Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, edited by Gilbert Herdt. Zone Books, ISBN 0942299-82-5.

First published in Triple Echo v. 2 no. 4, 2000

Although most3gender3sex1 human societies assume the dimorphic, male-female model, there is within those same societies a “hermaphroditic identity” that is masked or driven underground by prevailing social attitudes and taboos. It would, perhaps, be more accurate to speak of “hermaphroditic identities” since if this book makes anything clear, it is that between the polarities of male and female there are a large number of variations. There are clearly many more sexes and genders than three. The essays in this volume, for example, cover eunuchs, hermaphrodites, sodomites, sapphists, berdaches, Western trans persons, and third gender people from Albania, Polynesia, India and New Guinea.

Third Sex, Third Gender examines the ways in which various societies incorporate (or refuse to incorporate) these alternate identities into a third gender status. In his introduction, Herdt observes that third gender people “acquire greater force the longer they exist historically and are eventually transformed into social roles and practices”. Unlike the hijras of India or the Native American berdaches, Western trans people have had a relatively short period of visibility and have “no matching social and historical category and role” to which to anchor themselves.

It is difficult to speculate on what cultural role we could possibly adopt. Historically, gender has been about reproduction and gender role. The diverse selection of third sex, third gender people examined in this volume, whether eunuchs, hijras, sodomites or the Albanian transmen known as “sworn virgins”, are united by their inability (sometimes socially enforced) to have heirs. For example, eunuchs could still have sex with men or women, but because they could not reproduce they were relegated to third gender status.

Modern trans people have long since subverted this definition of male and female. Male-born transgendered people father children, but live as women. Female born trans people give birth to children and live as men. The reproductive role may not fit the body, but it certainly subverts the notion.

Similarly, in a world which has been steadily breaking down gender roles, particularly since the feminist movement of the late 1960s, it is difficult to identify a role that is exclusive to one gender. The concluding essay in the book, on present day trans people, echoes this idea that the historical social models for third gender people are no longer viable. Anne Bolin suggests that the trans community is “in the process of creating not just a third gender but the possibility of numerous genders and multiple social identities”. Logic suggests that the role we will carve out for ourselves will largely be determined by the court cases we fight in our future.

The essays in this volume are all interesting and serve to illuminate society’s collective anxiety over those of us who transgress the conventional male-female model. As a historical and anthropological tour of sex and gender, it demonstrates that Western society’s notion of “normalcy” has changed vastly over the last few centuries and that its current notion is hardly universal.

Randolph Trumbach, in his essay on sapphists, the name given to masculine women, in the 18th century, points out that in the 17th century there was a vastly different conception of sex and gender.

In this paradigm there were two genders – male and female – but three biological sexes – man, woman and hermaphrodite. All three biological sexes were supposed to be capable of having sexual relations with both males and females. But they were presumed, of course, to have sex ordinarily with the opposite gender only, and then only in marriage, so as to uphold the Christian teaching that sexual relations were supposed to be primarily procreative..

Intersexuals, therefore, were not considered aberrations. They were, however, obliged to choose one gender or the other. Society’s disgust was reserved only for those intransigent individuals who kept changing genders. In European law of the time such individuals were guilty of sodomy.

The current notion of intersexual people as defective males and females gradually took hold in the 18th century, although they were more likely to be regarded as female since women were generally considered to have defective male bodies.

Third Sex, Third Gender is full of such historical facts that provide the reader with a good idea of how society arrived at its current interpretations of sex and gender. The effeminate male, for example, was once considered a womanizer rather than the swishy homosexual stereotype that exists today. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, effeminate men socialized with women and were not interested in anything masculine. From the mid-eighteenth. century on, when the persecution of sodomites (that is, those men who during the sexual act were penetrated) reached a fever pitch, effeminacy became the hallmark of the sodomite. Since the sodomite became like a woman, it was commonly assumed he behaved and looked like a woman. And not just like any woman, but like a whore. For this reason, men in general became very anxious to avoid any suggestion of femininity in their appearance or behaviour, a situation that remains unchanged today.

Same sex desire was thus interpreted as a psychological hermaphrodisy and homosexuals were conceptualized as a third gender. This concept was furthered in the late 19th century when homosexuality shifted from being a behaviour to a sexual identity. Western ideas of third gender have been framed mostly by sexual partner.

