“Third Sex, Third Gender:
Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History”
Edited by Gilbert Herdt

This highly informative book reveals a wide variety of third-gender manifestations throughout various world cultures and times. A few highlights in reading are given below:

The Eunuchs of Medieval Europe and Asia

“The term ‘eunuch’ as used in Late Antique and Byzantine sources was broader and more nuanced than the simple phrase ‘castrated male’ seems to imply. Moreover, its definition changed within Byzantine society between the third and twelfth century. In its broadest sense the word ‘eunuch’ refers not only to an individual who is physiologically incapable of rendering offspring but also to one who has chosen to withdraw from worldly activities and thus refuses to procreate.”

“The acculturation of eunuchs prepared them for the tasks that Byzantine culture assigned to them. Many of these roles were considered to be unmasculine or else involved tasks that were performed by women outside an aristocratic society. At court eunuchs acted as ‘masters of ceremonies,’ controlling access to the emperor; as doorkeepers; as servants in charge of traditionally female activities like cooking, serving and care of the wardrobe. Court eunuchs were also trained for tasks that aristocratic males traditionally avoided, such as bookkeeping, managing money and speculating in real estate. Certain positions in court were reserved specifically for eunuchs. They served as go-betweens in transactions between men and women of the court and between the court and the outside world. They acted as trusted secretaries. They served as singers in the court. They were very much involved in marital transactions and prepared the dead for burial. They regularly appear in our sources as barbers, bloodletters and doctors.”

“Clement of Alexandria offers an elaborate classification system for eunuchs. Using the term ‘eunuchs’ in its broad definition, he distinguishes between those men born without desire for women, those born without fully functioning sexual organs, those who are made eunuchs ‘of necessity’ by others and those who conquer their own bodies through the practice of celibacy.”

(From the chapter, Living in the Shadows: Eunuchs and Gender in Byzantium, by Kathryn M. Ringrose)

The “Hermaphrodites” of Early Modern Europe

“Men who had sexual relations with other men were sometimes still classified as hermaphrodites in the early eighteenth century even after the new role of the ‘molly’ had appeared. In the late seventeenth century ‘hermaphrodite’ seems to have been used as a term for men who were both active and passive in the sexual act. ‘There are likewise hermaphrodites,’ the Wandering Whore (1660) had said, ‘effeminate men, men given to much luxury, idleness, and wanton pleasures, and to that abominable sin of sodomy, wherein they are both active and passive in it, whose vicious actions are only to be whispered among us.’”

“Thomasine Hall was christened as a girl. At twenty-two, however, she dressed as a man and joined the army. Hall went to America, where once again she became a woman. But when searched, he proved to have fully developed male genitalia. Hall was probably a male pseudo-hermaphrodite whose male genitalia had descended in late adolescence but who had been assigned to the female gender at birth. The American court in 1629 could not encompass such complications and sentenced Hall to dress partly as a man and partly as a woman.”

“By the end of the eighteenth century there is some evidence that there was beginning to appear a role for women which was parallel to that of the molly for men. Such women were sometimes called ‘tommies,’ but the more usual term was ‘sapphist’—with sapphist and tommy being the high and low terms for women, as ‘sodomite’ and ‘molly’ were for men. But it is likely that, in the public mind, women were not fully incorporated into the new gender paradigm until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries…”

(From the chapter, London’s Sapphists: From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture, by Randolph Trumbach)

Attempts (in Holland) To Eliminate the Third Sex

“More so than in France or England, ‘sodomites,’ men who engaged in same-sex behavior, in the Netherlands, were prone to persecution, at least in the eighteenth century. In 1730 the first major wave of sodomy trials hit the country, and such waves recurred well into the nineteenth century. From 1730 to 1811 between eight hundred and one thousand sodomy trials were held in the Republic of the United Provinces and its successors, the Batavian Republic (1795-1804) and the Kingdom of Holland (1804-10).”

