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.
“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.
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.