Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Cultural & Historical Importance of the Third Gender

Kathoeys:  Thailand's third gender
The concept of the third gender is one that I find fascinating, both in the field of anthropology, and as a biologist.  History is filled with depictions and mentions of the third gender, and practically every culture around the globe has -- or at one time had -- a gender that was seen as being neither fully male nor fully female.  The Philippines is no exception in this regard.

The blurring of the terms 'third gender' and 'third sex' can be confusing, however, as well as inaccurate.  The two are not the same and should not be used synonymously.  This is something we will take a look at here.  There is also a table at the bottom of the article reviewing several of the many cultures that openly recognize a third gender.

I am mainly writing this article for my fellow Westerners who have traveled to the Asia-Pacific, or who plan to do so.  The reason:  because one of the major points of interest for Westerners visiting or living in places like Thailand or the Philippines, is how many cross-dressers there are and how openly tolerated the practice is.  Often Westerners will equate this phenomenon as Asian-Pacific societies being "very accepting of homosexuality," but that's not always the case -- in fact it usually isn't the case at all.  The concept of the third gender transcends sexuality in many ways, and we cannot define it by Western standards or try to make it fit into the box of Western understanding.

The information here will also, I hope, be an encouragement to any third gendered person, Filipina or otherwise, who may happen to read it.  It will show that you are not strange or disordered or sinful, but you are part of a beautiful group of people who have been an important and accepted part of countless societies the world over, since the dawn of time.

Western religious conservatives (and their converts in the third world) have a tendency to think that the two-gender system is universal, biological, and God-given.  Scientifically speaking, that's not plausible.  It is made even less plausible given how many cultures allow for more than two cultural genders. There are too many of them to claim that it’s just an aberration. There are too many ways in which a third gender is created to think it’s a single aberration repeated multiple times.

Bissu shamans of Sulawesi, Indonesia
The existence of more than two cultural genders in so many societies calls into question many of the premises employed by the Christian Right. These systems aren’t compatible with the idea that sex must exist only for procreation, that God created only two genders, that heterosexual relations within marriage are the only permissible form of sexual behavior, and so forth.

When it comes to understanding, defining and classifying homosexuality, transgenderism, and the third gender, there can be considerable confusion.  I read an article some time ago by a Filipino author who stated that a homosexual is not always a bakla, but a bakla is always a homosexual.  Scientifically, I must disagree.

Many baklas are not, in fact, homosexuals; they are transgender females.  The author seemed to be blurring sexual orientation with gender identity and expression.  A man who is attracted to men is homosexual, but a man who is attracted to other men while at the same time identifying as a female (feeling he should be and/or wants to be a female), is not homosexual, but transgender -- one in whom the body developed as anatomically male, while the brain developed as wholly female.  It is not a psychosis; it is spurred by hormonal influences in utero.  This is the root of feeling trapped in the wrong body, because, essentially, that's exactly what it is.  The brain doesn't match the body.

By contrast, a homosexual man does not feel this way.  He does not try or want to act like, look like, or become, a woman.  A gay man is a gendered male, and is happy to be so.

Manila bakla, ca. 1918
In the Philippines, before the arrival of and colonization by the Spanish in 1521, Filipino culture recognized a distinct third gender, the bayoguin or binabae, which gradually morphed into the term known today:  bakla.  The bayoguin were more than cross-dressers, they were gender-crossers.  They were thought to be a mixture of both sexes, identical to the calabai of the Indonesian Bugis, and the kathoey of Thailand.  And like so many other third genders around the world, the Filipino bayoguins were revered as leaders, healers, and intermediaries between the spirit world and the world of the living -- so much so that the macho Catholic Spaniards felt threatened by them.  They were recognized as "somewhat women" (identical to the sago/kathoeys of Thailand), and they even married men and were treated as concubine-wives.

Many Filipinos still view baklas as a third gender (though without the spiritual aspect).  Others no longer do, viewing them instead simply as gay men with a flair for being rebellious gender-bending misfits.  Catholicism and smatterings of Western concepts of homosexuality seem to have smashed baklas, gays, transgenders, and bisexuals together into one ambiguous clump.  Everything unconventional became bakla, even though bakla, in its historically accurate construct, is what we today would call a transgender female.

A "two-spirit" Native American
As such I do not have a problem whatsoever with the term "third gender," or even fourth or fifth gender.  It is not my place to tell a culture how it should or should not interpret gender or assign gender roles.  Gender is not set or defined by science or biology, but by culture.  As a European trained in Western schools and in modern science, the concept of having more than two genders, per se, is something that I am not culturally used to, but I am not in any way adverse to it.

