Prompted by the news of a gender-bending school activity from Japan, we embarked on a whirlwind global update of the world of what used to be called the "Third Sex".
We recalled a story of a another school, this one in Thailand that, discovering that ten percent of its boys consider themselves transsexuals uncomfortable using the boys' toilets, installed 'Third Sex' amenities. The video puts the case quite convincingly.
More recently, the issue was debated in the UK at Sussex University. The idea got as far as some graphic exploration.
Of course, these stories are micro features of a much bigger issue. The term "third sex", popularised by the eponymous lesbian novel, was a common descriptor for homosexuals and gender nonconformists throughout mmuch of the 20th century. With the Gay Liberation movement of the 1970s and the growing distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity, the term fell into disuse among LGBT communities.
The renewed exploration of gender fostered by queer theory and feminism has prompted some in the contemporary West to describe themselves as a third sex again. Most in use, however, is the term transgender, originally referring to those who change their gender, but now increasingly used to signify gender subjectivity that is neither male nor female. The Harvard Business School application form has three gender options: male, female, and transgender.
Whatever the terminology used, the concept has a reach that is both ancient and international. Mesopotamian mythology, among the earliest written records of humanity, contains references to types of people who are neither men nor women. Ancient Egyptian pottery shards from the Middle Kingdom (2000–1800 BCE), found near Luxor, list three human genders: tai (male), sut ("sekhet") and hmt (female).
Evidence of third sex categorisation is evident in the South American Olmec, Aztec, Inca and Mayar cultures, often in a ritual context, as confirmed by a sixteenth century Spanish account: "And in each important temple or house of worship, they have a man or two, or more, depending on the idol, who go dressed in women's attire from the time they are children, and speak like them, and in manner, dress, and everything else they imitate women. With them especially the chiefs and headmen have carnal, foul intercourse on feast days and holidays, almost like a religious rite and ceremony."
Unsurprisingly, multiple genders feature too amongst the indigenous cultures of North America, with social gender categories that are collectively known as Two-Spirit. Individual examples include the Winkte of Lakota culture, the ninauposkitzipxpe ("manly-hearted woman") of the North Peigan (Blackfoot) community, and the Zapotec Muxe of Mexico.
Male and female god, Aaryan Kaal Mandapam, Meenashki Amman Temple, India,
Moving up to today, by far the largest current transgender body are the "Hijra" of India estimated at between 5 and 6 million individuals.
In Pakistan the "Khawaja sara" live in groups small groups headed by a Guru, normally the oldest. The group earns its livelihood by performing and singing at family functions e.g. birthdays, marriages or child births. It is obligatory for hosts to pay khawaja sara, usually in money or grain.
ID card, Nepal.
Transgender options now exist in many places, on New Zealand birth cetificates and passports and on Nepalese id cards, In 2011, the Australian Passport Office introduced new guidelines for issuing of passports with a new gender, and broadened availability of an X descriptor to all individuals with documented "indeterminate" sex.
Thailand, of course, can claim the highest global visibility through its Kathoey, or Ladyboy, community. Originally poularised throught the notorioius Thai sex trade, Kathoeys are gradually gaining acceptance through entertainment, business, and fashion industries, where the they play significant roles in leadership and management positions.
Brazilian model, Edu Beber
Andrej Pejic, now Andreja.
More publically, the catwalks and editorials of the fashion industry have focussed inceasingly on young, androgynous males to models their designs for women. The star of that community, Andrej Pejic, only recently declared himself now a woman. Check out the related stories below for more fashion related features.
Popular actress and model, Nong Poy, born a boy in 1986.
Whether impacting on school life in conservative Japan, at the Eurovision Song Contest, on the streets of Bangkok or through the fashion media, the transgender community look likely to remain a controversial, high profile group as our societies continue to evolve.
Join our mailing list
- December 30th, 2016
- December 1st, 2016
- October 29th, 2016
- October 1st, 2016
- August 31st, 2016
- July 23rd, 2016