Gender identity has certainly become a hot topic here in Australia, and one which certain parts of the LGBTQI and broader communities have unfortunately weaponised and used to drive a wedge between us and them.
And while some may argue gender binaries are somehow a new phenomenon, this could not be further from the truth. There are many examples of genders outside of the male/female binaries which have existed within cultures and communities around the world. In some cases these genders are even celebrated, providing a lesson some in Australia would do well to learn from.
Australia’s closest neighbour, Indonesia, has the Bugis people who are an ethnic group that has for centuries seen gender as a spectrum, with three genders in addition to male and female. Bugis genders include ‘calabai‘ (feminine men), ‘calalai‘ (masculine women) and intersex ‘bissu’ priests.
As one of the oldest cultures in the world, stretching back more than 65,000 years, those within Indigenous Australian communities of whom exist outside the usual binaries have come to be known as Brotherboys and Sistergirls. Brotherboys describes people with a gender experience inconsistent with their assigned sex, with a male spirit and male roles in the community – sistergirls are the opposite.
In South East Asia, Hijras is a centuries-old third gender, associated with sacred powers and usually refers to those assigned male at birth but not identifying as such. In 2014, India legally recognised hijras as a third gender after they were criminalised by the British in 1871. Last year, in Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, a first of its kind madrassa – or Islamic school – was opened for Hijras students.
Two-spirit is the term used in North America for those whom identify with both masculinity and femininity. Indigenous North American two-spirit people are often said to contain both male and female ‘spirits’ and are often revered in their communities as they are believed to channel between the physical and spiritual.
In Samoan society fa’afafine’s – those identifying as a separate gender – have roles which move fluidly between the traditional male and female. While they’re assigned male at birth, Samoa also recognises fa’afatama – an equally fluid gender for those assigned female at birth.
In Albania, Sworn Virgins, though a dying practice, sees women take on the social identity of a man for life whilst also taking a vow of chastity. They believe by taking on this identity, they’re elevated to the status of a man, entitled to the rights and privileges of the patriarchy.
In 2007, Nepal officially recognised the Metis as a third gender. They have a long history in the Himalayan region. Assigned male at birth, they assume a traditional feminine appearance. Nepal set a global precedent with a third gender category on official documents.
Among one of the dozen or more common gender identities in Thailand is a vibrant, growing, and highly visible set of female identities known as tom and dee. A “tom” (from “tomboy”) refers to a masculine woman who is sexually involved with a feminine partner, or “dee” (from “lady”).