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

Rachel Souerbry
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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 transgendered 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


Wakashu - Japan is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list These Third Genders From Cultures Around The World Prove It's Not As Black And White As People Think
Photo: Keisai Eisen/Wikimedia Commons

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, sexual, 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


Māhū - Hawaii is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list These Third Genders From Cultures Around The World Prove It's Not As Black And White As People Think
Photo: Hawaii State Archives/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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


Muxe - Mexico is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list These Third Genders From Cultures Around The World Prove It's Not As Black And White As People Think
Photo: Mario Patinho/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

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 - Indonesia is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list These Third Genders From Cultures Around The World Prove It's Not As Black And White As People Think
Photo: Sharyn Davies/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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.