“The Third Gender” – the Genesis of Queer History

People’s beliefs and views are largely driven by environmental factors. Our fundamental perceptions are often based on / coincide with the perceptions of the society in which we grow up and live. Because the beliefs of different groups were formed in isolation from each other over the centuries, as a result of dissimilar experiences, cultures also differed. This diversity has been, so to speak, destroyed by the process of globalization. Western, European, ideas became “dominant”, which had a great impact on the future of world thinking.

These processes have, of course, left their mark on queer history as well. In particular, if we look at the ancient cultures and their views, we will see that the unrepressed queer variety (which we call “queer” in modern terms) existed even centuries ago. On the other hand, religions of Judaic origin (Christianity, Islam), which were widespread in some parts of Europe and Asia, were particularly dogmatic in their views on gender binary. According to them, people are divided into two categories, women and men, and have strictly defined gender roles. That is why, if we look at the map of queer cultures in modern terms, in some parts of Europe and Asia, similar traditions are almost non-existent.

Beliefs in other cultures are often associated with the notion of “third gender” and “third sex”. It is important to understand that in these cultures, “third gender” did not mean people who were transformed within a binary system, but people who did not consider themselves, in modern terms, a cisgender woman or man, and therefore belonged to another, third category, culturally and socially, which was considered permissible. Sometimes, the “third gender” did not have a specific name, but was reflected in the transformation of social roles. The concept of “third gender” is still found in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and early European cultures.

On the island of Madagascar, there was a concept of “third gender”, which in the local language was called Sekrata. Young men, who felt more comfortable with feminine self-expression, resorted to cross-dressing, wearing traditional women’s clothing and jewelry – their identities were never perceived negatively by those around them. On the contrary, the locals believed that the Sekratas were carriers of a magical spirit. They worked as performers, dancers and sometimes even engaged in sex work.

In Africa, in the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin), there was a group of fully female warriors, the Mino, which in translation means “our mothers”. Women fighters did not marry, had no children, and were distinguished by masculine behaviors and characteristics. Later, European colonizers called this group the “Dahomey Amazons”.

Mino – Dahomey Amazons. Paris, 1891

Kind of a similar tradition existed in Eastern Europe, in Albania, in the form of Burneshas. Burnesha is a woman who, in a strictly patriarchal Albanian culture, has the social role and privileges of a man, but in return vows never to have a family. That is why they were often called “sworn virgins”. Like the Albanian tradition, there was a similar tradition in the Islamic Mamluk sultanate that offered girls of masculine qualities the legal and social privileges of a man.

Burnasha – “Sworn virgin”

In Nepal, in the Himalayan culture, there were people of the “third gender” centuries ago who were called half-breeds. The half-breeds were male feminists that wore traditional female clothing. In recent years, they have been mainly involved in sex work.

In South Asian cultures (parts of modern-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), the “third gender” existed from the earliest times, in the form of the Hijras. Hijras are intersex or male people who cross-dress, look feminine and wear traditional women’s clothing and jewelry. Some of them resort to castration to sacrifice their genitals to the goddess Bahuchara Matha. Discriminatory attitudes and policies towards the Hijras increased particularly during the period of British colonization, and although the political approach has changed since 1952, negative public attitudes still exist. Hijras live in groups, they have a leader, and their source of income is mainly sex work.

According to the 2014 statistics, there are up to 5 million Hijras living in modern India.

In South India, there is a culture named Aravan, which takes its name from the character of the ancient Indian poem Mahabharata. Like the Hijras, the Aravans are also males with feminine self-expression and social roles. According to Aravan legend, the young prince Aravan was to take part in a sacrificial ceremony, and before his death he demanded the fulfillment of his only wish – he wanted to spend his last night as a married man. No one wanted to marry Aravan because of the fear of becoming a widow, so Krishna transformed into a woman, Mohina, and spent the night with Aravan. The legend is of great significance to the Aravanis living in South India, who celebrate the Aravan and Mohina weddings every year.

