9 Genderqueer Communities Throughout History

Photo: Getty Images.
With celebrities like Asia Kate Dillon and Amandla Stenberg increasing visibility for what it means to be non-binary or gender-fluid, topics of gender identity are seemingly getting more airtime now than ever before. So much so, that Millennials have come to be called the “gender-fluid generation,” making a name for ourselves as we explore the concept of gender more deeply than our parents’ may have.
But while the idea that gender isn’t binary (i.e. there’s more than just men and women out there) may seem new to many people, gender non-conformity isn’t a 21st-century creation. Examples of people who defy traditional gender conventions exist across cultures and history. There are the Hijras of India, Ancient Egyptians who gender-swapped to get into the afterlife, and even a third gender portrayed in 18th century Italian art, to name a few.
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“I think, in some ways, the millennial generation was born into a world where these kinds of ideas were already being written about,” says Barbara Risman, PhD, author of Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure. “This is a generation that grew up in a world where thinkers and writers had been exploring these ideas, and people read them while they were in their formative teen and early- adult years,” she says. And so, to some extent, we’ve been able to take them for granted.
According to a report from GLAAD from earlier this year, 12% of millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, and in general, young people are more likely to identify as LGBTQ than previous generations. Plus, according to the United Nations, between 0.05% and 1.7% of the population is born with intersex traits (reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit typical male or female definitions), and may identify as non-binary or gender queer, though many identify as women or men.
In other words, simply seeing more gender non-conforming and gender-fluid people and hearing their stories has helped millennials understand their own identities. Essentially, we’re benefitting from the work done by people who came before us — plus, we have the internet.
“How easily accessible information is to people on the internet is very important to the number of people who are rethinking gender,” Dr. Risman says.
But again, the concept of gender as non-binary isn’t anything new.
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Need proof? Here are eight gender non-conforming cultures throughout history. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we hope this information sheds some light on the fact that the current discussion around gender isn’t as “new” as people might think.
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.
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Hijra

You may have heard that, in 2014, India’s transgender and non-binary individuals were finally granted legal recognition with the official designation of a “third gender” category on official identity documents. But hijras, gender non-conforming people who live in South Asia, have been around for thousands of years. As the United Nations Development Programme notes, the Kama Sutra even included references to people with a “third nature,” which some have interpreted as gender fluidity.

The term hijra, according to a Washington Post report from last year, usually refers to people who are assigned male at birth (meaning: their “sex” may be male), but who don’t identify as such, and they often wear makeup and clothing more typically associated with women.

Sadly, hijras still face disadvantages in modern society: Some people in South Asia still use the term hijra as an insult, and hijra people are at higher risk for HIV than cisgender people in India.
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Two-Spirit

In North America, different gender identities have been celebrated in indigenous cultures since at least the 1800s — some Native American cultures in the U.S. and Canada have used the term “two-spirit” to refer to gender non-conforming members of their community who embody both male and female “spirits.”

As the 1992 documentary Two Spirit People explains, individuals who have both masculine and feminine qualities are seen as conduits between the physical and spiritual world, and are therefore revered and put in positions of power in their communities.

Today, the two-spirit community is embraced during Pride celebrations in present-day New York City, and it even holds its own Two-Spirit Pride Parades elsewhere in the country.
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Waria

Indonesia’s community of “third gender” people, waria, are people who were assigned male at birth but identify as women. Their existence dates back to at least the early 19th century. While waria can also refer to transgender people in Indonesia in general, filmmaker Kathy Huang, who directed a documentary on waria, noted to The Huffington Post that it’s a diverse community, and some can choose not to necessarily identify as transgender in the way that we think of that word in the West.

Either way, waria can face widespread discrimination in Indonesia. A report from Human Rights Watch last year found that waria (and LGBTQ+ people in Indonesia in general) have faced mounting threats from state commissions, militant Islamists, and even mainstream religious organizations. Though Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world, many waria often don’t feel accepted practicing the faith in mosques, and have formed their own places of worship.
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Muxes

Muxes, whose unique identities are specific to the region of Juchitán, Mexico, are those who are assigned male at birth but may identify otherwise, be it as women, or beyond any single gender. While people may self-identify as muxe, their definition of what that means can vary from person to person.

As a New York Times report notes, muxes can express their identities in different ways, and “live in a socially sanctioned netherworld between” male and female genders. Though documentation is scant, a report from Fusion found that muxes’ existence date back to at least the 1950s.

