When Gender Is Not Binary

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.

Five Genders
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.


  1. Lynn
    October 7, 2012, 9:26 am

    Just wanted to shout out to Ashley and Tony for putting themselves out there. How very brave you both are!!

  2. Mari Henson
    October 7, 2012, 10:47 am

    Loved this episode! I found it to be very informative, intelligent, & enlightening! I have a transgender daughter. I’ve never heard until this episode of the ‘hybrid’ gender,that describes my daughter a lot. This episode has been very helpful in helping me understand her better. Kudos to the persons interveiwed for being courageous enough to be true to themselves & also be interveiwed about it!

  3. Jody
    November 26, 2012, 8:10 pm

    What bravery it took for all of those included in this show. This is exactly HOW you change people’s perceptions…you’ve changed mine with your honesty and by showing your humanity and your pain you’ve gone through to get to where you are. Best of luck to you in your lives now that you’ve found happiness. Blessings to you!

  4. Michelle Becker
    December 11, 2012, 1:49 am

    Too bad if men can’t handle this fact. Just the way God made us. XY females are born as well. Do an episode on that too. Different sex syndromes. Are you afraid too many males masculinity will be forever ruined or something? causing a societal uproar and more hatred toward women??

  5. J. Russels
    December 23, 2012, 12:39 am

    Excuse me, Michelle, but could you point out where exactly in the post it incriminates men for being intolerant of alternate genders? You really should keep such misplaced hatred off the Internet if you’d like to be taken seriously.

  6. Rhiana
    December 31, 2012, 12:16 pm

    Chris Tina is a role model to all of those who “don’t fit” the norm. Kudos for your bravery to be on taboo!

    You are my inspiration!

  7. “No gender” | Gender and Sexuality
    March 11, 2013, 6:02 am

    […] When Gender Is Not Binary […]

  8. Makaranda Vaidya
    Mumbai Thane
    March 22, 2013, 9:51 am

    The show was very informative. It blew away the misconcieved notions and distorted perceptions revolving around the critical subject of gender to smithereens. Now , it gives us a clearer insight into the aspects and behaviour pattern of the psyche of gender , importantly , trans. Highly informative and the subject ceases to be a taboo after watching this programme.

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  11. Elmo
    October 20, 2016, 12:53 pm

    I sexually identify as an attack helicopter.

  12. dean phillips
    January 29, 8:46 pm

    her we go again ,you liberals are trying to use mind development and pre-birth determination as to sexual orientation, This reminds me of climate changes. it is BULLSHIT! sexual preference is a life long determination ,as is gender preference….it boils down to HOW you were brought up NOT!!! how you were born, that argument will NEVER fly…stop trying to bullshit the public. we have NEVER believed it and we never will………….