It is a common assumption in Western culture that there are two genders, male and female, and that one’s gender is defined by their biological sex. However, not every culture views gender this way: many pre-colonial tribes respected and honored people who identified as a third gender, neither male nor female (Walker and Pullin), and some cultures even recognize as many as five genders. It’s important to keep in mind that a person’s gender identity does not always correspond to their biological sex (Graham). Although gender and biological sex are related concepts, they are not synonymous. Furthermore, biological sex itself is a continuum, far from being as straightforward as male versus. female, and for this reason, it does not make sense to view gender as strictly a dichotomy. Gender should be thought of as a spectrum, and gender identity as something that is chosen by the individual. Regardless of biological sex, individuals have a right to define and be respected for their own gender identity.
The assumption that one’s gender must be either male or female and a reflection of one’s biological sex may be common in Western culture, but not every culture views gender this way. Before colonialism, many indigenous tribes in North America and around the world had different and much more open-ended views of gender. In an article in Native People’s Magazine entitled "Indigenous Queen STEPS into the LIGHT," Taté Walker states that “Pre-colonialism, many tribes recognized, accepted and even honored a wide range of gender identities.” The “two-spirit” identity describes a Native American person who identifies as a third gender, neither male nor female (Walker). According to Zachary Pullin’s article in Native People’s Magazine “Two Spirit,” at least 165 Native American tribes traditionally accepted and respected two-spirited people, and sometimes gave them positions of honor within the tribe. Many tribes lost their traditional two-spirit values with the spread of westernization (Walker). However, a modern two-spirit movement is growing and making an effort to bring these values back (Pullin).
The Bugis society of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, recognizes five genders: man, woman, calabai, calalai, and bissu. In her paper It's Like One of Those Puzzles: Conceptualizing Gender among Bugis, Sharyn Graham outlines the definition of these five genders. To put it simply, a Bugis man or woman is what we would think of as cisgender: their biological sex and gender identity match up, and they participate in traditionally “male” or “female” activities in society. A calabai is biologically male but dresses and acts female, while a calalai is biologically female but fits into male gender roles. Calabai and calalai may express themselves as men or women, but aren’t thought of as either. The term bissu describes someone who is neither a man nor a woman, but a “powerful combination of both” (Graham 108). A bissu embodies both male and female qualities and holds a position of honor within society. In Bugis origin narratives, bissu people brought life to earth along with the deities (Graham 108).
In Bugis society, gender is determined by more than just a person’s body. Graham describes the way Bugis notions of gender involve a complex intersection of factors. These factors include, among many others, both biological sex and sense of self (Graham 107). Although biological sex is an important factor, it alone does not determine gender. In Graham’s words:
“While the body remains a fundamental consideration in gender identity, because
the body is understood to be constituted by various combinations of male and female,
multiple identities are possible. As a result, being male does not mean that one
necessarily becomes a man, or that being female one necessarily becomes a woman.
Gender is about more than just the body. Such understandings of human nature foster
wider recognition of gender diversity.” (110-111)
Because they recognize and accept the complex reality of gender, Bugis are not constrained to the same limiting definition of gender as Western culture is.
Despite the fact that we think of gender as being strictly male versus female, even biological sex is not so straightforward. According to Helen Phillips, author of The Gender Police, there are a multitude of expressions of biological sex. More than one in every 2,000 people in the Western world are born intersex, meaning one of three things: either their sex organs, their chromosomes, or their hormone levels are not wholly ‘male’ nor ‘female’ in the traditional sense (Phillips). Much of our society is not aware of intersex people at all, let alone the surprisingly high percent of our population they occupy. The fact that so many people don’t fit neatly into our cultural notions of male and female is often swept under the rug in conversations about gender.
From a scientific standpoint, biological sex is much more complex than our culture assumes it to be. Ruth Padawer discusses issues of gender discrimination in sports in her New York Times article “The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes.” Padawer states that “Relying on science to arbitrate the male-female divide in sports is fruitless... because science could not draw a line that nature itself refused to draw.” In other words, the more effort scientists put into drawing a line that firmly enforces a divide between male and female, the more they come to realize that this is an impossible line to draw. When the meaning of gender is examined from a scientific standpoint, it becomes clear that the stark boundary between male and female is nothing more than a social construct.
These examples shed light on the reality that gender doesn’t always neatly correlate with biological sex. Gender is much more complex and is a question of identity rather than something that can be assumed based on a person’s body. Seen in this light, it makes sense to view gender as a spectrum and something that can only be defined by the individual.
It is interesting to consider what would happen if our society did away with gender labels altogether and viewed all human beings as equals. However, considering that the concept of gender is such a core part of our culture, it is more realistic to consider a shift in the way we view gender. As a society, we are beginning to shift away from age-old concepts of gender as being synonymous with an arbitrary concept of anatomical sex. These views are being replaced with the notion that sex and gender are two separate concepts, and that gender is nothing more than a label to be chosen by the individual from a wide array of options. These views used to be commonplace among indigenous people in North America and around the world, and today they are slowly coming to be accepted in Western culture. To make the shift toward this mindset is to come to accept the complexity of gender and of human nature itself.
Graham, Sharyn. "It's Like One of Those Puzzles: Conceptualising Gender among Bugis." Journal of Gender Studies. 13.2 (2004): 107-116. EBSCOhost. Web. 14 Mar. 2017. lanecc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=13587082&site=ehost-live.
Padawer, Ruth. “The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes.” www.nytimes.com. The New York Times, 28 June 2016. Web. 4 Mar. 2017. www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/magazine/the-humiliating-practice-of-sex-testing-female-athletes.html?_r=1.
Phillips, Helen. "THE GENDER POLICE." New Scientist. 170.2290(2001): 38. GALE PowerSearch. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.