Third gender

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The terms third gender and third sex describe individuals who are categorized (by their will or by social consensus) as neither a man or a woman, as well as the social category present in those societies who recognize three or more genders. The term "third" is usually understood to mean "other"; some anthropologists and sociologists have described fourth, fifth, and even some genders.

Although biology determines genetically whether a human being is male or female (on the basis of the XX or XY or a variation thereof chromosomes), the state of being neither a man or a woman is sometimes considered in relation to the individual's gender role in society, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other characteristic. To different cultures or individuals, a third gender or sex may represent an intermediate state between men and women, a state of being both (such as "the spirit of a man in the body of a woman"), the state of being neither (neuter), the ability to cross or swap genders, another category altogether independent of men and women. This last definition is favored by those who argue for a strict interpretation of the "third gender" concept. In any case, all of these characterizations are defining gender and not the sex that biology gives to living beings.


In animals that are gonochoristic, a number of individuals within a population will not differentiate sexually into bodies that are typically male or female; this is called intersexuality. The incidence varies from population to population, and also varies depending on how femaleness and maleness are understood. Biologist and gender theorist Anne Fausto-Sterling, in a 1993 article, argued that if people ought to be classified in sexes, at least five sexes, rather than two, would be needed.[1]

Evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden argues that, in addition to male and female sexes (as defined by the production of small or large gametes), more than two genders exist in hundreds of animal species.[2] Species with one female and two male genders include red deer who have two male morphs, one with antlers and one without, known as hummels or notts, as well as several species of fish such as plainfin midshipman fish and coho salmon.[3] Species with one female and three male genders include bluegill sunfish, where four distinct size and color classes exhibit different social and reproductive behaviours, as well as the spotted European wrasse (Symphodus ocellatus), a cichlid (Oreochromis mossambicus) and a kind of tree lizard, Urosaurus ornatus.[4] Species with two male and two female genders include the white-throated sparrow, in which male and female morphs are either white-striped or tan-striped. White-striped individuals are more aggressive and defend territory, while tan-striped individuals provide more parental care. Ninety percent of breeding pairs are between a tan striped and a white striped sparrow.[5] Finally, the highest number of distinct male and female morphs or "genders" within a species is found in the side-blotched lizard, which has five altogether: orange-throated males, who are "ultra-dominant, high testosterone" controllers of multiple females; blue-throated males, who are less aggressive and guard only one female; yellow-throated males, who do not defend territories at all but cluster around the territories of orange males; orange-throated females, who lay many small eggs and are very territorial; and yellow-throated females, who lay fewer, larger eggs and are more tolerant of each other.[6]

Contemporary societies

Since at least the 1970s, anthropologists have described gender categories in some cultures which they could not adequately explain using a two-gender framework.[1] At the same time, feminists began to draw a distinction between (biological) sex and (social/psychological) gender. Contemporary gender theorists usually argue that a two-gender system is neither innate nor universal. A sex/gender system which recognizes only the following two social norms has been labeled "heteronormative":

Indian subcontinent

The Hijra [2] of India are probably the most well known and populous third sex type in the modern world – Mumbai-based community health organisation The Humsafar Trust estimates there are between 5 and 6 million hijras in India. In different areas they are known as Aravani/Aruvani or Jogappa. Often (somewhat misleadingly) called eunuchs in English, they may be born intersex or apparently male, dress in feminine clothes and generally see themselves as neither men nor women. Only eight percent of hijras visiting Humsafar clinics are nirwaan (castrated). Indian photographer Dayanita Singh writes about her friendship with a Hijra, Mona Ahmed, and their two different societies' beliefs about gender: "When I once asked her if she would like to go to Singapore for a sex change operation, she told me, '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 recognise two sexes.'"[3] Hijra social movements have campaigned for recognition as a third sex,[4] and in 2005, Indian passport application forms were updated with three gender options: M, F, and E (for male, female, and eunuch, respectively).[5] Some Indian languages such as Sanskrit have three gender options. In November 2009, India agreed to list eunuchs and transgender people as "others", distinct from males and females, in voting rolls and voter identity cards.[6]

