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Third Gender: A Short History
From ancient Greece to modern Pakistan, the political and cultural emergence of a complex, controversial term.
Social convention says there are two types of people: male and female. And you know who’s who based on their genitalia. But in fact, various cultures have long recognized members who buck the biological binary. The ancients wrote of people who were neither men nor women; individuals have been swapping genders for centuries; and intellectuals have fiercely debated the connection between the body and the self. Today, there are many populations with alternative identities, such as hijras in South Asia, kathoeys in Thailand, and muxes in Mexico. Yet these groups haven’t had it easy, often facing discrimination and violence. Only recently has the fight for legal recognition — and respect — of "third gender" begun to bear fruit, thanks to pioneering activists and policymakers. The world, it seems, is slowly embracing an adage once restricted to liberal universities: Gender is a construct, and people should be able to define it for themselves.
Greek philosopher Plato writes Symposium, in which men at a drinking party philosophize about the nature of love. Aristophanes, a comic playwright, tells a story of creation in which "original human nature" includes a third sex. This sex "was a distinct kind, with a bodily shape and a name of its own, constituted by the union of the male and the female: but now only the word ‘androgynous’ is preserved, and that as a term of reproach."
The Manusmriti (Laws of Manu), which forms the basis of Hindu rules, says, "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." But like many other early writings on human identity, the Manusmriti does not distinguish between biological traits and a person’s social role: The former determines the latter.
Genucius, a Roman slave and eunuch, is denied inheritance on the grounds, according to art historian Lynn Roller, of being "neither a man nor a woman." He is "not even allowed to plead his own case, lest the court be polluted by his obscene presence and corrupt voice." Eunuchs, typically castrated men, often hold trusted positions — such as servants or priests — but they are also treated as abnormal.
Sworn virgins emerge in Albanian communities in the Balkans. Known as burrneshas ("he-she"), the virgins are women who take oaths of celibacy and live as men in order to gain certain rights and privileges. For instance, after the death of a head of household and in the absence of male heirs, a woman could become a burrnesha to secure her family’s property and honor.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a German thinker and writer, outlines a theory of homosexuality using "third sex" to categorize men attracted to other men. He also describes such a man as having "a female psyche confined in a male body." This theory competes with Charles Darwin’s writings on sexual selection, which assert that two sexes exist for the purpose of reproduction.
British administrators pass the Criminal Tribes Act in India, effectively outlawing the country’s hijras — a community that includes people born with both male and female biological traits (called "intersex" today), transgender people (those whose gender identity doesn’t match their sex assigned at birth), eunuchs, and even cross-dressers. Celebrated in sacred Indian texts, hijras had long been part of South Asian cultures, but colonial authorities viewed them as violating the social order.
Earl Lind (also known as Ralph Werther and Jennie June) publishes The Autobiography of an Androgyne, a memoir about coming to identify as "third sex." The book, still studied widely by scholars of gender and sexuality, describes the author’s life in New York City, sexual encounters with both men and women, and decision to undergo castration.
Christine Jorgensen, born George William Jorgensen in New York, completes sex-reassignment surgery in Denmark. Jorgensen, who served in the U.S. Army, gains national recognition as the first American widely known to have had the surgery. New York’s Daily News runs a front-page story with the headline, "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty." (The United States, however, legally recognizes only two genders; this remains the case today.)
Psychologist John Money popularizes the term "gender role." He controversially studies intersex children to understand how social and environmental factors, in addition to genetic and hormonal ones, help determine whether a person identifies as male or female. Money’s theories provide an important basis for efforts — spearheaded by the burgeoning feminist movement — to argue that gender is not simply a function of biology.
Endocrinologist Harry Benjamin, who treated Jorgensen, publishes The Transsexual Phenomenon, with a "sex orientation scale" for men engaging in feminine behaviors. At one end are men who occasionally dress as women but don’t want to be female; at the other end are men who consider themselves female and urgently want reassignment surgery. "The dominant status of the genital organs for the determination of one’s sex," Benjamin writes, "has been shaken."
Mexicans in Oaxaca state establish Vela de las Intrepidas (Vigil of the Intrepids), a festival celebrating ambiguous gender identities. The Zapotec culture embraces a third-gender population called muxes: men who consider themselves women and others who don’t strictly identify one way or the other. Muxes trace back to pre-Columbian times, when there were "cross-dressing Aztec priests and Mayan gods who were male and female at the same time," according to the New York Times.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) codifies "gender identity disorder," a condition in which there is a disparity between a person’s assigned sex and expressed gender identity. The diagnosis allows practitioners to justify hormone treatment, sex-reassignment surgery, and other care. But critics argue that categorizing certain gender identities as mental illness is discriminatory. (In 2012, the APA renames the condition "gender dysphoria.")
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issues a fatwa proclaiming no religious restriction on reassignment surgery, previously sanctioned only for intersex people. The ayatollah had been lobbied by transgender activist Maryam Khatoon Molkara. Today, Iran is a top destination for the surgery, but the trend has a dark underbelly: Many gay Iranians choose surgery to avoid persecution for homosexuality, which is still punishable by death. Iran does not recognize alternative genders.
Nepal’s Supreme Court mandates that the government establish a third-gender category ("other") on citizenship documents. The ruling comes in an anti-discrimination case filed by Sunil Pant, Asia’s first openly gay federal-level politician and founder of the Blue Diamond Society, an NGO that works closely with transgender sex workers (long targets of police brutality in Nepal). Despite the ruling, third-gender people continue to report harassment. As of 2014, according to activists, only five individuals had officially registered as "other."
Pakistan’s Supreme Court orders the creation of national identity cards on which hijras can identify as a distinct gender.
The Australian government announces that passports will include a third-gender option. However, the new regime has limitations: Applicants wishing to select "X" as their gender must provide a letter from a medical professional confirming that they are intersex or do not identify with the sex assigned to them at birth. (Similarly, people wishing to change their gender — from, say, female to male — must provide a letter confirming that they are undergoing treatment for a gender transition.)
Germany announces that it will allow parents to register newborns as indeterminate on birth certificates. The legislation is adopted to mitigate pressure to pursue immediate surgery for babies born with ambiguous physical features. A review by the German Ethics Council had revealed problems created by forced operations. "I will remain the patchwork created by doctors, bruised and scarred," one adult tells the BBC of surgery performed soon after birth.
Facebook expands gender settings on user profiles. These include some 50 new options, including "cisgender" (someone who has a gender identity regularly associated with his or her biological sex), "neutrois" (someone who rejects a gender binary entirely), and — simply — "other."
India’s Supreme Court recognizes the right of people, including hijras, to identify as third gender. The ruling requires the government to establish quotas for third-gender people in employment and education, like those already in place for other minorities. The court states, "It is the right of every human being to choose their gender."
Illustration by Craig & Karl for FP