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The terms third gender and third sex arose from attempts to describe individuals or societies whose sex, gender role, gender identity or sexual orientation does not fit within a binary scheme of (heterosexual) male and female. It may represent an intermediate state between men and women, a state of being both (such as "the spirit of a man in the body of a woman"), the state of being neither (neuter), the ability to cross or swap genders, or another category altogether independent of male and female. This last definition is favored by those who argue for a strict interpretation of the "third gender" concept.
The term has been used to describe Hijras of India and Pakistan, Fa'afafine of Polynesia, and Sworn virgins of the Balkans, among others, and is also used by many of such groups and individuals to describe themselves. In the Western world, lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex people have been described as belonging to a third sex or gender, although many object to this characterisation.
Third gender in contemporary societies
Since at least the 1970s, anthropologists have described gender categories in some cultures which they could not adequately explain using a two-gender framework. At the same time, feminists began to draw a distinction between (biological) sex and (social/psychological) gender. Contemporary gender theorists usually argue that a two-gender system is neither innate nor universal. In addition, an increasing awareness of biological sexual variation (such as intersex conditions) has led to a growing awareness that even human bodies can not be neatly divided into two sexes. A sex/gender system which only recognises the following two social norms has been labelled "heteronormativity":
- female genitalia = female identity = feminine behavior = desire male partner
- male genitalia = male identity = masculine behavior = desire female partner
The Indian subcontinent
The Hijra of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are probably the most well known and populous third sex type in the modern world — Mumbai-based community health organisation The Humsafar Trust estimates there are between 5 and 6 million hijras in India. In different areas they are known as Aravani/Aruvani or Jogappa. Often (somewhat misleadingly) called eunuchs in English, they may be born intersex or apparently male, dress in feminine clothes and generally see themselves as neither men nor women. Only 8% of hijras visiting Humsafar clinics are nirwaan (castrated). British photographer Dayanita Singh writes about her friendship with a Hijra, Mona Ahmed, and their two different society's beliefs about gender: "When I once asked her if she would like to go to Singapore for a sex change operation, she told me, 'You really do not understand. I am the third sex, not a man trying to be a woman. It is your society's problem that you only recognise two sexes.'" Hijra social movements have campaigned for recognition as a third sex, and in 2005, Indian passport application forms were updated with three gender options: M, F, and E.
Also commonly referred to as a third sex are the Kathoey (or "ladyboys") of Thailand. However, while a significant number of Thais perceive Kathoey's as belonging to a third gender, including many Katheoys themselves, others see them as either a kind of man or a kind of woman. Researcher Sam Winter writes: "We asked our 190 [kathoeys] to say whether they thought of themselves as men, women, sao praphet song ["a second kind of woman"] or kathoey. None thought of themselves as male, and only 11% saw themselves as kathoey (i.e. ‘non-male’). By contrast 45% thought of themselves as women, with another 36% as sao praphet song... Unfortunately we did not include the category phet tee sam (third sex/gender); conceivably if we had done so there may have been many respondents who would have chosen that term... Around 50% [of non-transgender Thais] see them as males with the mistaken minds, but the other half see them as either women born into the wrong body (around 15%) or as a third sex/gender (35%)."
The Western world
Some writers suggest that a third gender emerged around 1700 AD in England: the male sodomite. According to these writers, this was marked by the emergence of a subculture effeminate males and meeting places (molly houses), as well as a marked increase in hostility towards effeminate and/or homosexual males. People described themselves as members of a third sex in Europe from at least the 1860s with the writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and continuing in the late 19th century with Magnus Hirschfeld, John Addington Symonds, Edward Carpenter, Aimée Duc and others. These writers described themselves and those like them as being of an "inverted" or "intermediate" sex and experiencing homosexual desire, and their writing argued for social acceptance of such sexual intermediates. Many cited precedents from classical Greek and Sanskrit literature (see below). The term "third sex" was also used to disparage feminists as not being truly women, but "neuters" with external female characteristics accompanied by a crippled male psyche, in the 1899 novel Das dritte Geschlecht (The Third Sex) by Ernst Ludwig von Wolzogen.
