Sunday, October 2, 2011

Third Genders

so, in my Anthropology class, we began talking about genders and the boundaries and possible objectivism concerning the ideas of gender and what not. my teacher mentioned these four different groups from various indigenous (pre and post colonial) groups that operate outside the typical western idea of gender - that is, that man and woman are determined and aligned along biological limitations.

it is often thought, especially within the black community when speaking about "gay", "homosexual", "transgendered", etc. that these are colonial/European manifestations. this is especially evident in black power and Afrocentric circles (which can be seen here at 7:40). it is constantly tossed around not only by brothas and sistahs on an informal level, but is very much a part of a number of black scholarly work (Frances Cress Welsing, Eldridge Cleaver, Louis Farrakhan and the entire Nation of Islam, to name a few, have all had some anti-"homo" element to their writings/beliefs). this is not surprising, given the overwhelming amount of religiosity existent in black and brown communities, but there also is an underlying idea that being "gay" is a white/European thing; something only whites do. in the same idea that....white folks climb mountains, swim with sharks, jump out of planes....and other nonsensical things, but that these are things black folk don't do. but is this the case (rock climbing is quite fun, i might add...)?

from what i have read, the term "gay"/"homosexual", etc. are European creations. the term and connotations surrounding these labels originated in Europe. the idea that one's sexuality or sexual interests are the largest determining factor of one's self; one's identity; one's personality are also European. does this mean, however, that same-sex relations and/or people that lived as what we would today call "transsexual"/"trans-gendered" were non-existent prior to the term "homosexual" and prior to colonialism? not at all. here are four examples that do damage to this assertion:

  • Fa'afafine - those, typically male, who identify as this third (or possibly fourth, i've read) gender in pre and post-colonial Samoan society. more informantion here and here.
  • Xanith - those that identify has neither man nor woman that are typically biologically male within Islamic societies.
  • Hijra - biological males that have a feminine gender identity from South Asia.
  • Two-Spirit -also known as Berdache, are biological males that identify between masculine and feminine genders. more information here and here.

it appears as though this idea that westerners have of "transgendered" or possibly even "gay" (considering many of these examples have sex with both sexes) have always been around, even before colonialism. the idea that gender (roles, characteristics of a person) seem to be more aligned with personal identity rather than one's genitals; gender was something fluid rather than the restrictive way in which we think of it at the present.
in some cases, it seems as though whites that identify as "gay" or "transsexual" have influenced the way in which these societies thought of these third genders, mainly in negative ways. their influence changed one's sexuality or gender to the main determinant in one's self; in one's personal and societal identity. although, i don't feel as though many Fa'afafine or Two-Spirit have viewed this influence in negative ways.

it is also very interesting how the majority of the examples i've found have been of males, with almost no speak of biological females being "third gendered". does this suggest something about the female role in pre-colonial societies? or more about the male? from the examples, this third gender is usually recognized by the parents of the child at an early age and raised as such (as can be seen in the Fa'afafine), so the presupposition is that they were born this way. if this is the case, are women not born that way? why not?
i would like to read more examples of these from Africa and ancient Europe as well....if anyone knows of any examples.

comment. think. criticize.
(first two photos are Two-spirit. last one is Hijra.)


  1. Interesting post. You may not know this but I am interested in gender and sexuality among histories of colour (er...I mean the histories of people of colour...) I believe than sexuality was also more fluid among some people and ethnicities, no one saw the need to define as 'straight' or 'bi'.

    You may be interested in the 'yan daudu (men who dress and act like women, some consider them to be gay) of Northern Nigeria, there is a really good book on them; 'Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City' by Rudolf Pell Gaudio.

  2. interesting thoughts. there is a south african term for such called stabane which means roughly hermaphrodite. sexuality should not be subjected to newtonian diffrential/integral analysis because as the ancient igbo say everything comes from the vagina.
    As always i learn

  3. @ Eccentric Yoruba - very interesting. yea, it seems as though a number of Afrocentrics tend to think of non-"heterosexual" (whatever that is anyway...) relationships as completely european, and the more i look at it, the more it seems as though, they're right and wrong. but mostly wrong. yea, i'll definitely check out that book.

  4. Very interesting article. The book "Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture", by Walter L Williams covers the two-souled idea in some depth and is a very interesting read.

  5. Great post. The lack of information on Native American biological females who also had male identities is also due to how the historical records were created. Much of the information on Native American history was written by male traders and anthropologists during a time of very male-centric views.