The Rise of “Third Genders

In the second half of the 20th Century, the concept of the “third gender” gained considerable currency among anthropologists and LGBT activists. The hijras of India, the berdache and nadleehi of native North America, the xanith of Arabia, the female husbands of Western Africa, and the semen-eating boys of Papua New Guinea have all frequently been described as examples of institutionalized “third genders,” that have existed outside of the limits of contemporary Western society.

The concept was originally introduced in order to improve academic analyses of alternative sexual and gender identities. M. Kay Martin and Barbara Voorhies, who first identified “third genders” in an anthropological context, were attempting “to draw attention to the ethnographic evidence that gender categories in some cultures could not be adequately explained with a two-gender framework” (Towle and Morgan, “Romancing the Transgender Native,” 472). They advocated a different conceptualization, which posited male-bodied individuals who adopted feminine roles, female-bodied persons who assumed masculine roles, and those who were labeled as something other than men and women by their societies, as examples of “third genders.” They argued that the modern Western model of gender and sex, founded on binary principles, should not be used to describe cultures that recognize a wide variety of gender roles and that employ non-dichotomous conceptions of sex and sexuality in their social discourse.

In the 1980s and 1990s, American and European LGBT activists seized upon these anthropological ideas. They were eager to challenge and denaturalize the binary view of sex and gender that had become prevalent in their societies, and the slew of anthropological research about “third genders” provided a useful tool for doing so. If maleness and femaleness, masculinity for men and femininity for women, were truly natural and biologically given, then how is it possible that other cultures have, throughout history, institutionalized alternative sex and gender roles? How could other societies have recognized identities for those who are neither male nor female? And how could there be only two sexes and two genders, if various cultures had developed more? The identification of “third genders” thus enabled activists to argue, in the words of Riki Wilchins, that queers and transgender people were “born [not into the wrong body but] into the wrong culture” (Towle and Morgan, 472). The “third gender” began to function as a progressive and emancipatory mechanism for modern American and European transgender individuals.

However, the "third gender" concept has recently come under sustained and acerbic criticism from a small group of anthropologists and transsexual activists. They have found “serious fault” with it, on a number levels, by questioning its ethnographic accuracy and scrutinizing the idea that "third genders" are inherently progressive and emancipatory (Towle and Morgan, 469). This post will illustrate and evaluate this critique of the “third gender” concept, primarily through the use of examples from ancient and contemporary India.

Are “Third Genders” Ethnographically Accurate?

Critics of the “third gender” usually start their appraisal of the label by querying the extent to which it can accurately describe a wide variety of non-binary gender identities. They argue that it is intrinsically flawed because it functions as "a junk drawer into which a great non-Western gender miscellany is carelessly dumped” (Towle and Morgan, 484). It thus encourages people to view all gender non-conformity outside of its social, political and historical context. And by implying that many different kinds of non-binary genders belong in the same category, the concept homogenizes diverse peoples and cultures and implies a sort of universal, trans-cultural and trans-historical “third” gender identity. As Towle and Morgan explain:

“Ethnographic examples [of ‘third genders’] can come from distinct societies located in Thailand, Polynesia, Melanesia, Native America, western Africa, and elsewhere and from any point in history, from Ancient Greece, to sixteenth century England to contemporary North America. Popular authors routinely simplify their descriptions, ignoring…or conflating dimensions that seem to them extraneous, incomprehensible, or ill suited to the images they want to convey” (484).

Conceptualizing a particular gender identity as a “third gender” can lead scholars to overlook complexities and nuances in its meanings and to ignore how the identity functions within its social milieu. An example of this unfortunate tendency can be found in Nancy Nangeroni’s Transgender Tapestry article, “In Search of Mahu.” Nangeroni traveled to Hawaii to spend some time with mahu individuals, whom she considered to be a local category of transgender or “third gender” people. As Towle and Morgan demonstrate, however, Nangeroni homogenizes the only two mahus she meets by treating them as if they “are akin to mainland American transgendered people” (480). She does not duly consider how the mahu concept operates within its own social context and simply assumes that the mahu belong to the universal, transcultural “third gender.” This assumption caused her to ignore the fact that the term was used by the two mahus she met to refer to “effeminate men” and “homosexuals” and that they considered themselves to be gay rather than transgendered or “third gendered” (480). Nangeroni’s own desires and assumptions about the “third gendered” nature of the mahus took precedence over how the mahus viewed themselves. Her article is a clear illustration of some of the disadvantages of using broad concepts, such as transgender and “third gender.”

