results of Sell’s study is that 93% of the third genders interviewed appeared to, again like their eastern counterparts, possess “paranormal” type abilities. These findings indicate that there are numerous similarities between the third genders of both the eastern and the western cultures.[verification needed] This illustrates that there may be elements of these individuals that are transcultural and innate in gender intermediacy.