Gender, Alternatives to Binary

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Gender, Alternatives to Binary


It is widely taken for granted, especially in Europe and the Americas, that gender is binary: that male and female are sharply different in feelings, anatomy, and behavior, and all people ought to fit neatly into one of these two categories. Certain realities contradict this assumption, including homosexual orientation, intersex (hermaphrodite) anatomy, and transvestite behavior, and they can appear in every society. A small number of nonwestern societies accommodate alternative genders, including the hijras of India, the Native American Half-ManHalf-Woman, and the Navajo nadle. From these and other cases, social scientists infer that there can be creative ways for people to be legitimate members of society without necessarily fitting squarely into only-male or only-female categories.

In the case of the hijras, teenage boys in India expect to become husbands and fathers, but a few realize that, because they are homosexual or intersex, they will not fulfill traditional male roles. These ones find that some cities harbor a group called the hijras who adopt female names, dress, and speech, and who relate to each other as sisters, and as daughters to their leaders. Their place in society is based on the belief that, even if homosexuals and intersex males will not marry women or have children, they still possess male procreative energy that they can transfer by blessing bridegrooms at weddings and baby boys at birth. By giving up normative male identity to become hijras, they are thought of as former males who help other males become better men. The hijras also constitute a separate caste, made distinct from other castes by their own rituals, taboos, myths, and patron goddess.

A true hijra eventually undergoes an emasculation ritual to remove the male genitalia. Ideally, they earn livings from the blessing rituals, but many have to supplement that income through prostitution. Others marry male lovers. Sex between a man and a hijra is not thought of as homosexual; it is heterosexual in the sense that a hijra is not a man, and not a woman either, but a third gender.

During the nineteenth century, Native American societies expected boys to become warriors, but at puberty a small number displayed a female-oriented vision of ones future that permitted them to enter into the status of the Half-ManHalf-Woman. Society valued them as mediators because it was thought that they were especially able to see both sides of a question. They also served as chaperones during courtship, and were believed to possess special magical energy that supported blessings and healing. Sometimes a Half-ManHalf-Woman became an additional wife in a polygamous marriage. As with the hijras, a sexual relationship between a man and a Half-ManHalf-Woman was considered to be heterosexual.

The Navajo nadle moved between quasi-male and quasi-female identities. The nadle began life as an intersex, which eliminated options such as becoming a father, hunter, or warrior. But nadles were believed to have a special ability to manage wealth, and it was a blessing to have a nadle in the family. The nadle was more woman than man: She practiced womens activities such as cooking, had the legal status and sex life of a woman, and was usually (but not always) addressed as a woman. In other circumstances the nadle could be manlike, as in presiding over rituals or managing wealth. The nadle was appreciated as a wise mediator for the same reasons the Half-ManHalf-Woman was.

Some Navajo transvestites, also called nadle, could dress as either male or female, depending on the activity, and could have sex with either men or women. The transvestite had more freedom than the intersex nadle to move between male and female roles. Many other Native American societies had gender statuses that enabled a limited number of people to alternate gender roles, but this flexibility became very rare as Native American life was assimilated into the dominant western culture of the United States. The same kind of cultural assimilation also brought an end to other societies gender alternatives, including the Thai kathoey and the Philippine bakla.

Alternative gender models are not whimsical lifestyle options. The pressures that steer people into these roles are approximately as powerful as those that require other people in the same societies to conform to male or female models. In most cases, the people who enter these statuses remain in them for the rest of their lives. Very few people in these societies have these statuses, partly because very few are inclined toward them, and partly because these societies have ways to discourage large-scale deviations from normative binary gender.

The alternative models challenge the assumption that binary gender is inevitable. The anatomy of male, female, and intersex can be universal, but genderthe cultural interpretation of sexualityis highly variable. Yet it is difficult to use an alternative model as a formula for changing the ways westerners experience gender, because each alternative form is intimately situated within a matrix of local beliefs, statuses, and values, and they are not easily adapted from one society to another. Another reason is because reform in the western world is concerned with legal rights. Following in the footsteps of feminist reform, it identifies a portfolio of well-established rights that heterosexuals have (to marry, for example, or to raise children) and then extends those rights to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, intersexes, and transgendered people. This is not an experiment in creating new categories, but rather universal access to existing rights. For those two reasons, nonwestern alternatives to binary gender are unlikely to lead to western versions of hijras or nadles.

Still, one cannot ignore certain provocative questions that arise in light of these alternative models. If western societies become more tolerant of gay and lesbian people, along with practices such as same-sex unions, how will gay or lesbian roles coexist with binary gender roles? If some gay men are normatively male in everything except their sex lives, are they not ironically reinforcing the tenets of binary gender, even as conservatives accuse them of subverting it? Arent female impersonators such as Danny LaRue, Holly Woodlawn, The Lady Chablis and RuPaul reinforcing binary gender by distilling an essence of feminine looks and personalities?

Fiction presents some imaginative insights. Ursula LeGuins science-fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) describes a planet where humans are hermaphroditic neuters who periodically morph into male or female forms to mate with the opposite form. Each can become male or female, father or mother, then revert back to neutral anatomy. Earthlings are considered perverts because they are stabilized in male or female form, which is taken to mean that they are always sexually aroused. Jeffrey Eugenidess Middlesex (2002) is the story of a teenage girl who abruptly learns that she is genetically male, and that puberty has been changing her body from girl to man. At the point in the story where this girl/man becomes a medical curiosity, there is a twenty-seven-page presentation on the anatomy and psychology of the intersex condition, as well as facetious accounts of gender-socialization theories and sociobiology as a backlash against them: Men and women, tired of being the same, want to be different again (p. 478).

Alternatives to binary gender reveal that there is much more to gender than just sexuality, and that there is more than one way for a society to understand gender. In the words of Cal, the girl who develops into a man in Middlesex, My family found that, contrary to popular opinion, gender was not all that important (p. 250).

SEE ALSO Gender; Sexuality; Transgender


Eugenides, Jeffrey. 2002. Middlesex. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Herdt, Gilbert, ed. 1994. Third Sex/Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. New York: Zone Books.

Hill, W. W. 1935. The Status of the Hermaphrodite and Transvestite in Navaho Culture. American Anthropologist 37: 273279.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, eds. 1997. Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

LeGuin, Ursula. 1969. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books.

Nanda, Serena. 1999. Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Nanda, Serena. 2000. Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

Williams, Walter L. 1992. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon.

Chris Toumey