Gender-variance around the world

At every full collective gathering we acknowledge that we live in a society founded on stolen land and stolen lives. Someone researches and presents a relevant topic and then we take a moment of silence to reflect. We share the research here for others as well.

As the transgender community continues to fight for civil rights in the u.s., some critics regard trans people as a symptom of the postmodern condition, of bored, rich, white-people that have been confused sexually by a socially liberal society. Many claim that the struggle for transgender rights is difficult because the concept is still new to many in the states and the world. But the reality is far more complex and diverse. Struggles for LGBTQ rights in the u.s., and the world, has had transgender and queer energy behind it since even before the 1960s when Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman, threw the first brick at the Stonewall Riots. That energy was also there before the white europeans came here to steal the land and the peoples’ his/herstories. Further understanding of the truths of these important members of our community will only help to inform the ongoing struggle for the liberation of gender-variant people everywhere.

Many reports and statistics note, the number of assaults on all LGBTQ, especially trans, femmes, and non-binaries are on the rise; and it is because of this, we must rally around and support trans lives and their plights. Common thought would have people believing that this is a normal xenophobic reaction to the rise of an unfamiliar and ‘degenerative’ identity, but that is not true. In fact, trans peoples and gender-variance has a long and proud history from people of all national origins, theological persuasions, and societal roles. 

Two-Spirit (North America)

For an example of colonially stifled gender variance close to home, one needs look no further than the various gender identities recognized and celebrated in indigenous tribes.

Navajo tribes recognized four genders that roughly correlate with cisgender and transgender men and women, using the terms nadleehi for those who “transform” into femininity and dilbaa for those “transform” into masculinity. The Mohave people used the terms alyha and hwame to describe similar identities. And the Lakota tribe believed the wintke people among them had supernatural powers like India’s hijras.

The two-spirit community is experiencing a renaissance of activism lately, but this isn’t a recent phenomenon, strictly speaking. We’wha was a famous lhamana (i.e., two-spirit) member of the Zuni tribe. She may have been the first out-of-the-closet gender-variant person to meet a u.s. president when she was introduced to Grover Cleveland in 1886. Two-spirit people in north america have benefited from acceptance within their communities. Already they have reclaimed a piece of their identities by popularizing the term “two-spirit” in place of the french colonial term berdache.


In traditional Hawaiian culture, creative expression of gender and sexuality was celebrated as an authentic part of the human experience. Throughout Hawaiian history, “mahu” appear as individuals who identify their gender between male and female. A mahu is an individual that straddles somewhere in the middle of the male and female binary. It does not define their sexual preference or gender expression because gender roles, gender expressions, and sexual relationships have all been severely influenced by the colonization. The change in understanding of Hina began with the arrival of christian missionaries in the 1800s and the imposition of western values on the Hawaiian community. They banned cultural expressions that celebrated diverse sexual views and traditions they believed to be profane, such as hula, and drove them underground. The suppression of traditional Hawaiian values and practices marked a turning point in Hawai‘i’s history, one in which mahu began a struggle to find acceptance. Similar struggles can also be found in other countries as well.


With thousands of years of documented historyhijras are one of the oldest and best-known examples of gender variance. The word is a blanket term applied to people westerners might define as transgender, intersex, or eunuchs. Throughout history, hijras in southern asia have been associated with sacred powers. They deliver blessings at weddings and births and are feared for their powerful curses. The focus on their efforts for recognition and rights typically centers on india. That’s in part because british rule dramatically changed the lives of hijras there. The colonial government made the simple act of being a hijra a criminal offenseHijras responded by forming their own tight-knit communities, and developing their own language.

In 2014, the supreme court of india followed precedents in nepal, pakistan, and bangladesh in recognizing hijras as a legally designated third gender. That decision helped people in india seeking legal recognition for their identities. Activists claim it doesn’t go far enough, though. Many hijras still find themselves resorting to begging or survival sex work to get by. In Indian politics, “hijra” is still used as a public insult.

Ancient History & Modern Struggles

These stories, while being a small fraction of non-binary representations in the world, offer up a simple lesson that is predominate in much of the precolonial peoples: There have been people from all over the world for thousands of years who find themselves on the outside of simple binaries. While it might be tempting to apply a label like “transgender” to all of these people, it’s important to respect their sovereignty in defining their own identities, and remember that European colonialism was a major force in hurting and erasing gender-variant people throughout his/herstory, and our current understanding is a representation of that. The variety of gender expressions and identities that have outlived the attacks of colonialists is a testament to the strength of resistance present in the oppressed. They prove that people have rejected the restrictive gender systems throughout history and in our modern age, as many of the examples demonstrate, these experiences have and do often exist outside of the binaries that social norms place on existence.


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