In addition to the feminine role of hijra, which is widespread across the subcontinent, a few occurrences of institutionalised "female masculinity" have been noted in modern India. Among the Gaddhi in the foothills of the Himalayas, some girls adopt a role as a sadhin, renouncing marriage, and dressing and working as men, but retaining female names and pronouns.[7] A late-nineteenth century anthropologist noted the existence of a similar role in Madras, that of the basivi.[8] However, historian Walter Penrose concludes that in both cases "their status is perhaps more 'transgendered' than 'third-gendered.'"[9]


In June 2009, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered a census of hijras, who number between 80,000[10] and 300,000 in Pakistan.[11] In December 2009, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, ordered that the National Database and Registration Authority[10] issue national identity cards to members of the community showing their "distinct" gender.[11][12] "It's the first time in the 62-year history of Pakistan that such steps are being taken for our welfare," Almas Bobby, a hijra association's president, said to Reuters. "It's a major step towards giving us respect and identity in society. We are slowly getting respect in society. Now people recognise that we are also human beings.".[11] In Pakistan the hijras live in groups (generally 4-12 members) headed by a Guru, normally the oldest. The group earns livlihood by performing/dancing/singing in family functions e.g. birthdays, marriages or child births. It is obligatory for hosts to pay Hijra in money, grain or other things. In central punjab (Pakistan), hijra groups divide areas among themselves and one group may not interfere with another's territory as it is considered unethical.


Also commonly referred to as a third sex are the kathoeys (or "ladyboys") of Thailand.[13] However, while a significant number of Thais perceive kathoeys as belonging to a third gender, including many kathoeys themselves, others see them as either a kind of man or a kind of woman.[14] Researcher Sam Winter writes:

“ We asked our 190 [kathoeys] to say whether they thought of themselves as men, women, sao praphet song ["a second kind of woman"] or kathoey. None thought of themselves as male, and only 11 percent saw themselves as kathoey (i.e. ‘non-male’). By contrast 45 percent thought of themselves as women, with another 36 percent as sao praphet song... Unfortunately we did not include the category phet tee sam (third sex/gender); conceivably if we had done so there may have been many respondents who would have chosen that term... Around 50 percent [of non-transgender Thais] see them as males with the mistaken minds, but the other half see them as either women born into the wrong body (around 15 percent) or as a third sex/gender (35 percent)."[14] ”

In 2004, the Chiang Mai Technology School allocated a separate restroom for kathoeys, with an intertwined male and female symbol on the door. The 15 kathoey students are required to wear male clothing at school but are allowed to sport feminine hairdos. The restroom features four stalls, but no urinals.[15]

Western world

Third gender and the concept of homosexuality

Some writers suggest that a third gender emerged around 1700 AD in England: the male sodomite.[16] According to these writers, this was marked by the emergence of a subculture of effeminate males and their meeting places (molly houses), as well as a marked increase in hostility towards effeminate and/or homosexual males. People described themselves as members of a third sex in Europe from at least the 1860s with the writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs[17] and continuing in the late nineteenth century with Magnus Hirschfeld,[18] John Addington Symonds,[19] Edward Carpenter,[20] Aimée Duc[21] and others. These writers described themselves and those like them as being of an "inverted" or "intermediate" sex and experiencing homosexual desire, and their writing argued for social acceptance of such sexual intermediates.[22] Many cited precedents from classical Greek and Sanskrit literature (see below).

In Wilhelmine Germany, the terms drittes Geschlecht ("third sex") and Mannweib ("man-woman") were also used to describe feminists – both by their opponents[23] and sometimes by feminists themselves. In the 1899 novel Das dritte Geschlecht (The Third Sex) by Ernst Ludwig von Wolzogen, feminists are portrayed as "neuters" with external female characteristics accompanied by a crippled male Psyche.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, the term "third sex" was a popular descriptor for homosexuals and gender nonconformists, but after Gay Liberation of the 1970s and a growing separation of the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity, the term fell out of favor among LGBT communities and the wider public. With the renewed exploration of gender that feminism, the modern transgender movement and queer theory has fostered, some in the contemporary West have begun to describe themselves as a third sex again.[24] One well known social movement that includes male-bodied people that identify as neither men nor women are the Radical Faeries. Other modern identities that cover similar ground include pangender, bigender, genderqueer, androgyne, intergender, "other gender" and "differently gendered".

