Before the Binary

NATV Radio on Echobox With Manon Portos Minetti, Julia Jouwe & Jesse van ‘t Hull

Top image:

TOPSHOT – This picture taken on November 15, 2022 shows Bissu, non-binary priests, performing a dance during a Mappalili ceremony in Pangkajene, South Sulawesi. – The ceremony marks the start of the planting season on the island of Sulawesi, where the androgynous Bissu community to whom they belong once held divine status, but are now fighting against extinction. (Photo by INDRA ABRIYANTO / AFP) / To go with AFP story Indonesia-culture-religion-gender, FOCUS by Dessy SAGITA

The three of us set out to create a radio show that took us beyond the gender binary, because this is, sadly, still the norm in Eurocentric society. Contradictory, it is also Eurocentric society that praises itself for its tolerance of gender ‘non-conformity’. So we would like to give a look at gender from Indigenous perspectives, to see if we can decolonize the narratives of the human nature of gender and the histories of gender concepts. 

In Europe, especially in Amsterdam, we take exceptional pride in our tolerance. Mind you, tolerance is far from acceptance, and acceptance is far from celebration. In the Netherlands we are schooled in how progressive we are because we have this long history of tolerance for LGBTQIA+ folks. And based on that the implicit assumption crawling through our society is that we are better, more developed, more advanced. We think acceptance, nay, tolerance of LGBTQIA+ is a white invention and we suspect every non-white person of lacking thereof. And if they do turn out to tolerate, accept or celebrate LGBTQIA+, we call them well-integrated. Our premise is that understanding of gender as non-binary started here, in our culture, and this is the enlightenment we are spreading around the world. In it lies a dangerous idea of supremacy that is too often proving to be less than dormant.

Interestingly enough, the gender binary system that exists within Eurocentric societies is far from a universal concept. In fact, numerous Indigenous communities around the world do not conflate gender and sex; rather, they recognize a third or even more genders within their societies. Individuals that identify as a third gender often have visible and socially recognizable positions within their societies and sometimes are thought to have unique or spiritual powers that they can access because of their gender identity. Gender is, for many different Indigenous cultures, a spiritual question, rather than one of sexual preference, as it is in recent Eurocentric tradition. 

Why do we say recent Eurocentric tradition? Because before the Indigenous peoples of Europe were forced into Christianity, the traditions and beliefsystems of these peoples resembled those of Indigenous peoples around the world much more than they do the Christian and capitalistic canon. Although Christian efforts tried to erase any record of it, in Europe too we can find remnants of a much wider and deeper understanding of gender.

An interesting example of this are the Femminielli or femmenielli (singular femminiello, cf. Standard Italian femmina, “a female,” -ello, masculine diminutive suffix) refers to a third gender of individuals who were assigned male at birth and dress as women and assume female gender roles in Neapolitan society. Their station in society is (or was up through the 19th century) privileged, and the rituals (including marriage to one another) were based on Greek mythology related to Hermaphroditus and Teresias (who was transformed into a woman for seven years). Both of these personages and, indeed, others in many cultures in the world are presumed to possess something that others do not: the wise equilibrium that comes from knowing both worlds, masculine and feminine. It has been noted that this term is not derogatory and does not carry a stigma, instead, femminielli are traditionally believed to bring luck. 

The history of the femminielli may trace back to a real, non-mythological group: the Galli (also called Galloi or Gallae, singular gallus), a significant portion of the ancient priesthood of the mother goddess Cybele and her consort Attis. This tradition began in Phrygia (where Turkey is today, part of Asia Minor), sometime before 300 BC. After 205 BC, the tradition entered the city of Rome, and spread throughout the Roman Empire, as far north as London. They were eunuchs who wore bright-colored feminine sacerdotal clothing, hairstyles or wigs, makeup, and jewelry, and used feminine mannerisms in their speech. They addressed one another by feminine titles, such as sister. There were other priests and priestesses of Cybele who were not eunuchs, so it would not have been necessary to become a gallus or eunuch in order to become a priest of Cybele. The Gallae were not ascetic but hedonistic, so castration was not about stopping sexual desires. Some Gallae would marry men, and others would marry women. The ways of the Gallae were more consistent with transgender people with gender dysphoria, which they relieved by voluntary castration, as the available form of sex reassignment surgery.

