Although it’s 2020, in passing conversations, in the comments under tweets, and amongst feminists themselves, people continue to fight for the idea that gender is binary. The term binary means relating to, composed of, or involving two things; the gender binary consists of “man” and “woman”. What people fail to realize is that folks who exist outside of this binary, such as non-binary or transgender people, have been alive since the beginning of time… genders other than man or woman are not recent “trends” made up by millennials. For centuries, people have used gender as an oppressive tool, especially as a tool of colonialism.
The Hijra of Mesopotamia
Dating all the way back to Mesopotamia, the progenitor of written history, the Hijra served the Gods they celebrated. The Hijra were “the third gender”. This “third gender” was sometimes defined as neither a man or a woman. Holiness transcended gender in the form of Hijra priests, eunuchs, virgins in the temple of Artemis, and many other cultures throughout history.
The Calalai, Calabai, and Bissu of Sulawesi
On the small island of Sulawesi of Indonesia, the Buginese people recognize four genders and an important fifth “metagender.” The first two genders are the typical western notion of man and woman.
The next two are the Calalai and Calabai. The Calalai are anatomical females who behave as men traditionally do, but they do not desire to be men. They fall into a gray area between the two sexes. In contrast, the Calabai are anatomical males who behave as women traditionally do. While the Calalai largely conform to the roles of men, the Calabai do not consider themselves to be women. They don’t accept the restrictions that society places on women, either. Instead, the Calabai have a unique niche in society.
The “metagender” of the Sulawesi people is known as the Bissu, who are seen as a combination of all genders. They have a distinctive way of dressing that is neither “male” nor “female,” and they lead spiritual rituals for others, which is an important and coveted role in Sulawesi life. They are seen as beings who “bestow blessings” upon others who are not as attuned to the spirit world. Bissu are so important in Sulawesi culture that they play central roles in Sulawesi creation stories.
The Kocek of the Ottoman Empire
Kocek were men who dressed in feminine clothing and performed exotic dances for audiences throughout the Ottoman Empire. The Kocek were not trying to impersonate women. They were a third gender who embraced both their masculine and feminine features.
The Muxes of Oaxaca
The Zapotec in Oaxaca recognize a third gender beyond male and female: muxes. Muxes are men who choose feminine appearances. Anthropologists trace the roots of muxes to pre-Colombian Mexico when there were trans Aztecan priests and androgynous Mayan gods.
The Two-Spirited People of Indigenous Tribes in North America
Many Indigenous folks of North America recognize a third gender called “two-spirited people.” In fact, two-spirited people were revered by at least 155 tribes across North America as healers, caregivers, nannies of orphans, and visionaries. Two-spirited people have the spirits of both a man and a woman, which gives them abilities beyond those of cisgender men and women. Two-spirited people do not have to be androgynous and they may dress as women or as men.
As Europeans colonized Indigenous peoples and enforced Christianity, respect for two-spirited people gradually decreased with the oppression of Indigenous peoples.
The Kathoeys of Thailand
The Kathoeys of Thailand are seen as a third category of gender identity. They are so common in Thai society that a poll at one school revealed that 10 percent of its students identified as Kathoey. In a 15th-century Thai creation myth, two intersex characters are central to the story, and the myth actually mentions men, women, and a third gender category.
The Warias of Indonesia
Warias of Indonesia can be males who feel like they should be women, cross-dressers, people who believe they are a third gender, and more. Indonesia is a a largely Muslim nation, and Muslim beliefs state that there are only men and women genders. As a result, Warias face widespread discrimination, even though many are Muslims.
The Mahu of Hawaii
There has long been a tradition of a third gender of people named the Mahu in Hawaii. The Mahu fall somewhere between “man” and “woman” and have their own roles in society. They are respected healers, teachers, and caretakers. When Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii, they were shocked by Mahus and oppressed their traditional practices.
The Sworn Virgins of Albania
In the Balkan region of Albania, “sworn virgins” are women who swear to live as virgins for their entire lives. They take on a more traditional male role in the community. Many sworn virgins were women trying to pass as men and some were more more androgynous. Today, the identity of a sworn virgin is much less common, but there are still a small number of them living in the Balkans.
Gender is NOT Binary
In the West, many of these people are discriminated against in the workplace and everyday life, leading them to lives in poverty. In other cultures, these “other genders” are celebrated and respected. One thing is clear: gender is not binary, it’s a spectrum with countless identities outside of man or woman.
This past week, I celebrated International Non-binary People’s Day, which only officially began in 2012. July 14th was chosen because it resides halfway between International Women’s Day and International Men’s Day. While the term non-binary may be new to some people, the idea has been a part of the world for centuries. The truth is, gender has never been binary. Gender has always existed along a spectrum — the idea that gender is only “man” or “woman” is a product of colonialism. How can people say non-binary folks are brand new, or a trend when people have existed outside of the gender binary since writing was created (and I’m sure before that as well!)?
There is No Correct Way to Be Non-Binary
Iit’s important to think about non-binary folks today. Who are they? What do they look like? Non-binary people are not monolithic. There is no singular set of pronouns or specific way non-binary people dress. One of the many reasons why people identify as non-binary is because there are no rules; being non-binary simply means being not binary. That means non-binary people can look any way they please, from sporting feminine dresses to masculine haircuts to androgynous aesthetics. There is no correct way to be non-binary. The most important piece to take away from this article as a cisgender (identifying with the gender you were born as) person is this: respect, love, and listen to non-binary people. Stop trying to put everyone into a neat and tidy box so you can categorize them and unpack them how you please.
Take a Deep Breath
You do not need to know everything about other people. Many people have a complex relationship with gender that you may never understand. The point isn’t to understand.
It’s perfectly fine to say, “Hey. I may not fully understand what it means to exist outside of the gender binary, but I do understand that every person is deserving of respect and love and care. You deserve respect and love and care. I am here to listen to you because you know best who you are, and I want to support you and make you feel safe and loved. I will not tell you who you should be just because I have had a different experience than you with gender. You know who you are. Also, I am working hard to learn about people who are different from me to become a more compassionate person. I couldn’t be more proud of you for being who you are.”
Take a Step Back
It’s okay to not understand, but it is not okay to tell someone else who they should be. It’s clear that non-binary people exist: I am right here, and I am backed by centuries of people who did not identify with the words “man” or “woman” either. No one is creating new genders out of thin air because they’re bored. People exist in so many incredibly complex ways… how could anyone ever claim the authority to police how others present themselves, how others feel about who they are?
…And Make a New Choice Today.
You lose incredible people, people with remarkable experiences and ideas and dreams, when you put them in boxes they weren’t meant to be contained in. You gain a beautiful world of radical kindness and care when you love everyone, even those you do not understand yet. Choose to look inside yourself when you feel confusion and anger at someone who is different than you. Not just on International Non-binary People’s Day, but every day, choose compassion. Be radical in your love.