These Third Genders From Cultures Around The World Prove It's Not As Black And White As People Think

While nonbinary definitions of gender may sound like a recent phenomenon, many different religions and cultures - both past and present - acknowledge and even celebrate nontraditional gender roles. Third genders from around the world reach from Madagascar to the Dominican Republic, and nonbinary history dates all the way back to 2000 BCE in the form of Egyptian artwork. Many highlight important parts of LGBTQ history. But many other modern and historical third genders remain more difficult to classify than just as a person who identifies as gender fluid. This is because cultures throughout the world possess different understandings and/or definitions of gender and, as such, the term "gender fluid" fails to define their varying complexities.

Even still, these global interpretations of gender provide insight into how humans around the world interpret sexuality, identity, and even spirituality. While Christians believe breaking from the gender binary leads to sin and damnation, many others religions view nonconforming peoples as beings with a great connection to a higher power. There are even of examples of third genders in cultures you’d least expect: Viking sexuality and gender never adhered to any strict guidelines, and the people of Pakistan - despite resisting the notion of gay and transgender people - have a long history with third genders. Modern culture may just be getting around to the idea of gender binaries as obsolete, but history reveals that many of our ancestors already thought the same thing.

  • Wakashu - Japan
    Photo: Ishikawa Toyonobu / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Wakashu - Japan

    Also known as "beautiful youths," the wakashu of Japan emerged as a widely accepted third gender during the Edo period. The wakashu were generally adolescent boys who were androgynous in appearance and behavior. Woodblock prints of the time depicted them as playful, sensual, and feminine.

    Japanese culture portrayed them to be objects of desire for both women and men, at least until Western culture became more prominent and the tradition slowly faded away.

  • Māhū - Hawaii
    Photo: Hawaii State Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Māhū - Hawaii

    In native Hawaiian culture, Māhū means someone who embodies both male and female spirits. Instead of identifying more as a male or more as a female, they accept both equally and see gender as a beautiful, flowing thing. More than just accepted in Hawaiian society, Māhūs are revered, their fluidity considered an empowering force.

    Instead of viewing their "differentness" as a problem, they see their dual-spirits as a way to navigate life's challenges with grace, a true liberation. 

  • Muxe - Mexico
    Photo: Mario Patinho / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Muxe - Mexico

    Muxes are a third gender originating in Oaxaca, Mexico. The word muxe said to come from the Spanish word for woman, "mujer." While muxes are usually men who identify more as women, muxes may also be those who simply don't fall into the traditional male-female or gay-straight categories (the indigenous people of the area don't actually see gender in that way). They tend to be quite skilled in arts like sewing and embroidery, and will often be the caretakers for their parents as they grow older. 

    Since the '70s, Oaxaca annually holds a festival in their honor called Vela de las Intrepidas, or Vigil of the Intrepids.

  • Bissu - Indonesia

    Bissu is actually the fifth gender acknowledged by Indonesians, known as a meta-gender. Bissu translates as "transvestite priest," a somewhat inaccurate translation because the term "transvestite" refers to wearing clothes of the opposite gender. Rather than cross-dressing, the bissu actually wear their own unique type of garb. They are seen as being both male and female at once, but with a twist. Indonesian culture believes a bissu who presents as outwardly male exists internally as a female, and vice versa.

    Since Indonesians view bissu as conductors of spirits, the bissu often lead ceremonies or provide blessings.

  • Khawaja Sira - Pakistan
    Photo: YouTube

    Khawaja Sira - Pakistan

    Individuals in Pakistan who identify as Khawaja Sira occupy a complex place in society - they simultaneously receive praise as being "gifted by god" but also face intense discrimination. Khawaja Sira individuals are usually rejected by their families, but form their own family trees through their system of gurus and apprentices. 

    Although Pakistan has been slow to embrace the modern transgender movement, their traditional Khawaja Sira gender identity remains an ancient custom; their religious devotion led the Hindu deity Ram to declare the Khawaja Sira the final rulers of the human race

  • Xanith - Oman

    Oman remained isolated from the world until the 1970s, and because of this solitude the country formed a slightly different view of sexuality than its neighbors. They recognize a third gender known as Xanith, which refers to a man who behaves like a woman and plays the passive role in homosexual relationships.

    Because of this behavior, Xaniths are subject to the same laws of society that apply to women. They are not allowed to cross dress, but they dress in a similar fashion as women and frequently operate as sex workers.