Gender Concepts around the World

Traditionally, the United Kingdom has only recognised 2 gender categories; male and female. People were largely categorised by how society perceived them and the genitalia which they were born with.

Increasingly, more people are beginning to recognise that they may not fit neatly into a binary gender category. Although concepts of third, fourth, fifth and intergender people are only just gaining traction in the UK, there are plenty of non-Western cultures which have a longer tradition of embracing these ideas.

International Ideas about Gender

British attitudes towards gender have historically been hetronormative; those who do not identify as traditionally male or female were previously considered to be mentally or physically unwell. Attitudes towards these people were generally focused on curing or containing them. It is only within the last 100 years that the idea of gender fluidity has started to reach the mainstream population.

Outside of the UK and Europe, there are plenty of cultures and societies where the idea of multiple genders or gender fluidity is considered to be far more normal. In some Eastern religions, gender is seen as being non-binary, and some people are allowed to cross freely between (Western concepts of) male and female. People who were able to move easily between genders were revered rather than persecuted.

Notable Examples from Around the World

Kathoey is the name given to a distinct group of third gender people in Thailand. Kathoeys are people who were assigned a male gender at birth or who have (or had) male sexual organs; however they choose to live as females. Most Kathoey people view themselves as either a third gender or as a second type of woman, rather than viewing themselves as wholly female in gender. There is a greater tolerance towards third gender people in Thailand than there is anywhere else in Asia, although there is no legal recognition of the third gender status at present.

There are a significant number of high profile Kathoey models, actors, singers and TV personalities in Thailand. Some colleges and workplaces even have special bathroom facilities for Kathoey users.

The Hijra (alternatively known as Aravani, Aruvani or Jagappa) population in South Asia is legally recognised as a third gender group by the Indian government. There are thought to be around 6 million hijras currently living in India. Whilst many hijras in India dress in traditionally feminine clothing, they generally view themselves as neither “male” nor “female”.

Historically, Hijra people may have been castrated, either by choice or force. Nowadays, Hijras rarely undergo sex change operations, because they do not feel a cultural pressure for their sex organs to “align” with a proscribed gender orientation. On the other hand, third gender persons in India still face a higher level of persecution and discrimination based on their gender.

Since 2000, the government in India has begun to introduce more legislation to combat this type of discrimination. In Pakistan, the term Hijra is considered to be offensive, and the term khwaja sara may be used instead. As of 2009, khwaja sara are able to officially declare themselves as a third gender on formal identification documents.

There are a number of significant examples of third gender groups in Polynesian society. Fa’afafine people in Samoa are people who were assigned male at birth, but who explicitly demonstrate both masculine and feminine gender traits. Traditionally, families may have decided that there were not enough female children within the extended family, and therefore some male children were raised as fa’afafine. It is now more common for fa’afafine children to choose their own path.

Due to the existing social structure, third gender people are widely accepted in the community. Up to 5% of the population of Samoa currently identify as fa’afafine. Samoan Jaiyah Saelua (also known as Johnny Saelua) became the first transgender person to compete in a men’s FIFA World Cup qualifier. Similar concepts exist in other Polynesian societies, including; fakaleiti people in Tonga, mahu people in Hawaiian society and whakawahine people in New Zealand Maori culture.

Indigenous North Americans groups also tend to recognise a non-binary group of people, who may be referred to as “two spirited”. A Two Spirit person is considered to have been blessed with both a male and a female spirit. These spirits allow them to experience the world through the eyes of both cisgender groups.

Two Spirit people are able to take on either gender identity, regardless of the gender that they were assigned at birth. Male-bodied two spirits are able to participate in traditional Indigenous male activities, such as warfare and male-only ceremonies, but they are also able to take on traditional Indigenous female tasks. Likewise, female-bodied two spirits are also able to participate in a wide variety of activities which may have been traditionally considered as male tasks.

In many indigenous groups, Two Spirited people are allowed to marry individuals of any gender. The actual Native terminology that is used for Two Spirit people differs between each indigenous grouping. For example, the Navajo language assigns 4 distinct genders; asdzáán (feminine woman), hastiin (masculine man), nádleehi (feminine man) and dilbaa (masculine woman). Some Two Spirit people have expressed difficulties in adjusting to life in wider American or Canadian society, as they must transition from an environment where they are revered by their peers to an environment where they are not widely accepted and in which they are forced to comply with Western ideas of binary gender.

Risks of Cultural Appropriation

Although it is important to understand ideas of gender around the world, we must be careful not to appropriate these ideas for our own ends. The Indigenous population of North America have expressed concern about the Two Spirit concept being co-opted by the non-Native population of North America. In Indigenous American cultures, a Two Spirit person has their own unique roles and responsibilities. A third gender or genderfluid person who does not understand these roles and responsibilities should not adopt the term “Two Spirit” unless they are able to fulfil these particular roles within a tribal society.