Cultures have celebrated gender nonconformity and non-binary identity for centuries

gender non binary

Today July 14th celebrates International Non-Binary People’s Day, an occasion to raise awareness about and organise around the issues faced by non-binary people around the world.

Transphobes across the globe often turn to history to justify their belief that there are two genders. A traumatising onslaught of variations of “not in my day!” often maligns discussions about gender identity with those who do not see beyond sex equating to gender. In shutting down whatever education could be imparted about gender expression, it erases the cultures and histories who have acknowledged non-binary gender since before Europe invaded and colonised.

The Christian nature of colonisers has meant gender binary has become deeply entrenched within countless societies over the years of invasion carried out by British, German, Spanish and Portuguese forces, to name just a few. Although the Bible has no explicit mentions of transgender nor non-conforming people, the binary has been enforced through varying legislation against homosexual individuals and legal practice established by colonial forces.

So what can we learn about gender expression from different cultures, pre-invasion? 

Indigenous North American’s Two-Spirit

A modern umbrella term used by some Indigenous North Americans, Two-Spirit describes those in the community who identify as third gender. In 1990, it was coined at the Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering in Winnipeg, Canada, chosen specifically to distinguish between Native American people from non-Natives.

Although not universally accepted by Indigenous communities, it has been employed to replace the colonial “anthropological” (and highly offensive) term berdache, stemming from the old French word for prostitute.

Given the rich and diverse differences between varying First Peoples’ cultures across North America, some communities believe Two-Spirit erases their own terms; after all, with over 500 different surviving Native American cultures, language and attitudes surrounding gender identity are incredibly diverse. There is also a certain Western binary ascribed to this term, implying that these individuals are both man and women rather than a different group altogether with its own agency.

Two-Spirit are those said to fulfil particular roles within indigenous communities, but it is important to not resort to the mystification and exotification of such people — as Mary Annette Pember, journalist and Ojibwe woman, writes, “the claims that Native peoples historically described LGBTQ folks as two-spirited and celebrated them as healers and shamans are mostly unfounded or only partially true.”

Instead, they are seen to be people. This richly diverse range of cultures means there is no universal role of a Two-Spirit.

Fundamentally, the term Two-Spirit can be problematic given that it was created in English as an umbrella term for wider use which has, in turn, led us to ignore the traditional terms used by these indigenous communities: ninauh-oskitsi-pahpyaki, Blackfoot for “manly-hearted-woman”, wíŋkte, a Lakota term for those who are of a sacred third gender, nádleeh for “one who is transformed” in Navajo. Yet it is within its so-called “pan-Indian” implementation that terms such as these can become more accessible to those endeavouring to educate themselves on the non-binary outside of the traditionally Chrisitan perspective.

Hawaiian Māhū

Originating in the phrase “in the middle”, Māhū are third gender persons in Native Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures, Kanaka Maoli and Maohi.

In pre-colonised Hawaii, Māhū were notable members of society, often priests and healers. However, some of this history has been lost due to the predominance of oral tradition within these communities, destroyed by colonial missionaries throughout the centuries.

In 2003, the term mahuwahine was invented within Hawaii’s queer community, a mixture of māhū (in the middle) and wahine (woman). The name resembles what would perhaps be considered a transgender woman, but it is essential to remember that the important social and cultural roles played by those identifying as mahuwahine means we cannot ascribe “western” perceptions of gender expression on their own ideas on nonconformity.

Notable contemporary mahuwahine activist Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu has championed and preserved traditional Hawaiian language and culture, including the role of Māhū. Traditionally, although without reverting to mysticism, māhū are those who preserve such cultures in societies which are being enveloped in globalisation. The role they play today remains both vital to Hawaii’s cultural heritage as well as the wider non-binary community.

Speaking about these cultures is not to ignore the non-binary community in the UK, nor manipulate these communities for the sakes of journalistic exoticism. Instead, it serves as a valuable lesson that gender non-binary and nonconformity is a vast spectrum to be celebrated.

To support non-binary people, follow these links to donate:

QTBIPOC Hardship Fund UK

Gendered Intelligence UK

Beyond Binary Legal