The term transgender, which often refers to those who change their gender, is increasingly being used to signify a gendered subjectivity that is neither male nor female – one recent example is on a form for the Harvard Business School, which has three gender options – male, female, and transgender.[25]

Indigenous cultures of North America

Main article: Two-Spirit

Also very much associated with multiple genders are the indigenous cultures of North America,[26] who often contain 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. Various scholars have debated the nature of such categories, as well as the definition of the term "third gender". Different researchers may characterise a Two-Spirit person as a gender-crosser, a mixed gender, an intermediate gender, or distinct third and fourth genders that are not dependent on male and female as primary categories. Those (such as Will Roscoe) who have argued for the latter interpretation also argue that mixed-, intermediate-, cross- or non-gendered social roles should not be understood as truly representing a third gender. Anthropologist Jean-Guy Goulet (1996) reviews the literature:

“ To summarize: 'berdache' may signify a category of male human beings who fill an established social status other than that of man or woman (Blackwood 1984; Williams 1986: 1993); a category of male and female human beings who behave and dress 'like a member of the opposite sex' (Angelino & Shedd 1955; Jacobs 1968; and Whitehead 1981); or categories of male and female human beings who occupy well established third or fourth genders (Callender & Kochems 1983a; 1983b; Jacobs 1983; Roscoe 1987; 1994). Scheffler (1991: 378), however, sees Native American cases of 'berdache' and 'Amazon' as 'situations in which some men (less often women) are permitted to act, in some degree, as though they were women (or men), and may be spoken of as though they were women (or men), or as anomalous 'he-she' or 'she-he'.' In Scheffler's view (1991: 378), '[e]thnographic data cited by Kessler and McKenna (1978), and more recently by Williams (1986), provide definitive evidence that such persons were not regarded as having somehow moved from one sex (or in Kessler and McKenna's terms, gender) category to the other, but were only metaphorically "women" (or "men")'. In other words, according to Scheffler, we need not imagine a multiple gender system. Individuals who appeared in the dress and/or occupation of the opposite sex were only metaphorically spoken of as members of that sex or gender."[27] ”

The term "berdache" is seen as very offensive by many Two-Spirit and Native people because of its historical roots; It was first applied by European settlers as a derogatory term, meaning a submissive, effeminate man.[28] The term "Two-Spirit" was created in 1990 as an English word to convey an identity already recognized by many Nations, and is usually the preferred and most respectful term.


The following gender categories have also been described as a third gender:

Middle East:
  • Oman: Xanith or khanith.[29]
  • Polynesia: Fa'afafine (Samoan),[30] fakaleiti (Tongan), mahu wahine (Hawaiian), mahu vahine (Tahitian), whakawahine (New Zealand Māori) and akava'ine (Cook Islands Māori).[31]
  • Indonesia: Waria is a traditional third general role found in modern Indonesia.[32] Additionally, the ugis culture of Sulawesi has been described as having three sexes (male, female and intersex) as well as five genders with distinct social roles.[33]
  • In the Philippines, a number of local sex/gender identities are commonly referred to as a third sex in popular discourse, as well as by some academic studies. Local terms for these identities (which are considered derogatory by some) include bakla (Tagalog), bayot (Cebuano), agi (Ilonggo), bantut (Tausug), binabae, bading – all of which refer to effeminate 'gay' men/transwomen. Gender variant females may be called lakin-on or tomboy.[34]
  • The Balkans: Sworn virgins,[35] females who work and dress as men and inhabit some men-only spaces, but do not marry.
  • 18th century England: Mollies[16]
  • 19th century England: Uranian[36]
  • Femminiello, in Neapolitan culture[37]
  • Southern Ethiopia: Ashtime of Maale culture[38]
  • Kenya: Mashoga of Swahili-speaking areas of the Kenyan coast, particularly Mombasa
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo: Mangaiko among the Mbo people.[39]
Latin America and the Caribbean:
  • Southern Mexico: Muxe, In many Zapotec communities, third gender roles are often apparent [40] The muxe are described as a third gender; biologically male but with feminine characteristics.[41] They are not considered be homosexuals, rather they are just another gender [41] Some will marry women and have families, others will form relationships with men [41] Although it is recognized that these individuals have the bodies of men, they perform gender in a different manner than men, it is not a masculine persona but neither is it a feminine persona that they perform but, in general, a combination of the two [41] Lynn Stephen quotes Jeffrey Rubin, "Prominent men who where rumoured to be homosexual and did not adopt the muxe identity were spoken of pejoratively", suggesting that muxe gender role was more acceptable in the community.[41]
  • Biza'ah , In Teotilán, they have their own version of the muxe that they call biza'ah. According to Stephen, there were only 7 individuals in that community considered to be biza'ah in comparison to the muxe, of which there were many.[41] Like the muxe they were well liked and accepted in the community.[41] Their way of walking, talking and the work that they perform are markers of recognizing biza'ah.[41]
  • Travestis of Latin America have been described as a third gender, although not all see themselves this way. Don Kulick described the gendered world of travestis in urban Brazil as having has two categories: "men" and "not men", with women, homosexuals and travestis belonging to the latter category.[42]
  • Dominican republic: Guevedoche, intersex girls who become boys at puberty, due to 5-alpha-reductase deficiency.[43] The same phenomenon is known as kwolu-aatmwol in the "Sambia" community in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea.[44]