Bakla is a term used in the Philippines, which includes males that have feminine identities and appearances alongside many other identities. They have their own language, which they use to communicate with each other, and which is a kind of mixture of Filipino, Spanish and English.

Hijras live not only in India but also in Pakistan and Bangladesh

There is a distinctive queer culture in Indonesia, where, traditionally, there were five genders with different names. In modern terms, along with cisgender women and men, there are Kalavas (male people who identify themselves as women), Kalalevs (female people who identify themselves as men), and Bisu (people who do not identify with the gender spectrum at all, or identify with all genders). In addition, there are other groups in Indonesia that resort to cross-dressing and are known as Warias. It is noteworthy that the Warias are quite fluid – they feel comfortable with their biological sex, although from time to time they resort to cross-dressing, and some of the Warias also fit the social role of a woman.

In Australia, in Aboriginal cultures, there were groups called Sistergirls, i.e. male people who identified themselves as women, and brothersboys – female people who identified themselves as men. As in many other cultures, pre-colonial Australia had a much more open and tolerant attitude towards gender diversity.

he increased negative attitudes toward Sistergirls and Brothersboys caused by the colonization of Australia are slowly changing 

Beliefs about the unity of feminine and masculine origins in any god or man were quite popular in different cultures. Such characters are also found in Greek mythology (Hermaphrodite) and in pre-colonial cultures in modern-day USA. The culture of the “third gender” on the American continent was often backed by the belief in two-spirit people who were respected in society.

In pre-colonial Canadian culture, there were people called Ninauposkitzipxpe in the local language, which, in translation, means “woman with a man’s heart.” They were females who did not always resort to cross-dressing nor look masculine, although they did have the privileges of men in the society.

There were four genders in some of the pre-colonial American tribes

In the Navajo language, Nadleehi referred to males who were equally feminine and masculine, while Dilbaa referred to females who also had feminine and masculine characteristics. Similar groups existed in other tribes of the Indians, such as the Nadlehehs in the Lakota language called Vinkte, which means “one who wants to be a woman”. In the culture of another tribe of Indians, the Zuni, the male Nadlehes were called Lhamans. The Lhamals were male people who wore the traditional clothing of a man and a woman at the same time, did household chores and hunted, performed an important function in religious rituals. The concept of “third gender” is also found in Central and South American cultures.

In other Indian tribes there was a tradition of dividing people into four groups, which included gay men and women, male-identified female (Hwame) and female-identified male (Alyha).

After the colonization, these cultures were named Christian by the Europeans, therefore labeled as a sin, a deviation.

The notion of a “third gender” also existed in the modern Dominican Republic, specifically for intersex people.

At birth, as a result of a genetic disorder, the first sex characteristics do not develop enough, so newborns were often considered female, although after the appearance of secondary sex characteristics at the age of puberty, it was considered socially acceptable to classify these people as “third gender”. This tradition is really different from the repressive experiences that other cultures have had for centuries towards intersex people.

In modern Peru, in pre-colonial Inca culture, there was a bisexual god, the rituals of which were performed by people of the “third gender”, called Quariwarmi in the Inca language. These people were distinguished by their feminine and masculine appearance and were mainly involved in ritual activities.

“The Third Gender” actively appears in Europe in nineteenth-century writing, for the first time in the texts of Karl Heinrich Ulrich, and becomes the logical basis for the later queer movement.

Karl Heinrich Ulrich is one of the first activists to fight for queer rights

During this period, the “third gender” was often used in relation to both queer activism and feminism, but in the twentieth century, since the 70s, it has more or less lost its relevance. Today, the notion of a “third gender” has legal significance, and modern activists are calling for its official recognition so that people who do not feel comfortable in the binary system can legally establish their gender identity.


WISG Feminist Videotheque | ფემინისტური ვიდეოთეკა

A Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures | Independent Lens

A Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures | Independent Lens

Third gender | LGBT Info | Fandom


Author: Anamaria

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