I've just read some articles on alternative genders
in non-Western cultures which each sound a note of caution, as well as providing more information on those genders. Oversimplification and misinterpretation are of course hazards of my cursory note-taking, so these warnings are relevant to my interests.
In "Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the 'Third Gender' Concept", Evan B. Towle and Lynn M. Morgan raise a number of problems with how Western popular accounts (in particular, those written by transgender people from the US) interpret alternative genders in potentially misleading ways. For instance, cultures with a "third gender" may be thought of as "primordial", as if all cultures "evolve" from more gender diverse to less gender diverse. Also, alternative genders from different cultures tend to be lumped together into a single category, into "a single, universal transsexual experience", one shared by trans Americans. "Third gender" categories may be depicted as homogenous and unchanging, and the extent to which they are accepted by their cultures may be exaggerated.
The authors ask whether the concept of a "third gender" actually protects binary gender rather than challenging it: "The existence of the 'third' category might imply - wrongly, in our view - that 'first' and 'second' categories are inviolable and unproblematic." Carolyn Epple makes the same point in her article "Coming to Terms with Navajo nádleehí
" - that for there to be an alternative third gender, there must be a first and second gender which are not alternative or other. She asks: "But is it not possible that the existence of Navajo nádleehí
is not in fact evidence of third genders but is instead constructed as such, given current theoretical interests?"
Moreover, adding additional genders doesn't guarantee a system in which individuals are free to express themselves. Towle and Morgan quote Anuja Agrawal re the hijra
of India: "The greater the number of genders, the greater their oppressive potential as each may demand the conformity of the individual within increasingly narrower confines." A "real" hijra
is a castrated man, not just a cross-dressing or effeminate one. Another researcher, Don Kulick, argues that the Brazilian travesti
helps "solidify normative binary gender system, but not the Euro-American system that makes gender contingent on sex." Rather, the role in intercourse determines gender; the travesti
s "understand and position themselves as women". (Cf Unni Wikan's comments
on the xanith
.) So a "third gender" may uphold "a rigid gender system by formalizing variation."
Similarly, in "The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look at Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native America", Harriet Whitehead warns against confusing Western homosexual people with Native American gender-crossers, who were defined by "occupational pursuits and dress/demeanour" rather than sexuality. They occurred in some nations (such as the Yurok, the Crow, the Miami) but not others (including the Inuit, the Comanche, and the Maidu).
Discussing the cultural construction of gender, Whitehead writes: "A social gender dichotomy is present in all known societies in the sense that everywhere anatomic sexual difference observable at birth are used to start tracking the newborn into one or the other of two social role complexes." Anatomy creates the dichotomy, "but in no culture does it exhaust the ideas surrounding the two classes thus minimally constituted." Assumptions about additional differences between the sexes, along with beliefs about their "fate, temperament, spiritual power, ability, and mythical history" form a "cluster" of defining features, which vary from culture to culture, and make possible "a mixed gender or deficient gender status" - "a person of one anatomic sex assuming part or most of the attire, occupation, and social - including marital - status of the opposite sex for an indeterminate period."
A Native American gender-crosser (I'm avoiding the dubious catch-all term "berdache") might behave like a member of the "opposite" sex during childhood or adolescence, or might receive messages in dreams and/or visions telling them to do so. There were also male war captives who were given the status of "wife" in their captor's household, and made to dress as women and do women's work. Whitehead also mentions a Gros Ventre warrior woman who became a Crow chief and took wives.
Whitehead discusses why "the gender-crossed status was more fully instituted for males than females"; there were "[f]emale deviations in the male role", but not a "named, stable status category". There were two reasons: one, it's easier to move down in status than it wis to move up. Two, women were more defined by their anatomy, in particular their reproductive role, while this was less significant for men and made it easier for them to gender-cross. Female gender-crossers claimed not to menstruate. They were known for the "Mohave, the Cocopa, the Zuni, the Apache, and the Navajo"; the Kaska apparently had only female-to-male gender-crossers. Some had wives.