  1. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Martin
  2. Talwar, Rajesh (1999). The Third sex and Human Rights, Gyan Publishing House. ISBN 81-212-0266-3
  3. Myself Mona Ahmed. by Dayanita Singh (Photographer) and Mona Ahmed. Scalo Publishers (September 15, 2001). ISBN 3-908247-46-2
  4. Template error: argument title is required. 
  5. ‘Third sex’ finds a place on Indian passport forms, The Telegraph, March 10, 2005. Article online
  6. "Pakistani eunuchs to have distinct gender", BBC News, December 23, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-12-23. 
  7. (1991) "Unmarried Women of the Dhaula Dhar: Celibacy and Social Control in Northwest India". Journal of Anthropological Research 47 (3): 331–350.
  8. Fawcett, Fred (1891). On Basivis: Women Who, through Dedication to a Deity, Assume Masculine Privileges. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay (July). Bombay: Education Society's Press; London: Treubner.
  9. (2001) "Hidden in History: Female Homoeroticism and Women of a "Third Nature" in the South Asian Past". Journal of the History of Sexuality 10: 3–39. doi:10.1353/sex.2001.0018.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "People defaulting on bank loans? Use eunuchs to recover: Pak SC", The Economic Times, Bennett Coleman, December 24, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-12-23. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Haider, Zeeshan. "Pakistan's transvestites to get distinct gender", Reuters, December 23, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-12-23. 
  12. Masood, Salman. "Pakistan: A Legal Victory for Eunuchs", The New York Times, December 23, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-12-23. 
  13. Totman, Richard, (2004). The Third Sex: Kathoey: Thailand's Ladyboys, Souvenir Press. ISBN 0-285-63668-5
  14. 14.0 14.1 Winter, Sam (2003). Research and discussion paper: Language and identity in transgender: gender wars and the case of the Thai kathoey. Paper presented at the Hawaii conference on Social Sciences, Waikiki, June 2003. Article online.
  15. Transvestites Get Their Own School Bathroom, Associated Press, June 22, 2004.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Trumbach, Randolph. (1998) Sex and the Gender Revolution. Volume 1: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. (Chicago Series on Sexuality, History & Society)
  17. (1981) "The "Third Sex" Theory of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs". Journal of Homosexuality 6 (1–2): 103–111. doi:10.1300/J082v06n01_10. PMID 7042820.
  18. Hirschfeld, Magnus, 1904. Berlins Drittes Geschlecht ("Berlin's Third Sex")
  19. Ellis, Havelock and Symonds, J. A., 1897. Sexual Inversion.
  20. Carpenter, Edward, 1908. The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women.
  21. Duc, Aimée, 1901. Sind es Frauen? Roman über das dritte Geschlecht ("Are These Women? Novel about the Third Sex")
  22. Jones, James W. (1990). "We of the third sex” : homo Representations of Homosexuality in Wilhelmine Germany. (German Life and Civilization v. 7) New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1990. ISBN 0-8204-1209-0
  23. (1987) ""New Man," Eternal Woman: Expressionist Responses to German Feminism". The German Quarterly 60 (4): 582–599. doi:10.2307/407320.
  24. (2001) "Not man, not woman: Psychospiritual characteristics of a Western third gender". Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 33 (1): 16–36. (Complete doctoral dissertation: Sell, Ingrid. (2001). Third gender: A qualitative study of the experience of individuals who identify as being neither man nor woman. (Doctoral Dissertation, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). UMI No. 3011299.)
  25. Harvard Business School Profile form online.
  26. See, for example, Hollimon, S. E. (1997), The third-gender in native California: two-spirit undertakers among the Chumash and their neighbors. In Women in Prehistory, C. Claassen and R. Joyce (Ed.). Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 173–188.