Throughout much of the 20th century, the term "third sex" was a popular descriptor for homosexuals and gender nonconformists, but after Gay Liberation of the 1970s and a growing seperation of the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity, the term fell out of favor among LGBT communities and the wider public. With the renewed exploration of gender that feminism, the modern transgender movement and queer theory has fostered, some in the contemporary West have begun to describe themselves as a third sex again. One well known social movement of male-bodied people that identify as neither men nor women are the Radical Faeries. Other modern identites that cover similar ground include pangender, bigender, genderqueer, androgyne, "other gender" and "differently gendered".
American Indian cultures
Also very much associated with multiple genders are the indigenous cultures of North America, who often contain social gender categories that are collectively known as "berdache" or Two-Spirit. Individual examples include the Winkte of Lakota culture, the ninauposkitzipxpe ("manly-hearted woman") of the North Piegan (Blackfoot) community, and the Zapotec Muxe. Various scholars have debated the nature of such categories, as well as the definition of the term "third gender". Different researchers may characterise the berdache as a gender-crosser, a mixed gender, an intermediate gender, or distinct third and fourth genders that are not dependent on male and female as primary categories. Those (such as Will Roscoe) who have argued for the latter interpretation also argue that mixed-, intermediate-, cross- or non-gendered social roles should not be understood as truely representing a third gender. Anthropologist Jean-Guy Goulet (1996) reviews the literature:
To summarize: 'berdache' may signify a category of male human beings who fill an established social status other than that of man or woman (Blackwood 1984; Williams 1986: 1993); a category of male and female human beings who behave and dress 'like a member of the opposite sex' (Angelino & Shedd 1955; Jacobs 1968; and Whitehead 1981); or categories of male and female human beings who occupy well established third or fourth genders (Callender & Kochems 1983a; 1983b; Jacobs 1983; Roscoe 1987; 1994). Scheffler (1991: 378), however, sees Native American cases of 'berdache' and 'amazon' as 'situations in which some men (less often women) are permitted to act, in some degree, as though they were women (or men), and may be spoken of as though they were women (or men), or as anomalous 'he-she' or 'she-he'.' In Scheffler's view (1991: 378), '[e]thnographic data cited by Kessler and McKenna (1978), and more recently by Williams (1986), provide definitive evidence that such persons were not regarded as having somehow moved from one sex (or in Kessler and McKenna's terms, gender) category to the other, but were only metaphorically "women" (or "men")'. In other words, according to Scheffler, we need not imagine a multiple gender system. Individuals who appeared in the dress and/or occupation of the opposite sex were only metaphorically spoken of as members of that sex or gender."
The Bugis culture of Sulawesi has been described as having three sexes (male, female and intersex) as well as five genders with distinct social roles. Travestis of Latin America have been described as a third gender, although not all see themselves this way. Don Kulick described the gendered world of travestis in urban Brazil as having has two categories: men and not men, with women, homosexuals and travestis belonging to the latter category.
The following gender categories have also been described as a third gender:
- Middle East:
- Xanith of Oman
- Fa'afafine Mahu and Fakaleiti in Polynesia
- Sworn virgins in the Balkans
- Mollies of 18th century England
- Ashtime of Maale culture in southern Ethiopia
- Mashoga of Swahili-speaking areas of the Kenyan coast, particularly Mombasa
Third gender in history
In Mesopotamian mythology, among the earliest written records of humanity, there are references to types of people who are not men and not women. In a Sumerian creation myth found on a stone tablet from the second millennium BC, the goddess Ninmah fashions a being "with no male organ and no female organ", for whom Enki finds a position in society: "to stand before the king". In the Akkadian myth of Atra-Hasis (ca. 1700 BC), Enki instructs Nintu, the goddess of birth, to establish a “third category among the people” in addition to men and women, that includes demons who steal infants, women who are unable to give birth, and priestesses who are prohibited from bearing children. In Babylonia, Sumer and Assyria, certain types of individuals who performed religious duties in the service of Inanna/Ishtar have been described as a third gender. They worked as sacred prostitutes or Hierodules, performed ecstatic dance, music and plays, wore masks and had gender characteristics of both women and men. In Sumer, they were given the cuneiform names of ur.sal ("dog/man-woman") and kur.gar.ra (also described as a man-woman). Modern scholars, struggling to describe them using contemporary sex/gender categories, have variously used descriptors such as hermaphrodites, eunuchs, homosexuals, transvestites, effeminate males, and a range of other terms and phrases.