“One man was convicted by the Court of Holland to be burned at the stake in 1463. A year later, an accomplice had his hair burned off his head and was whipped along the streets of The Hague. …Sodomites were generally garroted [strangled with a cord], and whereas burning [at the stake] occurred almost by definition in public, garroting was usually carried out in secret in the cellars of city halls, ‘so that it might not be known that sodomy was perpetrated in this country.’ The year 1730 not only was a watershed in terms of the sheer number of people prosecuted but also was marked because executions—again usually by garroting—were carried out (at least in the province of Holland) at the scaffold in front of large audiences.”

“Only one obvious source existed for an explanation of what sodomy was all about and for an answer to the acute question of why it had suddenly—as many felt—affected the country: the Bible, and more particularly its chapter on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. …Despite the continuous warning of its shepherds, so it was explained in 1730, the Dutch people had given in to hedonism. The trend had started with lesser sins, such as card playing and gambling, indulgence in food and drink and excessive dressing, and ended up with debauchery and finally sodomy. Sodomy was the result of the ‘surpassing steps of sinfulness,’ most authors agreed in 1730, which has affected the country’s inhabitants. This explained the ‘sudden’ emergence of same-sex practices in the Republic.”

(From the chapter, Sodomy and the Pursuit of a Third Sex in the Early Modern Period, by Theo van der Meer)

The Third Sex of Early Modern Psychology

“Theories of homosexuality as a third sex gained ground in the second half of the nineteenth century, culminating with the ‘Sexuelle Zwischenstufen’ (‘intermediate sexual types’) of Magnus Hirschfeld around 1900. Hirschfeld, who was central in the debate over the nature of homosexuality, also coined the term ‘Transvestiten.’ Since the turn of the century, the emerging received opinion had come to hold that ‘homosexuals’ indeed belonged to a third sex of feminine men and masculine women. Representatives of ‘Uranians’ or ‘homosexuals,’ such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, began to speak of themselves as feminine and belonging to a third sex and to transform this idea into a biological theory—which built on certain modes of behavior developed in cultures of the ‘sodomites’ and ‘mollies’ of those and earlier days—on the origins of homosexuality. In the wake of Ulrichs, physicians followed suit and reframed his theory for medical use.”

“The very first homosexual movement started in 1897 [in Germany] under the aegis of Magnus Hirschfeld with the Wissenschaftlich-Humanitare Komitee (WHK). In 1899 Hirschfeld began publishing his famous ‘Jahrbuch fur Sexuelle Zwischenstufen’ (Annual for Sexual Intermediaries), which ran until 1923. Hirschfeld was the main defender of homosexuality as a third sex, claiming that it was a natural and normal variation of sexuality. He argued, from the time of his first leaflet, published pseudonymously, that is should not be pathologized or criminalized. Three years later he began his life-long struggle for homosexual emancipation under his own name, although he never ‘came out,’ or admitted that he himself was homosexual. In 1899, he sent a petition to the German Reichstag requesting the withdrawal of paragraph 175 from the criminal law. In 1901, his Jahrbuch published an article by Krafft-Ebing in which the leading scholar of sexology—who died the next year—admitted homosexuality was always inborn and not pathological per se, as he had earlier claimed.”

(From the chapter, ‘A Female Soul in a Male Body’: Sexual Inversion as Gender Inversion in Nineteenth-Century Sexology, by Gert Hekma)

Third-Gender Women in the Balkans

“Biological females wearing men’s garb and often men’s weaponry, performing men’s jobs and enjoying, at least to some extent, public recognition as men have been reported from time to time in the western Balkans since the first half of the 1800’s. The custom was until quite recently found in the Dinaric range of mountains stretching from Bosnia-Herzegovina to central Albania.”

“In both the domestic circle and the village I found no trace of skepticism regarding this person’s male sex, but older men from surrounding villages told me they had once heard the person referred to as hadum (‘eunuch’) and as ni zensko ni musko (‘neither female nor male’). …Sometimes we also hear a ‘social man’ declare self-assuredly, ‘I am a maiden with a man’s heart in my chest.’ The combination of both genders is also apparent in a term of reference such as momak djevojka (‘boy-girl’) and in nicknames like ‘muska Nevena’ (‘male Nevena,’ Nevena being a female name).”