  27. (1996) "The 'Berdache'/'Two-Spirit': A Comparison of Anthropological and Native Constructions of Gendered Identities Among the Northern Athapaskans". The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2 (4): 683–701. doi:10.2307/3034303. Retrieved on 2 April 2011.
    *The works cited in this overview are:
    Angelino, H. & C. Shedd, (1955). A note on Berdache. Am. Anthrop. 57, pp. 121–6.
    Blackwood, E. (1984). Sexuality and gender in certain Native American tribes: the case of cross-gender females. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 10, pp. 27–4
    Callender, C. & L.M. Kochems (1983a). The North American berdache. Current Anthropology 24, 443–56.
    —(1983b). Reply. Curr. Anthrop. 24, 464–7.
    Jacobs, S.-E. (1968). Berdache: a brief review of the literature. Colorado Anthrop. 1, pp. 25–40.
    —(1983). Comment. Curr. Anthrop. 24, 462.
    Kessler, S. & W. McKenna (1978). Gender: an ethnomethodological approach. New York: Wiley.
    Roscoe, W. (1987). Bibliography of berdache and alternative gender roles among North American Indians. Journal of Homosexuality. 14, 81–171.
    —(1994). How to become a berdache: toward a unified analysis of gender diversity. In "Third sex, third gender: beyond sexual dimorphism in culture and history" (ed.) G. Herdt. New York: Zone Books.
    Scheffler, H.W. (1991). Sexism and naturalism in the study of kinship. In "Gender at the crossroads of knowledge: feminist anthropology in the postmodern era" (ed.) M. di Leonardo. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
    Whitehead, H. (1981). The bow and the burden strap: a new look at institutionalized homosexuality in Native North America. In "Sexual meanings: the cultural construction of gender and sexuality", (eds) S.B. Ortner & H. Whitehead. New York: Cambridge University
    Williams, W.L. (1986). The spirit and the flesh: sexual diversity in American Indian culture. Boston: Beacon Press.
  28. B.C. on Gender: The Berdache Tradition
  29. Wikan, Unni (1991). The Xanith: a third gender role? in Behind the veil in Arabia: women in Oman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  30. Sua'aIi'i, Tamasailau, "Samoans and Gender: Some Reflections on Male, Female and Fa'afafine Gender Identities", in: Tangata O Te Moana Nui: The Evolving Identities of Pacific Peoples in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Palmerston North (NZ): Dunmore Press, 2001, ISBN 0-86469-369-9
  31. National fono for Pacific “third sex” communities, media release from New Zealand Aids Foundation, August 5, 2005. Article online.
  32. Oostvogels, Robert (1995). The Waria of Indonesia: A Traditional Third Gender Role, in Herdt (ed.), op cit.
  33. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Graham
  34. Nanda, Serena (1999). Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations. Waveland Pr Inc, 7 October 1999. ISBN 1-57766-074-9
  35. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Young
  36. It is believed to be an English adaptation of the German word Urning, which was first published by activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
  37. The Femminiello in Neapolitan Culture
  38. Donham, Donald (1990). History, Power, Ideology. Central Issues in Marxism and Anthropology, Cambridge
  39. Towles, Joseph A. (1993). Nkumbi initiation: Ritual and structure among the Mbo of Zaire, Musée royal de l'Afrique Centrale (Tervuren, Belgique)
  40. Lynn Stephen. Sexualities and Genders in Zapotec Oaxaca. Latin American Perspectives. 29(2)41-59
  41. 41.0 41.1 41.2 41.3 41.4 41.5 41.6 41.7 ibid
  42. Kulick, Don (1998). Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)
  43. (April 1998) "Whatever I feel..". New Internationalist (300). Retrieved on 2 April 2011.
  44. Herdt, Gilbert. (1993). Mistaken Sex: Culture, Biology and the Third Sex in New Guinea, in Herdt, (1999). "Sambia Sexual Culture: Essays from the Field." Chicago. 243–64.