Many people confuse sex with gender by assuming that fluidity in gender means fluidity in sex. Your sex refers to whether you are a male or female, whether you have an x- and a Y-chromosome or two X- chromosomes. Gender refers to whether you behave in a perceived masculine or feminine way. No one is perfectly masculine or feminine. No one does only the things their culture defines as appropriate to their sex, with no tendency toward what their culture defines as appropriate to the other sex.
Gender goes beyond one’s reproductive organs and includes a person’s perception, understanding, and experience of themselves and roles in society. It is their inner sense about who they are meant to be and how they want to interact with the world. While a person can only change their physical sex through surgery, one’s gender is more fluid and based on how we identify ourselves.
Gender is often spoken about as a social construct, for what a society considers to be female, for example, is based on such things as beliefs and values and not on nature. That women are supposed to wear dresses and that boys should not cry are, ultimately, made-up social customs and conventions.
Western societies that think of themselves as civilized, have had a love/hate or rather love/fear relationship with tribal communities for centuries. While colonialists defined indigenous people as primitive and dangerous in order to better exploit, rob and murder them, many respected writers and philosophers have written about the noble savage, a literary character who embodies the concept of the indigene, the wild human, an other, who has not been corrupted by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity's innate goodness.
Indeed, there are many tribal communities worldwide that recognize, accept and often venerate, their gender fluid members. The existence of other genders is normal among these communities, nations, and religions that have recognized more than two genders for centuries, showing a far more inclusive attitude than many so called civilized Western societies.
For example, in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal the Hijras (which FFU has written abou before) are men who consider themselves to be women. They behave like women, use makeup, and wear female clothes and they are legally recognized as the third gender. Hijras have been recognized in India for thousands of years and are even mentioned in sacred Hindu writings.
The people of Samoa recognize a third gender called fa’afafine. The term refers to boys raised as girls. This is very evident in their name. In Samoan, fa’a means “in the manner of” while fafine means “woman.” Fa’afafines categorize themselves as a distinct gender and refuse to be identified as transgender or homosexual, because those terms describe males and females. They take up the gender and sexual roles associated with women, although they can also get into relationships with women and other fa’afafines.
Madagascans recognize the existence of a third gender called sekrata, also boys who are raised as girls and grow up to become women. Sekratas usually have feminine characteristics, causing many people to assume that sekratas are women in a man’s skin. Sekratas believe they are women. They talk and behave like women, wear jewelry and their hair long. Sekratas are often feared as they are believed to have magical powers.women.
Surprisingly in Islamic Oman, the Xaniths, men who behave like a women are tolerated, because of the belief that they inherited their effeminate behavior and do not deliberately behave like women. Xaniths use makeup, oil their hair, and engage in other activities traditionally categorized as feminine.
The Zapotec people of Oaxaca, Mexico, also recognize the existence of a third gender called Muxe (moo-shey). Although they are generally men who identify as women, there is no consensus on what makes a person a muxe, leaving people to determine their personal standards for who qualifies as a muxe and who does not. The Zapotec language has no grammatical genders as there are in Spanish and other Latin based languages. There is only one form for all people, so the muxes have never been forced to wonder whether they are more man or woman.
Muxes are celebrated in Oaxaca and have a dedicated festival, Vela de las Intrepidas, Vigil of the Intrepids, which lasts for three days. This celebration shows respect for the muxe community within the confines of the Zapotec. However, their acceptance is fairly limited to that region and they are not always welcomed in other parts of Mexico. The header photo shows Naomy Mendez Romero at the office of her organization "Ladxico Muxe", in Juchitan de Zaragoza, Mexico, an organization that fights discrimination against muxe.
In North America Two-spirit is a catchall word for intersex, half-male and half-female, female male, and male female, in Native American culture. The term two-spirit was created in 1990 at the Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering in Winnipeg, and « specifically chosen to distinguish and distance Native American/First Nations people from non-Native peoples » 2 . Two Spirit was created in English to serve as a pan-Indian unifier, to be used for general audiences instead of the traditional terms in Indigenous languages for what are actually quite diverse, culturally-specific ceremonial and social roles, which can vary quite widely.
Generally, anyone belonging to one gender, but believed to have the characteristics of the other gender is considered to be a two-spirit. They often do work associated with both genders and are usually considered a good omen. Male females marry women, while female males marry men. Many of us would consider this to be homosexuality, but Native Americans do not.
Photographer Magdalena Wosinska (@themagdalenaexperience) spent two weeks in Pine Ridge Indian reservation, in South Dakota, sleeping in the basement of a community center. She photographed people like Monique ‘Muffie’ Mousseau and her wife Felipa De Leon, who have dedicated their lives to fighting for equal rights for Two Spirit Indigenous peoples, both locally and nationally. Magdalena wanted to show the beauty of the Two-Spirit community in Pine Ridge, which is often the subject of harsh or pitying headlines in the media.
The Bugis people of Indonesia recognize no less than five genders: oroane (manly men), makkunrai (womanly women), calabai (womanly men), calalai (manly women), and bissu (half-male and half-female).
The oroane and makkunrai fit what was once thought of as the traditional definitions of men and women, respectively. Calabai are men who behave like women. Despite this, they do not like to be considered as women. On the other hand, calalai are women who behave like men. They dress like men, have male mannerisms, and take on traditionally male jobs.
The bissus occupy a position between men and women, even though they are neither. Nevertheless, they dress like men and women at the same time. They are also believed to be half-human, half-deities who have magical powers and can be possessed by spirits. They are even said to be the first creatures to have appeared on Earth. There are two ways to be a bissu. The first is to be a hermaphrodite, having both male and female reproductive organs. The other is to have a soul belonging to the opposite sex. For instance, a women believed to have the soul of a man is considered a bissu and vice versa.
There are many more examples of traditional communities that embrace gender fluidity, too many in fact to mention here. In order to create a sense of community and the mutual support that groups can offer, it is necessary to have or create an identifying word, a label. However, the tendency of our Western societies to label different genders with words like male, female, transgender, gay, straight, bi, queer and so on, often has counterproductive and negative results, partly because of the confusion between gender and sexual orientation.
We can learn a lot from the example of these communities and their simple acceptance of innate differences between people that have always existed. Believing that gender fluid people have two spirits, or are half-humans, half-deities with magical powers, may seem naïve and primitive to some, but the attitude of these tribal communities is, in fact, the epitome of civilized 3 behavior.