I have heard it said that Filipino culture has developed a more flexible response to sexuality than European cultures, creating a more fluid concept of gender.  When viewing gender through the eyes of mankind's history, however, I don't think Filipino culture has created a flexibility, but has instead retained humanity's original flexibility down through the millennia.

While modern European civilization (I use the term 'modern' loosely to mean the time since the middle ages) has recognized only two genders, male and female, it wasn't always so.  We can look back through the annals of history and find mention of shamans who were neither male nor female, but something in between.  In our tribal days we Europeans were animists just like everyone else, and third gendered people had a role in our ancient societies, too.

In ancient Scandinavia (in the pre-Viking and Viking times), for example, there were certain shamanic sorcerers who often dressed as women and acted effeminately, and were thought to channel both maleness and femaleness.  They were called seiðrmenn.  They were viewed as effeminate and somehow "less" than men, and yet closer to the gods than anyone else.  A son of one of Norway's most famous kings of the 9th-century was a seiðrmann.  There have been archaeological digs that have unearthed graves of some of these seiðrmenn; male skeletons in dresses, with amulets and talismans by their side.

Early Christianity's woefully limited understanding of "natural order" changed all of that after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent spread of Christianity across Europe.  The gender-variant shamans of old tribal Europe became easy and obvious targets of newly-converted, fanatical Christian kings, and many were drowned or burned for their "unnaturalness and sorcery."

The link between third genders and shamanism is undeniable and remarkably similar on every continent.  Stretching back to the sekhet of ancient Egypt and the kurgarru of 7th-century BC Mesopotamia, gender-bending shamans can be found, often bearing the title of eunuch.  Eunuchs, according to ancient laws, were not merely castrated men, but there were also so-called "natural eunuchs," or those who had no physical defects yet nevertheless had no desire to procreate or be with women.  Eunuchs were not classified as males, but as "non-males," seen as occupying an intermediary space between males and females.  Many were highly influential in managing the affairs and schedules of royal palaces, and many others held esteemed religious offices as shamans and androgynous priests.

This is the same thing we see in ancient Israel with the qadeshim: male religious prostitutes and priests who were typically transgendered cross-dressers.  They engaged in ritual receptive anal intercourse with male worshipers, and were the reason behind the verses targeting anal sex in Leviticus.  It was a forbiddance of idolatrous sex used to worship God, it was not a forbiddance of homosexuality or same-sex relationships.  (To read a bit more on the qadeshim and the Old Testament, click here.)

According to modern anthropology and archaeology, these specialized roles evolved from the third gender tribal shamans of earliest humanity, dating back to the Paleolithic Era literally tens of thousands of years ago.  In other words, third gendered persons were mankind's very first class of priests.

It is clear that every culture has at some point in its past had a concept of a third gender.  In European society we lost this concept, or actually saw it stamped out by force and by rigid religious codes.  In many cultures, however, such as the Philippines and other Asian-Pacific societies (which didn't suffer through the oppression of the European dark ages), the concept has been largely retained. 

Clarity on the Difference Between 'Third Gender' and 'Third Sex'

Getting back to the Philippines, I do, however, have a problem with a term that gets passed around a lot in reference to baklas.  That term is "third sex."  Sex and gender are two quite different things, and as a scientist when I hear people say "the third sex" in reference to a transgender person, it feels like someone scraping their fingernails on a chalkboard!  People who use the term probably don't know any better, and think that sex and gender are synonymous.  They are not.

The only people who could use the term "third sex" (but usually choose not to) are people who are intersex: those born with a DSD (disorder of sex development).  This is because sex has to do with one's biological state -- the anatomy one was born with.  There are dozens of forms of DSD/intersexuality, and all deal with chromosomal patterns that manifest physically; e.g. a chromosomal male who has ovaries, or a chromosomal female who has a penis.  Persons who are intersex generally do not like to use the term "third sex," however, because it has a certain social stigma attached to it.

The meti of Nepal
On the other hand if someone is a biological male and is transgender (feels as though he is a female in a man's body), that person is not a member of a third sex (i.e. they are not intersex).  That person is a biological male who is transgendered, not an anatomical mix of both sexes.  Therefore it wouldn't be appropriate or accurate to refer to her as a member of the "third sex."

Referring to her as third gender, however, is fine, because gender is culturally constructed.  There are numerous different genders recognized the world over and that's perfectly all right.  In many cultures gender is a spectrum, not an either/or.  Gender refers to how the culture interprets “masculinity” and “femininity.”  Culture, not nature, determines how a man is expected to behave or how a woman is expected to behave in their society.