What’s notable about muxes is that they’re relatively well-accepted, at least in their community in Juchitán. Many consider having a muxe person in the family as a blessing and a sign of luck (though all families aren’t necessarily this celebratory or tolerant).

In the wake of the earthquake that hit Mexico earlier this year, women and muxes played a leading role in helping the town rebuild. Though life outside of Juchitán may play out differently, it is a largely progressive, welcoming community for gender non-conforming people.
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Ancient Egypt

Though not necessarily an instance of a community of gender non-conforming people, Ancient Egyptians held a unique (and, frankly, rather sexist) belief about gender and rebirth.

Ancient Egyptians are known for their beliefs in rebirth and the afterlife, and it likely doesn’t come as a complete surprise that men and women weren’t exactly seen as equals in these stories.

A new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum dives into the belief that rebirth wasn’t possible for women. Instead, one had to briefly “become” a man in order to get to the afterlife.

As Kathlyn M. Cooney, PhD, professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA, explained during a discussion of the exhibit, a woman “has to become the masculine entity to be reborn.”

To do so, women would be buried in coffins depicting them with red skin — the color usually associated with men — and their breasts would be painted as flattened, according to Dr. Cooney. In addition, a priest would perform a ritual, addressing the deceased woman with masculine pronouns, long enough for her to overcome that perceived barrier, after which she could be reborn into the afterlife.
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Fa’afafine

In Samoan culture, the term fa’afafine is used to describe a third gender, and like hijras, warias, and muxes, fa’afafine are typically assigned male at birth, and may identify as women and/or embody both typically masculine and feminine traits. However, the term is meant to include anyone who doesn’t identify within the binary of male and female.

Recognized as a gender identity by Samoan society since at least the 20th century, fa’afafine means "in the way of a woman." According to BBC, about 1% to 5% of the Samoan population identifies as fa’afafine, and have been an accepted part of Samoan culture for generations. Each year, a Miss Fa’afafine pageant is held to celebrate the third gender tradition.
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Femminiello

In 2014, Dawson Carr, a curator at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, discovered a painting that depicted gender non-conformity — in 18th century Italy.

The painting, called Il Femminiello, is believed to depict femminielli, a third gender class that existed in Naples in the 18th century. According to Sotheby’s, the term was used for men who dressed as women from a young age. They were said to have been embraced by their neighbors in Naples, who entrusted them with traditionally feminine work, such as the care of children and household duties.

Plus, femminielli were also thought to bring good luck, and many Neapolitans brought them on gambling trips for that reason.
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Māhū

The māhū of Hawaii are a community of people who express both traditionally feminine and masculine traits.

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a hula and Hawaiian studies teacher on Oahu, told Al Jazeera last year that it means “you’re someone in the middle” of the masculine and feminine genders. Māhū were once respected and valued as caretakers, healers, and teachers of ancient traditions that were passed on in Hawaiian culture. However, as colonial settlers discovered the islands, much of that changed.

When American settlers came in the 1800s, according to the documentary The Meaning Of Māhū, they imposed their own beliefs and intolerance.

“Our own culture is used against us,” Wong-Kalu told Al Jazeera. “Māhū are denigrated and disrespected because of the imposition of foreign ideology.”

These days, the Transgender Law Center gives Hawaii a “medium” rating in terms of LGBTQ+ equality — while several laws exist to protect people based on their sexual orientation, few address gender identity.
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Modern Day U.S.

With states like California and Oregon taking steps to legally recognize non-binary people, and 10 countries in the world offering gender-neutral passports, we're seeing more localities giving non-binary people the legal rights they deserve.

But, Dr. Risman says, there’s still a lot of pressure to perform gender, or to act stereotypically male or female — pressure that not only hinders people from exploring their identities, but can also have harmful mental health repercussions.

“There’s a part of me that wonders, if we didn’t have such strong stereotypes about what you had to be to be considered an appropriate man or woman, whether or not more people might be comfortable in those categories,” Dr. Risman says.

Indeed harmful stereotypes are nothing new, but neither are people with non-binary gender expressions living peacefully outside the bounds of what's expected. Since history tends to repeat itself, let's hope we'll be repeating the moments of greater acceptance, and moving away from the closed-mindedness that's crept up more recently.
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