It would be an understatement to say that the gender-sex binary is complicated. So why do people today still insist that there are only two genders?
Sure, most people are born either one sex or the other. And depending on your biological makeup – your chromosomes, hormones and primary and secondary sex characteristics – you are either anatomically male or female. But what most of Western society fails to acknowledge is that your biology doesn’t always determine your gender expression.
Gender, instead, is determined by your culture. It’s made up of gender roles, which are assigned to you based on whether or not you’re biologically male or female.
But outside of this way of thinking, there are various cultures that acknowledge the complexities of gender expression.
For starters, Bugis people believe in what they call the 5 genders.
The Bugis people are the largest of the three major ethnic groups in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Their society recognizes five genders – the makkunrai, oroané, bissu, calalai and calabai – and break it down as follows:
- The makkunrai are comparable to cisgender women. In other words, they are women whose sense of identity and gender correspond with their birth sex: female.
- The oroané, on the other hand, are comparable to cisgender men.
- The bissu are androgynous shamans.
- The calabai translates to “false woman” and are similar to trans women.
- And lastly, the calalai translates to “false man” and are similar to trans men.
Within this culture, the calabai and calabai are accepted as a completion of the gender system as opposed to an abnormality. In their society, the calalai are biologically female, but they function and do the work that men do. And the calabai, vice versa.
As for the bissu, they’re both born male and female, or hermaphroditic. And instead of being ostracized by the community, this rare combination of physical sexes is honored. Bissu people in this culture often become priests.
Native American people, on the other hand, believe in the “two spirit” tradition.
Similar to the Bugis people, some North American Native American tribes, including those of the Plains, the Great Lakes and the Southwest, recognize and celebrate gender ambiguity.
Instead of focusing on the person’s biological makeup, they focus on the individual’s “spirit.” Regardless of one’s sex, two-spirit individuals can fill both male and female gender roles within the tribe.
The phrase “two spirit,” however, didn’t gain traction across Native America until after 1990. During that time, 13 men, women and transgender people from various tribes met in Winnipeg, Canada to try and find a term that could unite the LGBTQ Native community.
The attendees settled on “two spirit” because they wanted a term that “reflected the combination of masculinity and femininity which was attributed to males in a feminine role and females in a masculine role,” writes author Sabine Lang in “Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures.”
Historically, many two spirit folk were keepers of traditions, story tellers, religious leaders and healers. In other words, this difference was highly valued and respected.
Similarly, Indian culture acknowledges the existence of a third gender, the Hijra.
But unlike the Native American “two spirit” tradition, the “hijra” term only applies to people who were assigned a male gender at birth but don’t identify as men. Many hijra people even wear bold makeup and traditionally feminine clothing.
And although Western society may be tempted to dismiss these practices as “transgender,” that term is seldom used in Indian context. Instead, the term most commonly used is “third gender,” which the country’s Supreme Court acknowledged as a legitimate identifier. So, those wishing to indicate the “third gender” status on their government-issued identification can now do so.
The main difference between “transgender” and “third gender” (or “hijra”) people is that hijras leave their home and undergo an induction to a clan of hijras. This clan is led by an elder known as a “nayak” or guru and the new inductee is known as a “chela.” These people have their own codes of conduct.
So overall, yes, gender is complicated. And, acknowledging more than just the traditional binary can get confusing. But as the three cultures above show, it’s not impossible.
For many people today the limitations of the man-woman binary is restricting and frustrating. The way you experience your gender can change over time, depending on factors like your age and environment. So why should we be limited to just two?