Burrnesha (Albania): First documented in the 1800s but traced back to the 1400s, Northern Albania’s burrnesha are assigned female at birth. They take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing in order to be viewed as men in the highly patriarchal society. The tradition exists to a smaller extent in Kosovo, Serbia, and Montenegro. The tradition is dying out: There are believed to be fewer than 50 sworn virgins left in the Balkans.

But enough about Europe! Let’s look beyond, as that is why we are here.

We cannot fully encompass all Indigenous gender identities that defy the binary in this piece. There are simply too many and their histories and concepts are incredibly rich. we will try to give a broad and inclusive overview:

Many Indigenous societies have co-gender individuals that take on the role of shaman or healer. These individuals can go between earthly and spiritual worlds and, in many cases, can flow between genders. Among the Mapuche people in Southern Chile and adjacent areas in Argentina, Machi are considered religious authorities capable of balancing the Mapuche cosmos. The Machi gender is determined by their identity and spirituality, not by sex assigned at birth. This fluidity of gender is what provides them the ability to interact with the spiritual realm. 

The Zuni (Zuni: A:shiwi; formerly spelled Zuñi) are Native American Pueblo peoples native to the Zuni River valley. The Zuni tradition of a third gender is known as Lhamana, in which a person lives as both genders simultaneously. They play a key role in society as mediators, priests, and artists, and perform both traditional women’s work (pottery and crafts) as well as traditional men’s work (hunting). The most famous example was We’wha, who was assigned male at birth and served as the Zuni ambassador to the United States. She spent six months in Washington, D.C. where she was feted enthusiastically by the establishment which probably had no idea she wasn’t assigned female at birth. 

Mashoga (Kenya, Tanzania) is a Swahili term that connotes a range of identities on the gender continuum. While loosely used to indicate gay men, a large proportion of Mashoga are assigned male at birth who adopt the female gender early in life. They characteristically wear both men and women’s clothing, but in a manner distinct to mashoga alone. They often assume female gender roles and serve a crucial role in wedding ceremonies. 

In an exceptional case, genetics seems to have created a third sex in the Dominican Republic. A heritable pseudo-hermaphroditic trait was discovered by ethnographers in the 1970s, who followed the children over generations. With undifferentiated genitalia, they generally were raised as girls, but began developing male traits at puberty. Instead of changing their gender identities to male, most chose to live as a third gender called guevedoche (roughly meaning “testicles at 12”) or machiembra (man-woman). The society has accommodated the guevedoche and constructed a third gender with distinct roles for them.

For the past six centuries, the Bugis people of Indonesia have divided their society into five separate genders. All five must harmoniously coexist. They are oroané (cisgender men), makkunrai (cisgender women), calabai (analogous to transgender women), calalai (analogous to transgender men), and bissu (all aspects of gender combined to form a whole).

The Bugis believe that someone is born with the propensity to become the mixed gender bissu, revealed in a baby whose genitalia are ambiguous (intersex). These ambiguous genitalia need not be visible; an individual assigned male at birth who becomes a bissu is believed to be female on the inside. This combination of sexes enables a ‘meta-gender’ identity to emerge. Ambiguous genitalia alone do not confer the state of being a bissu. In order to become bissu, one must learn the language, songs, and incantations, and have a gift for bestowing blessings. They must remain celibate and wear conservative clothes. In daily social life, the bissu, the calabai, and the calalai may enter the dwelling places of both men and women.

In pre-Islamic Bugis culture, bissu were seen as intermediaries between the people and the gods. Up until the 1940s, the bissu were still central to keeping ancient palace rituals alive, including coronations of kings and queens. After independence in 1949, the ancient Bugis kingdoms were incorporated into the new republic and bissus’ roles became increasingly sidelined. A regional Islamic rebellion in South Sulawesi led to further persecution. As the atmosphere became increasingly homophobic, fewer people were willing to take on the role of bissu. By 2019, the numbers of bissu had declined dramatically, after years of increasing persecution and the tradition of revering bissu as traditional community priests. Bissu have mostly survived by participating in weddings as maids of honour and working as farmers as well as performing their cultural roles as priests. Hardline Islamic groups, police and politicians have all played their part in Indonesia’s increased harassment and discrimination of the LGBTQAI+ community.