The reason that “third genders” are often employed in such an inaccurate way is that their use is motivated less by the desire to precisely represent non-Western peoples than by the need to make a political point within U.S. and European societies. As Carolyn Epple points out, anthropologists and queer/transgender activists have used the idea of the “third gender” to advance “social goals,” such as “deliverance from [the idea of] biology as destiny” and disruption of the notion that sex and gender separate unproblematically into mutually exclusive male and female and masculine and feminine categories (“Coming to Terms with Navajo Nadleehi,” 273). The use “third genders” is, thus, a form of crass cultural appropriation for political purposes – other cultures are only relevant insofar as they can be interpreted in a way that promotes the goals of transgender and queer movements in the U.S. and Europe. According to Towle and Morgan, this is highly problematic and hypocritical, since “a common complaint among trans individuals is that their lives and identities are violated and misrepresented for the goals of scholarship” – “it thus behooves us,” they say, “to make sure that we do not commit the same offense against [other cultures]” (470).

Are “Third Genders” Necessarily Emancipatory?

Another key aspect of the critique of “third genders” is a questioning of the extent to which they actually serve emancipatory purposes. Transgender activists and some anthropologists have tended to assume that the institutionalization of more than two genders means that a society is automatically tolerant and accepting of sexual and gender variation. Therefore, it can be placed on a pedestal, as a model for contemporary societies to emulate and an ideal for trans people to look back to. Nevertheless, critics of the “third gender” concept have carefully identified numerous flaws in this interpretation, which they deem to be naïve and dangerously utopian.

First of all, “third genders” can serve the function of making the other two gender categories more rigid, constrained and narrow. By placing anyone who strays from masculine or feminine norms in a “third gender” category, individuals may end up having to conform very strictly to those norms in order to stake their claim to manhood or womanhood. For instance, the late Vedic “third gender” term, napumsaka, was used to identify someone who was literally “not-a-male” (Zwilling and Sweet, “Like a City Ablaze,” 362). Any man who “was impotent…effeminate or a transvestite,” was considered to be one of the napumsaka (362). The concept ensured that a man, by definition, had to have progeny and could not be feminine. Thus, at least in the case of Vedic India, the “third gender” served to enforce restrictive and hegemonic masculine gender norms. Some scholars who have studied “third genders” in other cultures also share this view. For example, Epple has argued, based on her study of Navajo nadleehi, that the “third gender” concept “sets gender incongruence apart and keeps the meaning of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ safe from…disruptive influences” (“Coming to Terms with Navajo Nadleehi,” 273). Overall, instead of necessarily broadening the categories of acceptable identities, behaviors, and social roles for men and women, “third genders” can have the effect of supporting very restrictive understandings of maleness and femaleness.

Secondly, concentrating exclusively on an institutionalized “third gender” when studying another culture can prevent us from noticing other examples of sexual and gender diversity within that culture. For example, “by focusing [solely] on hijras…American readers may be less inclined to investigate other Indian discourses around sex and gender” (Towle and Morgan, 484). As John and Nair demonstrate, gender and sexuality in modern India are complex phenomena that have involved: a valorization of celibacy, forced sterilization for the cause of Hindu nationalism, the recent repeal of a colonial-era anti-sodomy statute, homosocial relations among heterosexual men, and tight regulation of women’s lives and bodies. But U.S. and European queer discourses and university gender studies courses are likely to focus narrowly on the most exotic aspect (the allegedly “third gender” hijras), while ignoring the many other interesting and relevant facets of sex, gender, and sexuality in the country.

Finally, “third gender” categories themselves can be “rigid and intolerant” (Towle and Morgan, 485). The fact that a society has institutionalized multiple gender roles does not necessarily mean that it offers more freedom and individual autonomy. As Anuja Agrawal points out, it could also be the case that “the greater the number of genders, the greater their oppressive potential, as each [gender] may demand conformity of the individual within increasingly narrower confines” (“Gendered Bodies,” 294). She uses the example of castration practices among the hijras to illustrate her point. Indian public discourse maintains that a “real hijra” must be an emasculated individual, not a feminine or cross-dressing male (292). Therefore, assuming a hijra identity can be oppressive because it often entails considerable pressure to have one’s genitals ritually mutilated (without the use of anesthetic) in a religious ceremony known as the nirvanam. Clearly, having an institutionalized “third gender” role does not automatically translate into a freer and more tolerant environment for individuals.

Back to the Future: Where Next after the Critique of “Third Genders”?

Overall, critics of the “third gender” concept have demonstrated that it is not as ethnographically accurate or emancipatory as its proponents have insisted. They have shown that: (1) the notion of a “third gender” homogenizes other cultures because it combines a wide variety of gender peculiarities under one label; (2) its use is motivated more by queer/transgender political aims within a U.S. and European context than by a desire to represent other societies accurately; and (3) the “third gender” concept can serve to rigidify the definition of the other two genders, take attention away from other forms of sexual and gender diversity in a society, and also oppress the people that fall under the category. In my view, these are convincing criticisms – but does this mean that we should avoid using the notion of the “third gender” altogether?