Another phrase that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard to me is one that I have heard a lot in the Philippines:  "real men."  It's usually juxtaposed with the word gay or bakla, e.g. "I have two friends in my neighborhood; one is a gay but the other is a real man."  I suppose they mean "straight" when they say "real man," but it's so crude. 

For the record there is no such thing as a "non-real" man.  All men are real, as are all women real women.  A human being is a human being, and all are very real.  Their individual sexual orientations might be varied, their genders might be viewed on a spectrum, and their gender identities might not match the typical, but to say that only some men and women are "real" and, by default, the others somehow aren't real, is highly juvenile.

If someone is straight, just say they're straight.  Let's not use adjectives describing certain people as "real" and others and somehow less than real.

A Clash of Definitions

In many non-western cultures, 'homosexual' refers only to feminine gendered males who like men.  It is not used for masculine gendered males who like men.  Thus 'homosexual' becomes just another name for the 'third gender.'  This appears to be the case in much of the Asia-Pacific.

Indonesian warias: "famale-males"
Under the modern Western concept of homosexuality, sex between a member of the third gender and a masculine male would be termed as homosexuality.  None of the ancient cultures, however, saw it that way.  Third gender meant (and still means in many cultures) a different sex category altogether.  Third gender males are not considered men, either by themselves or by their society. 

Sex or sexual desire between the third gender and masculine males have always been considered as heterosexual rather than homosexual.  This is why it can be accepted and recognized (especially in patriarchal societies with very rigid gender definitions), even while couplings between two masculine males would be suppressed or forbidden.  Same-sex pairings were only accepted if they conformed to the heterosexual model of gender differentiation.

Such was precisely the case in Native American societies, and the way it still is in Polynesian, Indigenous Siberian, and various Southeast and South Asian societies.  I have even heard that if an otherwise 'straight-acting' Filipino male has sex with a bakla, the straight male will not be considered homosexual or even bisexual.  This taps into the third gender concept of baklas not really being men, but being an "other," as well as being gendered females.  It is highly likely, however, that at least some of the men who engage in these types of same-sex activities do have some degree of inclination toward bisexuality (unless large amounts of alcohol are involved, then all bets are off)!

The fa'afafine of Samoa
It is also worth noting that Philippine baklas, Thai kathoeys/sao prapet song, and Indonesian waria, are not interested in having relationships with other transgenders, or even feminine gay men.  They are interested only in straight men.  This isn't surprising as one considers that most third gendered men are in fact transgender females, and are not attracted to another transgender or anyone else displaying femininity.  Naturally this can pose problems, however, especially for the transgender person. 

A transgender Filipina once said to me that it's hard to be in meaningful relationships, because most of her straight boyfriends eventually end the relationship when they find a biological female, or "a real woman" as they say.  Most relationships end up being dead-ends, but this cannot be considered a surprise -- after all, one of the persons in the couple has a heterosexual orientation, and the other is transgender.

It is quite the opposite in Scandinavia, where I am from.  This is because we no longer have a cultural concept of a third gender, the way we used to in our ancient past.  Today our constructs are based purely on those of modern science, with specific categories and explanations.  This is one reason why cross-dressing is far more common and accepted in Southeast Asia, for example, as compared to Europe.  It is also why two masculine gay men walking hand-in-hand in public is far more common and accepted in Europe than it would ever be in Southeast Asia.

So, in its broadest sense, 'the third gender' is basically comprised of feminine gendered men or masculine gendered women, which would, in modern definitions of gender identity, include transgenders, transvestites (cross-dressers), and transsexuals -- the T's in LGBT.  Lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals are different from these, but in ancient cultures that did not have scientific knowledge of sexual orientation or gender identity, LGB's would also have been included within the third gender.  If you were not transgender but were homosexual in one of these times or places, you would nevertheless be culturally "required" to dress and live as the opposite sex if you hoped to couple with someone of the same biological sex, as not to upset the societal order of strict gender roles.  We can still see this today in several non-western cultures.

Whether we call it third gender, two-spirit, or transgender, the concept of gender fluidity is as old as bipedalism.  These differences are not weaknesses or flaws to be feared.  They are strengths.  Modern science is teaching us what our earliest ancestors already knew, and I'm of the opinion that we, as a species, are the richer for it.

You may click here to view the table I put together of 26 distinct societies (some modern, some ancient) which recognize a third gender.  It is not exhaustive, but is a list of those societies most-studied by anthropologists.

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