The terms third gender and third sex describe individuals who are considered to be neither women nor men, as well as the social category present in those societies who recognize three or more genders.
The state of being neither male nor female may be understood in relation to the individual's biological sex, gender role, gender identity, or sexual orientation. To different cultures or individuals, a third sex or gender 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, or another category altogether independent of male and female. This last definition is favored by those who argue for a strict interpretation of the "third gender" concept.
The term has been used to describe Hijras of India and Pakistan, Fa'afafine of Polynesia, and Sworn virgins of the Balkans, among others, and is also used by many of such groups and individuals to describe themselves. In the Western world, lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex people have been described as belonging to a third sex or gender, although some object to this characterization.
In addition to male and female sexes (defined as the production of small or large gametes), evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden argues that more than two genders exist in hundreds of animal species. 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. 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. 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. 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 don't 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.
The Hijra of India and Bangladesh 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). British 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.' Hijra social movements have campaigned for recognition as a third sex, and in 2005, Indian passport application forms were updated with three gender options: M, F, and E (for male, female, and eunuch, respectively).
In addition to the feminine role of hijras, 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. A late-nineteenth century anthropologist noted the existence of a similar role in Madras, that of the basivi. However, historian Walter Penrose concludes that in both cases "their status is perhaps more 'transgendered' than 'third-gendered.'
"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)."
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.
In Wilhelmine Germany, the terms drittes Geschlecht ("third sex") and Mannweib ("man-woman") were also used to describe feminists — both by their opponents 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. One well known social movement of 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.
Also very much associated with multiple genders are the indigenous cultures of North America, 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. 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.
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 derogative term, meaning a submissive, effeminate man. 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.
In Mesopotamian mythology, among the earliest written records of humanity, there are references to types of people who are not men and not women. In a Sumerian creation myth found on a stone tablet from the second millennium BC, the goddess Ninmah fashions a being "with no male organ and no female organ", for whom Enki finds a position in society: "to stand before the king". In the Akkadian myth of Atra-Hasis (ca. 1700 BC), Enki instructs Nintu, the goddess of birth, to establish a “third category among the people” in addition to men and women, that includes demons who steal infants, women who are unable to give birth, and priestesses who are prohibited from bearing children. In Babylonia, Sumer and Assyria, certain types of individuals who performed religious duties in the service of Inanna/Ishtar have been described as a third gender. They worked as sacred prostitutes or Hierodules, performed ecstatic dance, music and plays, wore masks and had gender characteristics of both women and men. In Sumer, they were given the cuneiform names of ur.sal ("dog/man-woman") and kur.gar.ra (also described as a man-woman). Modern scholars, struggling to describe them using contemporary sex/gender categories, have variously described them as "living as women", or used descriptors such as hermaphrodites, eunuchs, homosexuals, transvestites, effeminate males and a range of other terms and phrases.
References to a third sex can be found throughout the various texts of India's three ancient spiritual traditions — Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism — and it can be inferred that Vedic culture recognised three genders. The Vedas (c. 1500 BC - 500 BC) describe individuals as belonging to one of three separate categories, according to one's nature or prakrti. These are also spelled out in the Kama Sutra (c. 4th century AD) and elsewhere as pums-prakrti (male-nature), stri-prakrti (female-nature), and tritiya-prakrti (third-nature). Various texts suggest that third sex individuals were well known in premodern India, and included male-bodied or female-bodied people as well as intersexuals, and that they can often be recognised from childhood.
A third sex is also discussed in ancient Hindu law, medicine, linguistics and astrology. The foundational work of Hindu law, the Manu Smriti (c. 200 BC - 200 AD) explains the biological origins of the three sexes: "A male child is produced by a greater quantity of male seed, a female child by the prevalence of the female; if both are equal, a third-sex child or boy and girl twins are produced; if either are weak or deficient in quantity, a failure of conception results. Indian linguist Patañjali's work on Sanskrit grammar, the Mahābhāṣya (c. 200 BC), states that Sanskrit's three grammatical genders are derived from three natural genders. The earliest Tamil grammar, the Tolkappiyam (3rd century BC) also refers to hermaphrodites as a third "neuter" gender (in addition to a feminine category of unmasculine males). In Vedic astrology, the nine planets are each assigned to one of the three genders; the third gender, tritiya-prakrti, is associated with Mercury, Saturn and (in particular) Ketu. In the Puranas, there are also references to three kinds of devas of music and dance: apsaras (female), gandharvas (male) and kinnars (neuter).