In European efforts to interpret the society of Myanmar (Burma) mistranslation of Burmese အခြောက် (a.hkrauk /ăhcauʔ/) happened. The term Acault is introduced in European literature by Coleman et al. before 1987 who had an “inability to speak the local languages” and a “lack of training in anthropology”. The proper term in Burmese is နတ်ကတော် (natka.tau). They are a third gender that is very well respected in Burmese society, because they are considered to be ‘gifted’ seers, often functioning as mediums for outwardly spirits and other supernatural activities intrinsic to indigenous Burmese culture. In Myanmar, these spirit mediums may be female or male, and may or may not be transgender or cross-dressing, although they do wear costumes during ceremonial rituals when channeling spirits called “nats” in Myanmar. Homosexuality is not necessarily implied with spirit mediumship. 

Hijra (South Asia): In South Asian cultures including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, hijras are physiological males who adopt feminine gender identity, women’s clothing and other feminine gender roles. In the past the term referred to eunuchs or those born intersex or with indeterminate genitalia. Most hijra do not consider themselves to be men or women or transgender, but a distinct third gender. A tradition of castration still exists but is no longer requisite to be recognized as a hijra. Hijra generally live on the margins of society and many are forced to survive by begging or sex work. In India per Hindu mythology, hijras represent the half-male, half-female image of Shiva — an image symbolic of a being that is ageless and sexless. Hijras have a long recorded history in the Indian subcontinent, from the Mughal Empire period onwards. Many hijras live in well-defined, organized, all-hijra communities, led by a guru. (The word hijra is originally from Urdu, but has been adopted into Hindi. In Urdu, it is considered an epithet, and the term Khwaja Saraa is used instead). During the era of the British Raj, authorities attempted to eradicate hijras, whom they saw as “a breach of public decency.” Also during British rule in India they were placed under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 and labelled a “criminal tribe,” hence subjected to compulsory registration, strict monitoring and stigmatized for a long time, after independence however they were decriminalized in 1952, though the stigma continues.

In India, the aravanis (named after the brides of the mythological figure, Aravan) who are a subset of the hijra community, are those who are assigned male at birth, but adopt a female identity. Aravan finds a mention in the Mahabharata. When the Pandavas wanted to conquer Kurukshetra, they had to sacrifice the ‘perfect’ man, and the unmarried virgin Aravan stepped up to be beheaded. However, he wanted to die as a married man after consummating marriage. None of the kings though, wanted to offer their daughters, who would be widowed the next day. So, Krishna transformed into a woman to fulfill Aravan’s last wish. After making love to the female form of Krishna, Aravan was beheaded.

There are a range of Māori and Pasifika gender identities that do not necessarily conform with Eurocentric models. The traditional Māori term ‘takatāpui’, which originally referred to a close companion of the same sex, fell out of use for many decades, but since the 1980s has been reclaimed as an inclusive term used by gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and intersex Māori women and men. It is a term that encompasses Māori spirituality and culture as well as sexuality.

Those who were born with the wairua (spirit) of a gender different to the one they were assigned at birth may call themselves ‘irawhiti’ (with a gender that changes or is associated with change), ‘whakawāhine’ (creating or becoming a woman), ‘tangata ira tāne’(a person with the spirit or gender of a man), or one of a number of other terms. The contemporary te reo Māori word for transgender people is ‘irawhiti’. This can be used by transgender women, transgender men, and those with non-binary genders. ‘Ira kore’ is the term used by those who don’t identify with any gender.

As well as Samoan fa’afāfine and fa’atama, Pacific gender-diverse identities include fakaleiti in Tonga, māhū in Hawaii, māhū or rae rae in Tahiti, akava’ine or laelae in Cook Islands, vaka sa lewa lewa in Fiji and fiafifine in Niue. Some of these terms have been used as slurs and are still being reclaimed, and therefore may be considered offensive. Others have firmly positive associations.

In Samoa, Fa’afafine are children who are assigned male at birth and exhibit feminine characteristics, which the parents recognise early on. Therefore, they are raised as girls. Even though Fa’afafine grow up to be sexually involved with men and women, it is important to note that fa’afafine are not considered to be ‘homosexuals’ – that, is an entirely an Euro-Western construct.

In Hawaii, regardless of their anatomical identities, the Mahus’ gender identity was not restricted to definitive masculine or feminine. In Hawaiian Indigenous cultures, the Mahus were considered to be the vocal mediums for proliferating ancient rituals and were respected as educators. The invasion of the Europeans led to the disintegration of the Mahus, and today they experience extreme discrimination, since their existence contradicts the established and prevailing European gender binaries.

Transgender people have traditionally been an accepted part of Māori and Pasifika societies. In modern times, trans people in some Pacific countries have been able to change their gender on legal documents and access gender-affirming healthcare, but in some countries acceptance does not extend to legal protections.

