In Western Culture people have two choices when marking their gender on the census or any other legal documentation. You can be male or female, nothing else. However in cultures all across the world other genders have been traditionally and still are recognized. While not common, it is not unusual for individuals to have a less easily defined relationship with gender. In this week’s episode of Taboo: Changing Genders, the audience is introduced to Chris Tina who does not consider herself a man or a woman and has no desire for gender reassignment. She is happy in her body with all its ambiguity. Turns out, there is a long history of people like Chris Tina being revered in other countries.
In India there is a third gender, the hijra, male to female transsexuals. Hijras have a recorded history of more than 4,000 years and in ancient times were considered to be able to bestow luck and fertility. Even today, those looking for some luck at their weddings will bring in hijras to dance and give a blessing. There are estimated to be 200,000 hijras in India. Unfortunately, despite their once revered position in Indian culture they still face discrimination and harassment in their society. The attitude toward them in recent years has shifted, with the government giving them more rights, but they have a long way to go before the culture reveres them again.
In North America, some Native American tribes recognized gender ambiguity and even celebrated it. The most evidence for this attitude was found in tribes of the Plains, the Great Lakes, the Southwest, and California. Native Americans focused on the “spirit” of an individual rather than their bodies and so considered someone encompassing both genders as “two-spirit”. This alternative gender had a variety of possibilities and encompassed people who were androgynous and transsexual. No matter how individuals exhibited their gender, their difference often put them in a place of being religious leaders and teachers. Their difference was valued.
On the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia there are five genders recognized within the Bugis society. While the majority of people fall under the traditional genders of male and female, there are also calalai which translates to “false man”, calabai which translates to “false woman” and the bissu. These different genders are accepted and considered a completion of the gender system rather than an aberration.
Calalai are anatomical females who function as and do the work that men do. Calabai, are anatomical males who adhere more to the expectations of being women. Neither of the genders relates to the gender of male or female but instead embraces being Calalai and Calabai. Bissu are born both female and male, or hermaphroditic. This combination of physical sexes is accepted as another rare and honored gender and they often become priests.
While people like Chris Tina who cross gender boundaries may be considered unthinkable by many societies, there are others that would embrace her. Still, it can be challenging for someone who balks the system to live in a world that expects people to adhere to a binary gender ideal. Is she taboo?
Tune in to this week’s episode of Taboo: Changing Gender Sunday September 30 at 10 PM.