Ancient cultures, meanwhile, defined third genders primarily by occupation and social role. In Polynesia, where gender liminality (borrowing the term used by the author Niko Besnier) has resisted the colonization of the West, male to female people are generally considered to excel at women’s work. “In urban settings, liminal men are superb secretaries and coveted domestic help. In this sense, liminal persons are more womanly than women, a theme that recurs elsewhere.” Unfortunately, it is little comfort knowing that gender liminal people are more accepted in other parts of the world since where third gender status is institutionalized, it is invariably institutionalized beneath the existing male/female binary. Trans people have a tendency to romanticize our supposed acceptance in other cultures, but the reality is we are still frequently harassed and marginalized. You can be trans in Polynesia, but to be taken seriously you have to downplay that aspect of your personality. Although we in the west do not enjoy that level of acceptance, I’m not so sure that ultimately our position is not the better one, since it seems to me that we have more tools at our disposal to change society.

The essays on berdaches and hijras also bring new insights to third gender people in North America and India.

The colonization of Native American berdaches was especially vicious, but male born berdaches have been documented in nearly 150 North American societies. (Female bodied berdaches have not been studied nearly so thoroughly, a situation that again reflects the low level of awareness of female to male lives throughout history.) Early analysis of the berdache tradition was lacking in subtlety and less than sympathetic. The emergence of feminist theory, with its critique of biological determinism, made a reevaluation of the berdache role possible.

Unfortunately, it seems we all use people to advance our own political agendas and feminist scholars were no less guilty than others. It made me uneasy to think how we trans people have also co-opted the berdache tradition as one of our own. It is easy for us to be sympathetic with the berdache, and even easier to be angry at their brutal repression, but in reading Will Roscoe’s essay, I couldn’t help thinking that as trans people we should be very careful. The restoration of the berdache to their place of honour must begin with the Native American societies of which the berdache tradition was such a proud component.

The hijras of India had more luck in resisting Western colonization, although their social standing tumbled under British rule. They benefited both by ancient Hindu depictions of alternative genders among humans and deities and the historical role of the eunuch in Hindu and Muslim court culture. These spiritual and cultural traditions still form the foundation of the hijra community. Serena Nanda, the author of the hijra essay, does an excellent job of analyzing the hijra’s role within the context of Indian culture. The importance of emasculation becomes more comprehensible when one understands the spiritual significance behind it:

Emasculation links the hijras to two powerful procreative figures in Hinduism, Siva and the Mother Goddess, and it sanctions the hijras’ ritual roles as performers at births and marriages. Emasculation is explicitly identified with the worship of Bahuchara Mata… Bahuchara is widely worshiped in Gujarat, particularly by women who wish to conceive a son. She is particularly associated with male transvestism and transgenderism and thus has a special relationship to the hijras, several of whom are always present at her temple to bless devotees and tell them of the power of the goddess.

The peculiarities of the hijra role may not be to all trans people’s liking, but you have to admire the stability of their traditions and their successful and disciplined social organization. There is very much we could learn from them: “It is the ability of the hijra community to tolerate a wide range of gender-role behavior and gender identities, without losing its cultural meaning, that is one of its great strengths, accounting for its persistence over time.”

It is difficult to summarize all the essays in a short review, but one of the most fascinating is undoubtedly René Grémaux’ paper “Woman Becomes Man in the Balkans”. It concerns the cultural tradition, found mostly in the mountainous regions stretching from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Albania, of the “sworn virgin”, a woman who assumes a male social identity with the approval of her family and the larger community. This practice, which flourished primarily in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, took place in a deeply masculine, warrior culture in which women remained social outsiders throughout their lives.

Gender segregation ruled throughout the public domain. Household chores and tasks in the peasant and pastoral economy were usually strictly gendered. As a rule, females were unarmed and hence considered inviolable. According to indigenous common laws, they enjoyed immunity and remained under men’s tutelage throughout their lives. This male-female dichotomy of rights and duties left little room to manoeuver freely, and, as one might expect, the conditions for a distinctive “third gender” came about.

Central to the transformation from woman to man was the high appreciation for males and masculinity in the culture. The house, that is, the whole social, economic, and moral unit of the society, could not function without a male head of the household. Marriageable women, unlike the female brought up as a son, could not inherit property. Once having been declared male and having taken the oath of celibacy, he was accorded all the privileges of men, although, of course, being celibate. he could not pass his property on to heirs.

What is interesting about several of the case histories cited is the ease with which these new men entered into the role. They became fiercely masculine, and any suggestion that they were not genuine men was often a killing offence. Undoubtedly, the oppressed role the women had to endure was a great incentive to change gender, but the vehemence of some of the “sworn virgins” also suggests that there were other factors involved.

Despite being an informative book, Third Sex, Third Gender ultimately raises more questions about gender than it answers. This is the way it should be, after all. Once you’ve dismissed the notion that there is one simple, universal and fixed definition of man and woman, which this book does very thoroughly, you become aware of the astonishing variety of ways in which gender diversity is expressed, tolerated and institutionalized in various cultures.