The two great Sanskrit epic poems, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, also indicate the existence of a third gender in ancient Indic society. Some versions of Ramayana tell that in one part of the story, the hero Rama heads into exile in the forest. Halfway there, he discovers that most of the people of his home town Ayodhya were following him. He told them, "Men and women, turn back," and with that, those who were "neither men nor women" did not know what to do, so they stayed there. When Rama returned to from exile years later, he discovered them still there and blessed them, saying that there will be a day when they will rule the world.
In the Buddhist Vinaya, codified in its present form around the 2nd century BC and said to be handed down by oral tradition from Buddha himself, there are four main sex/gender categories: males, females, ubhatobyanjanaka (people of a dual sexual nature) and pandaka (people of various non-normative sexual natures, perhaps originally denoting a deficiency in male sexual capacity). As the Vinaya tradition developed, the term pandaka came to refer to a broad third sex category which encompassed intersex, male and female bodied people with physical and/or behavioural attributes that were considered inconsistent with the sexual ideal of man and woman.
In Plato's Symposium, written around the 4th century BC, Aristophanes relates a creation myth involving three original sexes: female, male and androgynous. They are split in half by Zeus, producing four different contemporary sex/gender types which seek to be reunited with their lost other half; in this account, the modern heterosexual man and woman descend from the original androgynous sex. Other creation myths around the world share a belief in three original sexes, such as those from northern Thailand.
Many have interpreted the "eunuchs" of the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean world as a third gender that inhabited a liminal space between women and men, understood in their societies as somehow neither or both. In the Historia Augusta, the eunuch body is described as a tertium genus hominum (a third human gender), and in 77 BC, a eunuch named Genucius was prevented from claiming goods left to him in a will, on the grounds that he had voluntarily mutilated himself (amputatis sui ipsius) and was neither a woman or a man (neque virorum neque mulierum numero). Several scholars have argued that the eunuchs in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were understood in their time to belong to a third gender, rather than the more recent interpretations of a kind of emasculated man, or a metaphor for chastity. The first Christian theologian, Tertullian, wrote that Jesus himself was a eunuch (c. 200 AD). Tertullian also noted the existence of a third sex (tertium sexus) among heathens: "a third race in sex... made of male and female in one. He may have been referring to the Galli, "eunuch" devotees of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who were described as belonging to a third sex by several Roman writers.
Anthropologist and archaeologist Miranda Stockett notes that several writers have felt the need to move beyond a two-gender framework when discussing prehispanic cultures across mesoamerica, and concludes that the Olmec, Aztec and Maya peoples understood "more than two kinds of bodies and more than two kinds of gender." Anthropologist Rosemary Joyce agrees, writing that "gender was a fluid potential, not a fixed category, before the Spaniards came to Mesoamerica. Childhood training and ritual shaped, but did not set, adult gender, which could encompass third genders and alternative sexualities as well as "male" and "female." At the height of the Classic period, Maya rulers presented themselves as embodying the entire range of gender possibilities, from male through female, by wearing blended costumes and playing male and female roles in state ceremonies." Joyce notes that many figures of mesoamerican art are depicted with male genitalia and female breasts, while she suggests that other figures in which chests and waists are exposed but no sexual characteristics (primary or secondary) are marked may represent a third sex, ambiguous gender or androgyny.chuqui chinchay, a jaguar deity in Incan mythology, were "vital actors in Andean ceremonies" prior to Spanish colonisation. Horswell elaborates: "These quariwarmi (men-women) shamans mediated between the symmetrically dualistic spheres of Andean cosmology and daily life by performing rituals that at times required same-sex erotic practices. Their transvested attire served as a visible sign of a third space that negotiated between the masculine and the feminine, the present and the past, the living and the dead. Their shamanic presence invoked the androgynous creative force often represented in Andean mythology. Richard Trexler gives an early Spanish account of religious 'third gender' figures from the Inca empire in his 1995 book "Sex and Conquest":
It is true that, as a general thing among the mountaineers and the coastal dwellers [Yungas], the devil has introduced his vice under the pretense of sanctity. And in each important temple or house of worship, they have a man or two, or more, depending on the idol, who go dressed in women's attire from the time they are children, and speak like them, and in manner, dress, and everything else they imitate women. With them especially the chiefs and headmen have carnal, foul intercourse on feast days and holidays, almost like a religious rite and ceremony.Illinois decided the gender of their members based on their childhood behavior. If a genetic male child used female tools like a spade or ax instead of a bow, they considered them berdaches.