What are examples of transgender / intersex in past societies?
March 3, 2017 6:40 AM   Subscribe

Are there other past societies that had significant numbers of transgender / intersex people? What are its roots?

I'm wondering whether or not transgender / intersex is a new phenomenon or an old one. For instance, I know in the Bible it is forbidden to dress as the other sex, which suggests transsexuals have existed for a long time. Are there other examples? Best would be something like the Greeks where an entire society is oriented towards homosexuality.
posted by xammerboy to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Two Spirit: The Story of a Movement Unfolds: One of the most well-known two spirit in history is We-wha, an honored Zuni Pueblo cultural ambas- sador who traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1886 and shared the story and values of her people, who live in what is now western New Mexico.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:53 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]

I can't tell from your post if you know this or not, so I just wanted to point out that "transgender" is not a synonym for "intersex." This page summarizes the differences nicely.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:57 AM on March 3 [14 favorites]

Hijra have been recognized as a third gender in South Asia for a very long time. I don't know if you would consider it a 'significant' number of people but it's certainly a well-established part of society and they are mentioned in the Kama Sutra.

Try the third gender Wikipedia page for other examples.
posted by yeahlikethat at 7:57 AM on March 3 [4 favorites]

One challenge in answering this question is that part of the European colonizing project was basically to destroy records and suppress practices that didn't conform with Christian European gender norms of the colonial period - so there's a lot of interrupted indigenous tradition out there that survives only partially, or has changed from a normal part of society into something that is stigmatized.

Another challenge is that ideas about gender are expressed differently over time, so when we talk about "trans identities" we're really talking about identities that form a sort of constellation or have a "family resemblance" rather than "in 1100 in Ireland people described themselves as transgender". Consider professions - there's a "family resemblance" between a neurosurgeon, an herbalist, a doctor who follows traditional tribal practices, a chiropractor and a therapist, but they're all very different too.

It's also worth noting that "being a man" in the 20th century Western style is very very different from "being a man" in, say, feudal Japan, and that both are cross-cut by class, race/ethnicity/indigeneity/etc.

So I guess what we can definitely say is that "society is made up of men, who are born obviously men, and women, who are born obviously women, and no one else" is not true about human society, but exactly what is true changes by time and region.

Some examples:

Sworn virgins in the Balkans, some of whom have been cis straight women doing a social thing, some of whom have been what we'd probably call queer women, some of whom have been, probably, what we'd call trans people.

People assigned female at birth have, through history, lived as men. Some of those people have (apparently) been queer or straight cis women who wanted the greater freedom and security of passing for men; some of those people (apparently) identified as male. (Billy Tipton is an example.)

A challenge here is that where there is no community or language, it's difficult to understand what people thought of themselves. If you don't have language for "transgender" and you don't have a community of similar people, how do you know you're not just a lone weirdo, right? And how do you leave any record?

Another issue is patriarchy - where AFAB people, for instance, are closely controlled, can't earn their own money or live apart from the family, etc, you have to be a pretty lucky and determined person to live as a man. It appears that in the past there's been a little bit more scope for AMAB people who identify as women, for a variety of reasons, but IMO there's also been a lot of pressure on those people to perform a very restricted version of womanhood.

I think it's important not to get fascinated by the "natural" too much - something isn't less real because it comes into being late in human history. Again, consider the professions - jewelry makers we have always with us, but computer programmers are new. We wouldn't say that computer programming is a made up, fake profession, and that someone who wants to go into computer programming just doesn't understand that they'd really rather be a baker or a surgeon.
posted by Frowner at 8:53 AM on March 3 [27 favorites]

For an example of intersex individuals being culturally accepted, see guevedoces in the Dominican Republic. 5 alpha reductase deficiency (you might know of it from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel Middlesex) leads children who have male chromosomes to be born without testicles or a penis, so they are assigned female gender. When they hit puberty, their penises grow and testicles descend. My understanding is that it's common enough in certain areas that local folks shrug it off and reassign their gender.
posted by quiet coyote at 9:40 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]

In Greek myth, Hera turns Tiresias into a woman.
posted by bdc34 at 9:44 AM on March 3

The Tiwi Islands north of the Australian mainland have a 'sistergirl' culture.
Sistergirls are Aboriginal transgender women (assigned male at birth) who have a distinct cultural identity and often take on female roles within the community, including looking after children and family. Many Sistergirls live a traditional lifestyle and have strong cultural backgrounds. Their cultural, spiritual, and religious beliefs are pivotal to their lives and identities.
posted by Thella at 11:29 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia claims, with citations:
The Bugis people are the most numerous of the three major ethnic groups of South Sulawesi, Indonesia.

In contrast to the two-gender system of Western society, Bugis society recognises five genders: makkunrai, oroané, bissu, calabai, and calalai. Makkunrai and oroané are comparable to cisgender women and men, respectively. Bissu are androgynous shamans. Calalai and calabai approximately compare with trans men and trans women.
posted by XMLicious at 11:33 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]

Another concept to consider when thinking about the implications of this question are what you consider to be "significant." What is the evidentiary threshold you consider appropriate, and why? In current-day western society, there aren't a huge number of transgender people, but there is a broad awareness in some sense of being transgender. Is the awareness significant, or is the existence of people significant? Why is the threshold that you call out being "best" an "entire society?"
posted by lousywiththespirit at 1:12 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]

You might find this World Gender Customs map (which includes both contemporary and historical information) helpful.
posted by zebra at 1:17 PM on March 3

In Zapotec cultures of Oaxaca (southern Mexico), a muxe is an assigned male at birth individual who dresses and behaves in ways otherwise associated with the female gender; they may be seen as a third gender. Some marry women and have children while others choose men as sexual or romantic partners. According to anthropologist Lynn Stephen, muxe "may do certain kinds of women’s work such as embroidery or decorating home altars, but others do the male work of making jewelry."

Text from Wikipedia entry.
posted by clearlydemon at 10:48 PM on March 4

Polynesian cultures have traditionally some boys assigned male at birth who grow up to take a female role -- in Samoa, which I'm most familiar, the term is fa'afafine (fa'a means sort of lifestyle? role? for instance, the Samoan way of life is fa'asamoa; and fafine means woman). You get some kids who are assigned fa'afafine roles for sort of family structural reasons -- a family without any girls in it needs a child who will perform female associated tasks -- and some of those kids (although not all of them) reassume a cis-male identity as adults. And some kids identify themselves as fa'afafine around puberty, and maintain that identity throughout adulthood.

I think it's pretty much the same throughout Polynesia, but Samoa's the only culture I have any firsthand knowledge of.
posted by LizardBreath at 1:54 PM on March 5

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