Muxe or Muxhe (Zapotec of Oaxaca): Among the Zapotec of the Oaxacan peninsula, the muxe are generally males who either dress as women or dress as males with makeup. They may adopt “feminine” social roles such as working in embroidery, but many also have white-collar careers in Mexico. In recent decades, the term has also come to apply to gay men.

In Turtle Island, the land we know as North America, there were approximately 400 distinct Indigenous Nations. Of that number, 155 have documented multiple gender traditions. Many Indigenous communities recognize at least four genders (feminine female, masculine female, feminine male, masculine male) as well as transgender, and most Indigenous communities and tribes have specific terms for gender-fluid members. 

Two-Spirit is a contemporary term that refers to those traditions where some individuals’ spirits are a blending of the male and female spirit. Two-Spirit is a culturally distinct gender that describes Indigenous North Americans who fulfill one of many mixed gender roles found traditionally among many Native Americans and Canadian First Nations Indigenous groups. The positive umbrella term was first adopted in 1990 during the third annual Intertribal Native/First Nations gay and lesbian conference to describe gay, lesbian, bisexual, and non-binary genders within the Indigenous communities. The Two-Spirit person is recognized as a spiritual role, in which the individual’s spirit or soul is both masculine and feminine. The mixed gender roles encompassed by the term historically included wearing the clothing and performing the work associated with both men and women. The term can also be used more abstractly, to indicate presence of two contrasting human spirits (such as Warrior and Clan Mother) or two contrasting animal spirits (which, depending on the culture, might be Eagle and Coyote). 

The term Two-Spirit was created by LGBTQAI+ Indigenous people to replace the term berdache (pronounced: burr-dash) which had historically been used by colonizers to describe Indigenous people who fulfilled multiple gender roles. The Two-Spirit tradition is primarily a question of gender, not sexual orientation. As this word is specific to Indigenous culture it would be considered an inappropriate appropriation for non-native folks to self-identify as Two-Spirit.

Historically, Native Northwest Coast men and women had clearly defined roles. Although men hunted, fished, made war and held most chiefly offices, women often had fundamental economic control. Tlingit women, for example, were the keepers and distributors of all food and material wealth and had a pivotal role in the inheritance of privileges. Today women still control family finances and often have year-round employment as well. Women typically owned the houses and land; men moved into their wives’ houses at marriage, and if they divorced, the husband had to leave. Men were in charge of war, farming, government, and ceremonial societies. Pottery, weaving, and jewelry-making were normally assigned to either men or women, but these roles varied from nation to nation. Many of these gender roles persist to the present day.

Those who arrived in the Native American Garden of Eden had never seen a land so uncorrupted. The Europeans saw new geography, new plants, new animals, but the most perplexing curiosity to these people were the Original Peoples and their ways of life. Of all of the foreign life ways Indians held, one of the first the Europeans targeted for elimination was the Two Spirit tradition among Native American cultures. At the point of contact, all Native American societies acknowledged three to five gender roles: Female, male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male and transgender. LGBT Native Americans wanting to be identified within their respective tribes and not grouped with other races officially adopted the term “Two Spirit” from the Ojibwe language in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1989. Each tribe has their own specific term, but there was a need for a universal term that the general population could understand. The Navajo refer to Two Spirits as Nádleehí (one who is transformed), among the Lakota is Winkté (indicative of a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female), Niizh Manidoowag (two spirit) in Ojibwe, Hemaneh (half man, half woman) in Cheyenne, to name a few. As the purpose of “Two Spirit” is to be used as a universal term in the English language, it is not always translatable with the same meaning in Native languages. For example, in the Iroquois Cherokee language, there is no way to translate the term, but the Cherokee do have gender variance terms for “women who feel like men” and vice versa.

Native Americans traditionally assign no moral gradient to love or sexuality; a person was judged for their contributions to their tribe and for their character. It was also a custom for parents to not interfere with nature and so among some tribes, children wore gender-neutral clothes until they reached an age where they decided for themselves which path they would walk and the appropriate ceremonies followed. The Two Spirit people in pre-contact Native America were highly revered and families that included them were considered lucky. Indians believed that a person who was able to see the world through the eyes of both genders at the same time was a gift from The Creator. Traditionally, Two Spirit people held positions within their tribes that earned them great respect, such as Medicine Men/Women, shamans, visionaries, mystics, conjurers, keepers of the tribe’s oral traditions, conferrers of lucky names for children and adults (it has been said that Crazy Horse received his name from a Winkte), nurses during war expeditions, cooks, matchmakers and marriage counselors, jewelry/feather regalia makers, potters, weavers, singers/artists in addition to adopting orphaned children and tending to the elderly. Female-bodied Two Spirits were hunters, warriors, engaged in what was typically men’s work and by all accounts, were always fearless.