Inscribed pottery shards from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2000-1800 BCE), found near ancient Thebes (now Luxor, Egypt), list three human genders: tai (male), sḫt ("sekhet") and hmt (female). Sḫt is often translated as "eunuch", although there is little evidence that such individuals were castrated.
References to a third sex can be found throughout the various texts of India's three ancient spiritual traditions — Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism — and it can be inferred that Vedic culture recognised three genders. The Vedas (c. 1500 BC - 500 BC) describe individuals as belonging to one of three separate categories, according to one's nature or prakrti. These are also spelled out in the Kama Sutra (c. 4th century AD) and elsewhere as pums-prakrti (male-nature), stri-prakrti (female-nature), and tritiya-prakrti (third-nature). The Kama Sutra suggests that individuals of the third sex include male-bodied or female-bodied people as well as intersexuals, and that they can often be recognised from childhood.
A third sex is also discussed in ancient Hindu law, medicine, linguistics and astrology. The foundational work of Hindu law, the Manu Smriti (c. 200 AD) explains the biological origins of the three sexes: "A male child is produced by a greater quantity of male seed, a female child by the prevalence of the female; if both are equal, a third-sex child (napumsaka) or boy and girl twins are produced; if either are weak or deficient in quantity, a failure of conception results." Indian linguist Patañjali's work on Sanskrit grammar, the Mahābhāṣya (c. 200 BC), states that Sanskrit's three grammatical genders are derived from three natural genders. The earliest Tamil grammar, the Tolkappiyam (3rd century BC) also refers to hermaphrodites as a third "neuter" gender (in addition to a feminine category of unmasculine males). In Vedic astrology, the nine planets are each assigned to one of the three genders; the third gender, tritiya-prakrti, is associated with Mercury, Saturn and (in particular) Ketu.
The epic Ramayana also indicates the existence of a third gender in ancient Indic society. In one part of the story, the hero Rama heads into exile in the forest. Halfway there, he discovers that most of the people of his home town Ayodhya were following him. He told them, "Men and women, turn back," and with that, those who were "neither men nor women" did not know what to do, so they stayed there. When Rama returned to from exile years later, he discovered them still there blessed them, saying that there will be a day when they will rule the world.
In the Buddhist Vinaya, codified in it's present form around the 2nd century BC and said to be handed down by oral tradition from Buddha himself, there are four main sex/gender categories: males, females, ubhatobyanjanaka (people of a dual sexual nature) and pandaka (people of various non-normative sexual natures, perhaps originally denoting a deficiency in male sexual capacity). As the Vinaya tradition developed, the term pandaka came to refer to a broad third sex category which encompassed intersex, male and female bodied people with physical and/or behavioural attributes that were considered inconsistent with the sexual ideal of man and woman.
In Plato's Symposium, written around the 4th century BC, Aristophanes relates a creation myth involving three original sexes: female, male and androgynous. They are split in half by Zeus, producing four different contemporary sex/gender types which seek to be reunited with their lost other half; in this account, the modern heterosexual man and woman descend from the original androgynous sex. Other creation myths around the world share a belief in three original sexes, such as those from northern Thailand.
Many have interpreted the "eunuchs" of the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean world as a third gender that inhabited a liminal space between women and men, understood in their societies as somehow neither or both. In the Historia Augusta, the eunuch body is described as a tertium genus hominum (a third human gender), and in 77 BC, a eunuch named Genucius was prevented from claiming goods left to him in a will, on the grounds that he had voluntarily mutilated himself (amputatis sui ipsius) and was neither a woman or a man (neque virorum neque mulierum numero). Several scholars have argued that the eunuchs in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were understood in their time to belong to a third gender, rather than the more recent interpretations of a kind of emasculated man, or a metaphor for chastity. The first Christian theologian, Tertullian, wrote that Jesus himself was a eunuch (c. 200 AD). Tertullian also noted the existence of a third sex (tertium sexus) among heathens: "a third race in sex... made of male and female in one." He may have been referring to the Galli, "eunuch" devotees of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who were described as belonging to a third sex by several Roman writers.