Without taking on this "fourth gender" identity, IIUC, women might also temporarily engage in male tasks (for example out of economic need), they might be trained in male skills by a husband or father, or they might "consistently cultivat[e] male skills from an early age". Women who were successful in the male domain were honoured as if they were men. OTOH, because "[w]omen's labour was not subject to total or even very extensive appropriation by men", a gender-crosser might make himself rich and respected with his expertise in female crafts.
The male gender-crosser was "a mixed creature", a "man-woman" or "part-man, part-woman". Whitehead remarks that "Navajo, Cheyenne, and Mohave lore about the berdache's exceptional abilities as a matchmaker, love magician, or curer of venereal disease again expresses the logic that the berdache unites in himself both sexes, therefore he is in a position to facilitate the union of the sexes." He might engage in male tasks as well as female, and/or have "specialized duties" such as handling corpses, carrying provisions for war parties, and looking after the sick.
Whitehead discusses why these cultures were "permissive" towards gender-crossers. She suggests this is because of the belief that peoples' characteristics, their talents, luck, and idiosyncracies, were unpredictably assigned to them by supernatural helpers (often via visions). The gender-crosser was just one of many types of person whose nature was decreed by forces beyond human control. (Carolyn Epple explains that the Navajo see an individual as the product of complex, cyclical natural processes, not "a handful of traits".)
Finally, Peter A. Jackson's chapter "Tolerant but Unaccepting: the myth of a Thai 'Gay Paradise'" does what it says on the tin, debunking the myth that Thailand is accepting of "non-normative sex/gender behaviours". Homosexuality is not illegal, nor considered immoral by the Buddhist majority, and gay-bashing is rare; however, homophobic rhetoric comes from both popular and official sources, pressure to conform comes from parents and from shaming through gossip, and "cross-dressing kathoey, like Thai women, are often subject to sexual harassment and even sexual violence by heterosexually identifying males." "Tolerance," Jackson writes, "denotes a preparedness to endure, put up with, or permit to exist, but does not necessarily imply the lack of criticism or the favorable or approving attitude connoted by acceptance."
The kathoey identity includes intersex people as well as cross-dressing and transgender men. They are assumed to take non-kathoey men as their lovers; they are more accepted than male-identifying gay men, whose existence seems to have come as something of a shock to mainstream Thai culture in the mid-60s. In turn, kathoey who "exhibit a high standard of feminine beauty and who adopt the reserved, polite manners and speech of a genteel Thai man or woman" are more accepted than those considered "loud-mouthed, aggressive or lewd". (Perhaps this is another example of a confining, rather than freeing, "third gender".) A heterosexual man can have sex with a kathoey without losing his masculinity, assuming he takes the role of "husband".
Jackson comments on the multiple masculinities present in Thai culture, remarking that "in classical and some contemporary literature it is not unusual for the ideal Thai man to be portrayed as soft-featured, occasionally being equally sexually attractive to men." There's a class component to this as well, I think, as in a 1991 story Jackson cites in which an "ambiguously attractive" refined nobleman, a kathoey, is contrasted with a peasant with "rough manners, a dark complexion and coarse features".
It's only natural that LGBT+ people would look to other cultures for evidence of their existence and acceptance. These writers are just cautioning against imposing Western ideas onto non-Western cultures. Even my slight reading has made it clear that Western assumptions about gender and sexuality - even the concepts "gender" and "sexuality" - are not natural and universal. That profoundly challenges sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.
Epple, Carolyn. Coming to Terms with Navajo "nádleehí": A Critique of "berdache," "Gay," "Alternate Gender," and "Two-Spirit". American Ethnologist, Vol. 25, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 267-290.
Jackson, Peter A. "Tolerant but Unaccepting: the myth of a Thai 'Gay Paradise'." in Peter A. Jackson and Nerida M. Cook (eds). Genders and Sexualities in Modern Thailand. Silkworm, Chiang Mai, 1999.
Towle, Evan B. and Lynn M. Morgan. "Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the 'Third Gender' Concept". in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds).The Transgender Studies Reader. New York, Routledge, 2006.
Whitehead, Harriet. "The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look At Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native North America". in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds). The Transgender Studies Reader. London, Routledge, 2006. (Originally published in Sherry B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead (eds). Sexual Meaning: the Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality. Cambridge University Press, 1981. pp 80-115.)