The Imposition of a Gender Binary
A vast majority of the contemporary world employs a two-category classification gender model, where the gender one is assigned at birth is determined by their sex, and expects people to both identify with said gender—either male or female—and behave concurrently with its norms. The widespread acceptance of the concept that people are one of two variants is largely a result of the diffusion of Abrahamic religions. The genesis of this gender binary starts with the tale of creation in these religions: God makes man from dust and woman from the man’s rib. Yet prior to the global proselytization of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the lived experiences of people who considered themselves of other gender identities were numerous.
Before Europeans entered the Western Hemisphere, many Native American tribes had people that identified other than male or female. The name for these communities differed from society to society. For example, the Navajo designated men who are “effeminate males” or “half woman, half men” as nádleehi, which translates to “one who changes”; now, however, the umbrella term “two-spirit” is used to describe modern Native American third gender people. When the Spanish settled in the Americas, they went from tribe to tribe and condemned those wearing clothing that did not match what they deemed to be appropriate for their gender, forcing this community underground and to near extinction. Due to the mass eradication of Native Americans and gender binary imposed on them, two-spirit people are only recently reclaiming their identities—centuries after the persecution they experienced from foreign forces.
Spaces outside of the scope of the the Abrahamic creeds, like India, where most people practice Hinduism, historically have seen people identify as other than the traditional genders. One of the first mentionings of the hijra—transgender people, intersex people, and eunuchs in the Indian subcontinent—dates back to between 400 BCE to 300 CE in the Kama Sutra. In addition to this literary record, religious legitimacy of the hijra derives from the recognition of the half-male-half-female deity Ardhanarishvara, who was created from the combination of Shiva, a principle Hindu deity, and Parvati, the Hindu goddess of fertility and love. Despite the validity in both religious doctrine and classical works, the hijra began to face widespread discrimination around the late 15th century when Europe contacted the subcontinent and later colonized it. Many people of the Indian “third gender,” who only received legal recognition in 2014, have been pushed into undesirable living standards and occupations—specifically, sex work. This is largely because of a circular societal marginalization: they are treated as undesirable, take undesirable social positions, perceived as undesirable, and then continue to be mistreated.
There have been many gender identities throughout time and across the globe, but in recent history, the dominance of the concept that gender is an either-or has caused countries to push people, such as the Native American two-spirits and Indian hijra, into socially inferior positions who are just now reaffirming their identities.