- Agrawal, Anuja (1997). Gendered Bodies: The Case of the ‘Third Gender’ in India, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n.s., 31 (1997): 273–97
- Young, Antonia (2000). Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins. ISBN 1-85973-335-2
- Roscoe, Will (2000). Changing Ones : Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. Palgrave Macmillan (June 17, 2000) ISBN 0312224796
See also: Trumbach, Randolph (1994). London’s Sapphists: From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture. In Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, edited by Gilbert Herdt, 111-36. New York: Zone (MIT).
- Graham, Sharyn (2001), Sulawesi's fifth gender, Inside Indonesia, April-June 2001.
- Martin, M. Kay and Voorhies, Barbara (1975). Supernumerary Sexes, chapter 4 of Female of the Species (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 23.
- Fausto-Sterling, Anne (1993). The Five Sexes: Why male and female are not enough. The Sciences (May/April 1993): 20-25. Article online.
- Talwar, Rajesh (1999). The Third sex and Human Rights, Gyan Publishing House. ISBN 8121202663
- Myself Mona Ahmed. by Dayanita Singh (Photographer) and Mona Ahmed. Scalo Publishers (September 15, 2001). ISBN 3908247462
- India's eunuchs demand rights, by Habib Beary, BBC correspondent in Bangalore. Article online.
- ‘Third sex’ finds a place on Indian passport forms, The Telegraph, March 10, 2005. Article online
- Totman, Richard, (2004). The Third Sex: Kathoey: Thailand's Ladyboys, Souvenir Press. ISBN 0285636685
- Winter, Sam (2003). Research and discussion paper: Language and identity in transgender: gender wars and the case of the Thai kathoey. Paper presented at the Hawaii conference on Social Sciences, Waikiki, June 2003. Article online.
- Trumbach, Randolph. (1998) Sex and the Gender Revolution. Volume 1: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. (Chicago Series on Sexuality, History & Society)
- Hirschfeld, Magnus, 1904. Berlins Drittes Geschlecht ("Berlin's Third Sex")
- Ellis, Havelock and Symonds, J. A., 1897. Sexual Inversion.
- Carpenter, Edward, 1908. The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women.
- Duc, Aimée, 1901. Sind es Frauen? Roman über das dritte Geschlecht ("Are These Women? Novel about the Third Sex")
- Jones, James W. (1990). "We of the third sex” : Literary Representations of Homosexuality in Wilhelmine Germany. (German Life and Civilization v. 7) New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1990. ISBN 0-8204-1209-0
- Sell, Ingrid. (2001). Not man, not woman: Psychospiritual characteristics of a Western third gender. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 33 (1), pp. 16-36. (Complete doctoral dissertation: Sell, Ingrid. (2001). Third gender: A qualitative study of the experience of individuals who identify as being neither man nor woman. (Doctoral Dissertation, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). UMI No. 3011299.)
- Goulet, Jean-Guy A. (2006). The 'berdache'/'two-spirit': a comparison of anthropological and native constructions of gendered identities among the Northern Athapaskans. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2.n4 (Dec 1996): 683(19).
- Kulick, Don (1998). Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)
- Sua'aIi'i, Tamasailau, "Samoans and Gender: Some Reflections on Male, Female and Fa'afafine Gender Identities", in: Tangata O Te Moana Nui: The Evolving Identities of Pacific Peoples in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Palmerston North (NZ): Dunmore Press, 2001, ISBN 0-86469-369-9
- Murray, Stephen O., and Roscoe, Will (1997). Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York: New York University Press.
- Roscoe, Will (1996). Priests of the Goddess: Gender Transgression in Ancient Religion. History of Religions 35(3) (1996): 295-330.
*Roscoe identifies these temple staff by the names kalû, kurgarrû, and assinnu.
