The “third gender” is a highly controversial term that carries considerable weight and history in all cultures. Here, we dive deep into the concept of “third gender,” from the meaning of the word to communities that have been labeled as such.
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What is the “third sex”?
There is no official definition of “third gender”, as it encompasses a wide group of people who may or may not want to be associated with the term.
Until very recently, the genre was considered only binary. You are either one of two things: male or female. This model, however, is considered by many to be very restrictive, as it does not encompass the wide variety of people who identify within (or even outside) the broad spectrum between men and women.
In an effort to recognize those who do not identify as either male or female, scholars have sought to introduce the concept of the ‘third gender’.
Criticisms of the term “third sex”
Not everyone agrees with the term “third sex”. One of the main complaints surrounding it is its hierarchical – and, in turn, patriarchal – nature. If there is a “third gender”, critics ask, then which genres should be classified as first and second gender?
The idea of a “third gender” also creates problems for transgender people, who are often mistakenly viewed as not being entirely male or female. According to advocates, having a “third gender” category allows institutions to further marginalize transgender people and prevent them from occupying important spaces that correspond to their gender identity. A good example of this would be the argument for creating a separate category for trans men and women in sports competitions to prevent them from competing in their respective categories.
Examples of “third gender” around the world
The concept of “third sex” (or the more obsolete term “third sex”) has been used not only to describe what we now consider non-binary, gender non-conforming and intersex people, but also communities outside of western society that existed beyond their own culture’s understanding of masculinity and femininity.
Again, not everyone likes the idea of being categorized as a “third gender”. Some of the communities listed below are also resistant to the term, as it was created and applied from a limited and incomplete Western understanding of gender. The term is therefore unable to fully describe the understanding of gender in some cultures.
Nonetheless, these are a few examples of communities around the world that have been labeled as “third gender” or have a non-binary view of gender as a whole and on a personal level.
Hijra definition: third sex in India
What is “Hijrah”? Hijra is a term used to describe eunuchs who do not identify as either male or female. Hijras have been around for centuries and have a recorded history that dates back 4,000 years.
Before British colonial rule subjected the hijras to stigma, they were considered blessed by the Hindu god Rama with the ability to bestow blessings, curses and conduct rituals during certain festivities. Today, India classifies hijras as a “third gender” and they enjoy limited legal protections. However, not all hijras are satisfied with this classification.
Māhū: Hawaii’s Third Gender
Although “māhū” eventually became a pejorative term against any LGBTQ person, the word was originally used to describe someone who contains both kāne or masculine and wahine or feminine spirit. In essence, ‘māhū’ describes a sort of ‘in-between’, much like the ‘fakaleiti’ of Tonga and the ‘fa’afafine’ of Samoa.
Like the hijra, the māhū play an important role as guardians and messengers of Hawaii’s spiritual and cultural history.
North American Two-Spirit
In Native American communities, “Two-Spirit” is used to describe people who contain two internal identities – a male spirit and a female spirit. The term can be used to describe a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
“Two-Spirit” is a relatively new term, having been coined in 1990 by community “elder” Myra Laramee at the Third American Indian, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Intertribal Conference. Yet the concept of two-spirit has been around for centuries.
In some tribes, such as the Zuni tribe in New Mexico, the Llamana were people assigned male at birth (AMAB) who wore feminine clothing, lived as women, and assumed roles traditionally reserved for women. They also performed special functions that were traditionally performed by men, including spiritual tasks.
Like many third-gender communities on this list, Two-Spirit people have been stigmatized and erased by colonization. Today, Indigenous communities are working to revitalize this identity as a source of pride.
The muxes of Mexico
Throughout Mexico, but primarily in the Oaxaca region, there is a third genre called “muxe”. Mux, also known as biza’ah, are often people assigned male at birth who wear female clothing and form families with male partners. In indigenous communities, muxes are generally revered and often take on the responsibility of being the primary caregivers of their aging relatives.
For many muxes, their conception of genre is fluid. Like the “māhū” of Hawaii, muxes believe their gender is somewhere between masculine and feminine. And, like the hijra, many mux have an intimate connection to spirituality – often playing an important role in their local church by preparing decorations and leading processions.
Kathoey from Thailand
In Thailand, “kathoey” is sort of an umbrella term used to describe effeminate gay men, trans women, non-binary people, and intersex people. Some scholars believe that the acceptance of kathoey in Thailand stems from the Buddhist belief that there are four genders: masculine, feminine, bhatobyanjuanaka, and pandaka.
Bhatobyanjuanaka is used to describe intersex people and those who may mentally identify with another gender, while pandaka can be loosely described as female trans people or male cross-dressers who present themselves in a feminine way.
Frequently asked questions about the “third sex”
Do transgender people belong to the third gender?
No. “Transgender” refers to people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. If you are a transgender man, you identify as a man, and if you are a transgender woman, you identify as a woman.
According Voicetrans people “are not part of a third gender – they are, for all intents and purposes, male and female”.
Is non-binary a third gender?
Some non-binary people identify with the term “third gender”, but not all. By definition, non-binary refers to people who do not view their gender identity as falling within the bounds of the male-female binary and therefore do not conform to the idea that one can only identify as one. ‘man or woman. In this sense, non-binary people could perhaps be classified as a third gender.
Do intersex people identify as the third sex?
Some intersex people identify as the third gender, but not all. Regarding gender markers in legal documentation, some countries are taking steps to include a third gender marker (often symbolized by “X”) to not label intersex (and non-binary) people as male or female. women.
“Third gender” is a term that refers to those who do not identify as either male or female. However, not everyone agrees with the use of this term, as it can be used for ‘other’ and marginalize already marginalized groups.
Related: Over 5% of Young Adults Identify as Transgender or Non-Binary