While the concept is definitely flawed, I do not believe that it should be completely abandoned. What if a person identifies with, and feels comfortable in, a “third gender” identity? Critics of “third genders” seem to be quite skeptical about whether anyone would really ever want to identify themselves with that label. For them, “third gender” categories are essentially imposed on other cultures, by modern U.S. and European observers, who are eager to make theoretical points about the social construction of the binary gender system. But “third genders” could have a basis in people’s lived experiences as well. Take the example of Mona Ahmed, a hijra interviewed by prominent photographer Dayanita Singh. When Singh asked her about whether she would like to have a sex change operation, Ahmed replied negatively and explained: “You really do not understand. I am the third sex. Not a man trying to be a woman. It is your society’s problem that you only recognize two sexes.” If people, such as Mona Ahmed, were found to truly identify as “third sex” or “third gender,” then the concept cannot be dismissed so easily and should not simply be viewed as a sole product of Western anthropological and queer thought about other cultures. More research is needed on the extent to which people actually identify with a “third sex” or a “third gender” identity.

Furthermore, while “third genders” can definitely be oppressive (e.g. - the hijra imperative to undergo castration, as described above), they are not necessarily so. A “third gender” category can be highly restrictive and demanding of its members, or it can be very relaxed, fluid and inclusive. For instance, genderqueer identity, which could be conceived as a contemporary Western “third gender,” sets very few requirements on its members. All that is required to assume this identity is feeling a lack of exclusive belonging to one of the two dominant gender categories (man and woman) – no special dress code, social roles or mannerisms must be taken up in order to be able to call oneself genderqueer. There are even no pronoun obligations, and genderqueer people are free to call themselves whatever they choose – phe, ze, she, he, hir, they, sie etc… Thus, there is no necessary connection between “third genders” and oppressive social categories and no reason to automatically dismiss them as anti-emancipatory.

A final problem with the critique of “third genders” is that it seems to naively assume that modern anthropological and queer categorizations of non-Western genders are simply misrepresentations, and that a more accurate description of such cultural phenomena is easily attainable. But in reality, representing another culture is unlikely to ever be fully satisfactory from an empirical point of view. As Vinay Lal explains, regarding the hijras:

“every fundamental description of [them] is inadequate. To reduce [them] to transvestites is merely to assimilate them to increasingly larger classes of people around the world who engage in cross-dressing…to describe them as eunuchs or hermaphrodites is to ignore the fact that some are both, while some are neither…[and while] they often indulge in homosexual behavior…[hijras also] contemptuously dismiss homosexuals as not of their kind” (“Not This, Not That,” 129).

He is also skeptical about the utility of the “third gender” label in describing them:

“the third sex, or trityaprakiti, which is neither male or female, does not…appear to be a fully satisfactory designation…it shows a debilitating dependence on…Aristotelian logic, which works within the framework of either/or duality. Indian logic, at its simplest, presents a more diverse array of possibilities” (130).

What Lal means by this somewhat esoteric passage is that Aristotelian logic (currently dominant in Europe and the United States) pushes people to select one primary identity and encourages them to believe that they cannot have other identities that conflict with the primary identity. Under this framework, one cannot simultaneously be “third gender,” homosexual, and a woman – the concepts imply mutually exclusive anatomies and social categories. However, according to Lal, “Indian logic” is much more accepting of paradoxes and can tolerate the juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory identities in one body (130). Under this more flexible framework, “hijras may well be both male and female [and] nonmale and nonfemale” (131). They could be women, homosexuals, and transgendered individuals at the same time. Thus, the problem with the “third gender” label, as applied to the hijras, is that it imposes an either/or Aristotelian logic in a culture that does not give primacy to such a framework: hijras are either “third gender” or they are not. But within the Indian cultural context, they are considered to inhabit numerous identities simultaneously, and therefore, it would be inaccurate to provide them with simply one label.

Therefore, critics of the “third gender” concept will have to avoid the assumption that non-binary genders in other cultures can easily be represented. Labeling them as “third genders” may not be accurate, but other designations might be equally inappropriate as well. As Lal stated above, “every fundamental description of the hijras is inadequate” and describing them accurately would involve getting inside the Indian cultural context, which is more accepting of multiple, paradoxal identities (129).

***For More Information***

The most comprehensive critique of the notion of “third genders” can be found in Evan Towle and Lynn Morgan’s article, “Romancing the Transgender Native.” Several more specific studies have also been published, which have questioned the utility of the “third gender” concept in terms of describing a particular culture. See, for example, Murray’s “On Subordinating Native American Cosmologies to the Empire of Gender,” Epple’s “Coming to Terms with Navajo nadleehi,” Boellstorff’s “Playing Back the Nation,” Agrawal’s “Gendered Bodies: The Case of the Third Gender in India,” and Lal’s “Not This, Not That.” For books and articles that are more in favor of employing the “third gender” notion, see Herdt’s Third Sex, Third Gender, Nanda’s “The Hijras of India” (in Parker and Aggleton’s edited volume, Culture, Society and Sexuality: A Reader) and Zwilling and Sweet’s “Like a City Ablaze.”

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