- Nissinen, Martti (1998). Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, Translated by Kirsi Stjedna. Fortress Press (November 1998) p. 30. ISBN 080062985X
See also: Maul, S. M. (1992). Kurgarrû und assinnu und ihr Stand in der babylonischen Gesellschaft. Pp. 159-71 in Aussenseiter und Randgruppen. Konstanze Althistorische Vorträge und Forschungern 32. Edited by V. Haas. Konstanz: Universitätsverlag.
- Nissinen (1998) p. 28, 32.
- Leick, Gwendolyn (1994). Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. Routledge. New York.
*Leick's account: Sumerian: sag-ur-sag, pilpili and kurgarra; and Assyrian: assinnu. Leick describes them as "hermaphrodites, homosexual transvestites, and other, castrated individuals".
Burns, John Barclay (2000). Devotee or Deviate: The “Dog” (keleb) in Ancient Israel as a Symbol of Male Passivity and Perversion. Journal of Religion & Society Volume 2 (2000). ISSN 1522-5658
*Burns defines the assinnu as "a member of Ishtar’s cultic staff with whom, it seems, a man might have intercourse, whose masculinity had become femininity" and who "lacked libido, either from a natural defect or castration". He described the kulu'u as effeminate and the kurgarru as transvestite. In addition, he defines another kind of gender-variant prostitute, sinnisānu, as (literally) “woman-like.”
- Sethe, Kurt, (1926), Die Aechtung feindlicher Fürsten, Völker und Dinge auf altägyptischen Tongefäßscherben des mittleren Reiches, in: Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, 1926, p. 61.
- The Third Gender in Ancient Egypt, Faris Malik. (web site)
- Wilhelm, Amara Das (2004). Tritiya Prakriti (People of the Third Sex): Understanding Homosexuality, Transgender Identity and Intersex Conditions through Hinduism (XLibris Corporation, 2004).
- Zwilling, Leonard and Sweet, Michael (1996). Like a City Ablaze: The Third Sex and the Creation of Sexuality in Jain Religious Literature, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 6 (3), pp.359-384
- Jackson, Peter A. (1996). Non-normative Sex/Gender Categories in the Theravada Buddhist Scriptures, Australian Humanities Review, April 1996. Full text.
- Alternate transliteration: trhytîyâ prakrhyti
- Manu Smriti, 3.49. Text online.
- Jackson, Peter A. (1996). Ibid.
- Gyatso, Janet (2003). One Plus One Makes Three: Buddhist Gender Conceptions and the Law of the Non-Excluded Middle, History of Religions. 2003, no. 2. University of Chicago press.
- Jackson, Peter A. (1995) Kathoey: The third sex. In Jackson, P., "Dear Uncle Go: Male homosexuality in Thailand." Bangkok, Thailand: Bua Luang Books
See also: Peltier, Anatole-Roger (1991). Pathamamulamuli: The Origin of the World in the Lan Na Tradition. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books. The Yuan creation myth in the book is from Pathamamulamuli, an antique Buddhist palmleaf manuscript. Its translator, Anatole-Roger Peltier, believes that this story is based on an oral tradition which is over five hundred years old. Text online.
- S. Tougher, ed., (2001) Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond (London: Duckworth Publishing, 2001).
Ringrose, Kathryn M. (2003). The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2003.
- Historia Augusta, Severus Alexander xxiii.7.
- Valerius Maximus, 7.7.6).
- Hester, J. David (2005). Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19:12 and Transgressive Sexualities. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 28, No. 1, 13-40 (2005)
- Tertullian, On Monogamy, 3: “...He stands before you, if you are willing to copy him, as a voluntary spado (eunuch) in the flesh.” And elsewhere: "The Lord Himself opened the kingdom of heaven to eunuchs and He Himself lived as a eunuch. The apostle [Paul] also, following His example, made himself a eunuch..."
- Tertullian, Ad nationes, 1.20.4. Text online.
- e.g. "Both sexes are displeasing to her holiness, so [the gallus] keeps a middle gender (medium genus) between the others." Prudentius, Peristephanon, 10.1071-3
- Gilbert Herdt, ed. 1996. Third Sex Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. ISBN 0-942299-82-5
- Morris, Rosalind. 1994. Three Sexes and Four Sexualities: Redressing the Discourses on Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Thailand, in Positions 2(1):15-43.
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