Traditional Native Americans closely associate Two Spirited people with having a high functioning intellect (possibly from a life of self-questioning), keen artistic skills and an exceptional capacity for compassion. They were allowed to fully participate within traditional tribal social structures. Two Spirit people, specifically male-bodied (Assigned male at birth, gender female) could go to war and have access to male activities such as the sweat lodge. However, they also took on female roles such as cooking, cleaning and other domestic responsibilities. Female bodied (Assigned female at birth, gender male) Two Spirits usually only had relationships or marriages with females and among the Lakota, they would sometimes enter into a relationship with a female whose husband had died. As assigned male at birth Two Spirits regarded each other as “sisters,” it is speculated that it may have been seen as incestuous for Two Spirits to have a relationship with each other. Within this culture it was considered highly offensive to approach a Two Spirit for the purpose of them performing the traditional role of the gender they were assigned at birth.

In short, in most Indigenous cultures, individuals who identify as a third gender are often pillars (or were so before colonization) of their community and not forced outside their original community to form a separate LGBTQIA+ community.

However, as European influence and Christian ideologies began to spread and were forced upon Indigenous societies, third genders diminished, along with so many other Indigenous cultural traditions. Nevertheless, the cultural belief and acceptance of genders beyond a binary system still exist in traditional societies around the world. In many cases, these third-gender individuals represent continuing cultural traditions and maintain aspects of cultural identity within their communities.

Within a Eurocentric and Christian ideological framework, individuals who identify as a third gender are often thought of as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. This classification actually distorts the concept of a third gender and reflects a culture that historically recognizes only two genders based on sex assigned at birth – male or female – and anyone acting outside of the cultural norms for their sex may be classified as homosexual, genderqueer, or transgender, among other classifications. In societies that recognize a third gender, the gender classification is not based on sexual identity, but rather on gender identity and spirituality. Individuals who identify with a cultural third gender are, in fact, acting within their gender norm. 

But if native terminologies referring to same-sex practices and non-binary, fluid understandings of gender existed before the emergence of LGBT frameworks, why are Indigenous experiences invisible in international sexual rights debates? Language shows that Indigenous queerness, in its own contextual realities, predates the global LGBTQIA+ framework. Yet Indigenous experiences are rarely perceived as a locus of sexual diversity. This is partly because Indigenous peoples are, by Eurocentric societies, imagined as remnants of the past, whereas sexual diversity is associated with political modernity. In Indians in Unexpected Places, Phillip Deloria (2004) explored cultural expectations that branded Indigenous peoples as having missed out on modernity. Sexual freedoms, in turn, are associated with global human rights, secular modernity, and Eurocentric cosmopolitanism (Rahman 2014; Scott 2018). Indigenous homosexualities provoke thoughts of contradiction because they disrupt expectations of modernity. They surprise because they express sexual diversity in what is often thought of as non-modern places.

Why was it so important for colonizers to enforce the gender binary? Our conclusion is that the Christian church was a tool and weapon used to create the perfect conditions for capitalism to thrive and benefit the wealthy class. Starting in the Middle Ages in Europe, the fear of god and the rules that were enforced upon the common people by those who were said to speak his will on earth, created a perfect working class. The women stayed at home and created as much offspring as possible to generate a new generation of workers, so that the men could work the maximum of hours creating the largest possible profit for kings and queens, or later on, (land) owners. When this was no longer enough and a myriad of problems overflooded Europe, expansion was sought. Because capitalism can only function through expansion and hierarchy. When invading the lands of Indigenous peoples everywhere, the traditions of gender diversity were seen as one of the greatest threats to the capitalistic system. Not only to implementing the system of profit maximalization overseas, but also to the whole system that fueled capitalism in Europe. What if the European working class would take notice of the freedoms, the celebration of people that did not fit in the capitalistic divide of men/women and unconditional community care that Indigenous cultures were based on, and saw them thriving? How long would the hierarchical structures of Europe survived and what would that have meant for the wealth of the 1%? What would it have meant for the health of us all?

Written by Jesse van ‘t Hull