I Am Cait, a reality show featuring Caitlyn Jenner’s (née Bruce Jenner) transgender experience, premiered this past Sunday night. As viewers learn more about the varying experiences of modern American transgendered people, it can be helpful to understand that gender queerness is neither a modern nor a Western phenomenon.
It’s important to remember that gender expression, like sexuality, falls anywhere on a long spectrum. For this reason, I have tried to use the term “gender queer” vs. “transgendered” in the descriptions. The people described below have experienced many different emotions and made many different choices . . . all of which have been deeply informed by their cultural environment.
1. Sulawesi, Indonesia
Within the Bugis society living on the island of Sulawesi, five genders are recognized: traditional, cisgender male (oroané) and female (makkunrai); calalai, which translates to “false man” and is the designation of a biological woman living as a man; calabai, which translates to “false woman” and designates a biological man whose actions are considered more female; and finally the bissu, who are persons born hermaphroditic.
It is only the calalai who generally absorb the fully traditional, cisgender role of another gender: marrying women and adopting children with their spouses and taking on a male occupation (e.g. blacksmith).
Calabai, by contrast, do not exactly absorb a cisgender, heterosexual female role, but rather serve a societal purpose all their own: They are especially valued as wedding planners.
Finally, the bissu fill the role of spiritual advisers — especially for those who are planning a hajj, or journey to Mecca.
2. Hawaii (Indigenous)
The indigenous people of Hawaii have the concept of ‘mahu,’ which usually specifically refers to gender queer men.
Similar to the spiritual and cultural value of the gender queer in Bugis society, the mahu are considered uniquely fitted for roles as healers and caretakers.
The sexuality of the mahu, like that of transgendered Westerners, varies greatly between individuals and does not define them; some may be practicing homosexuals, engaging in sexual relationships with cisgender men, and others may be asexual or living under a vow of chastity. It is their choice (having been born with male organs) to dress, talk, work, and live as a woman that designates them as mahu.
Unfortunately, in modern Hawaiian society, the term “mahu” has begun to be used primarily as a homophobic slur, and youth who identify as mahu are facing substantial rates of violence.
3. Rural Albania
The sworn virgins, or burrneshas, of the Balkans are all but extinct in modern Albanian society, but these women, who have both chosen a life of celibacy as well as cut their hair and worn masculine clothing, have done so consciously to circumvent the oppressive patriarchal gender roles of their society.
The Kanun, a tribal code of law that governed tribal clans throughout the Balkans, expressly forbade women from “everything from voting and doing business to swearing and drinking.” Though in recent years Albania has made strides towards gender equity, some small towns still forbid women from driving or working outside the home. For centuries, the only way to escape these restrictions was to eschew femininity altogether.
Furthermore, tradition dating back to the 15th century ostracized families without a male presence, and, especially when blood feuds commonly eliminated all the men in a given family, “the only way to salvage their honor was for a woman to become the patriarch of the clan and start acting like a man.”
4. Juchitán, Oaxaca (Mexico)
In Oaxaca, a southern Mexican province, the Zapotec indigenous peoples recognize a ‘third gender,’ called the muxe (derived from the Spanish word for woman, mujer), who are males who feel drawn to living as women.
Unlike in other parts of Mexico, which can be hostile to the LGBTQ community, the muxe (as well as other LGBTQ people in the province) have a respected role within their society: “On the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, especially in Juchitán, every family considers it a blessing to have one gay son,” Susana Trilling, who manages a cooking school hours from Juchitán, told Travel + Leisure magazine. “These sons do handicrafts and sell embroideries in the market with the women, while the men work in the fields, so it’s a monetary boon to the family. And while daughters marry and leave home, a muxe cares for his parents in their old age.”
Since the 1970s, every NovemberJuchitán has hosted a ball/pageant called the Vela de las Intrepidas (Vigil of the Intrepids), where one muxe individual is crowned queen — by the mayor — and attendees include not only the muxe community but also cisgender men, women, and children.