“Unlike ordinary females, who were unarmed, the female who became a social male could be completely armed and actively take part in feuds, raids and the like. Yet intentionally killing or wounding such a person while in full awareness of the fact that he was a female by nature was considered shameful and unworthy for a genuine hero. …This allowed them [the third-gender women] to kill males without having to fear being killed in retaliation. This gives some social advantage to the idea of a third-gender role.”

“Sexual tendencies toward females seem to be present in [some cases], albeit in a rather limited and repressed way. Although I found no trace of liaisons with women, cohabitation of masculine ‘sworn virgins’ with female partners is not completely unknown. I know of three such couples, in two of which a sexual relationship is actually indicated. At least two of these three couples were bound by ‘blood-sisterhood,’ a kind of ritual or spiritual kinship that, however, does not usually include living together. According to Tatomir Vukanovic, sworn virgins were in some places ill reputed for ‘certain abnormal sexual relations’ with their blood-sisters.”

(From the chapter, Woman Becomes Man in the Balkans, by Rene Gremaux)

A Third Sex in Polynesia

“Early contacts between Western explorers and Tahitians or Hawaiians were perfectly timed with the rise of post-Enlightenment Romanticism in Europe. On the other side of the world, explorers found what they thought was humankind in its primeval state, unencumbered by the proscriptions of civilized mores. And, of course, one of the most prominent features of the harmonious marriage of humankind and nature was the apparent straightforwardness with which islanders approached sexual matters, particularly in Hawaii and Tahiti.”

“But soon enough, European perceptions of Polynesia changed course. Particularly as the London Missionary Society was being established in Tahiti, vanguarding massive missionary endeavors throughout Polynesia for years to come, the island turned, in the eyes of foreigners, from the New Cythera (the name that Bougainville bestowed upon it) to ‘the filthy Sodom of the South Seas:’ ‘In these Islands all persons seem to think of scarcely anything but adultery and fornication. Little children hardly ever live to the age of seven ere they are deflowered. Children with children, boys with boys. They are often on the mountains playing in wickedness together all the day long.’ [London Missionary Society, 1827] As Neil Gunson aptly summarizes, ‘the Evangelical missionaries had little doubt that Satan, adversary of God and man, reigned as absolute sovereign over the South Seas islanders.”

“The best-known terms [for the Polynesian third sex] are the Tahitian and contemporary Hawaiian terms mahu, which have no known etymology, and the Samoan term fa’afafine (pl. fa’afaafine), literally, ‘in the fashion of a woman,’ cognates of which are found in several other Polynesian languages. In contemporary Tonga, the category is called fakaleiti—the root leiti is borrowed from the English ‘lady’—or fakafefine (it is unclear whether there is a difference between the two terms), while Tuvaluans normally use the Gilbertese borrowing pinapinaaine.”

“Today, ‘gender liminality’ [homosexual and transgender behavior] is very much alive, at least in regions of Polynesia that have not been subjected to intensive colonization (as Hawaii and New Zealand have) and, if anything, has become increasingly salient. This state of affairs is remarkable when compared to the fate of other forms of liminal gendering or sexuality in the face of colonialism and social change. For example, neither ‘ritualized’ homosexuality in Melanesia nor the Native North American berdache has survived the moral onslaught of colonial authorities and missionaries.”

“Like the berdache in Native North American societies, the gender-liminal person in Polynesia is commonly thought to excel in women’s tasks: his mats are said to be particularly symmetrical and regular in shape, his domestic chores singularly thorough, and he is more resilient to tedium than the average woman. 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.”

“In Tonga, the typical fakaleiti’s demeanor includes a swishy gait and speech patterns and nonverbal communicative behavior normally associated with women, such as fast tempo, verbosity and an animated face, which contrasts with men’s generally laconic and impassive demeanor. Throughout Polynesia, liminal persons are coquettishly concerned with their physical appearance, as evidenced by a propensity to wear flowers, garlands and perfume and, in urban contexts, heavy make-up. Everywhere in the region, the gender-liminal person is principally associated with domestic social spheres, as are women.”

(From the chapter, Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space, by Niko Besnier)

Native American Berdaches

“ ‘The men are strongly inclined to sodomy; but the boys that abandon themselves thus are excluded from the society of men and sent out to that of women as being effeminates. They are confused with the ‘Hermaphrodites’ which they say are found in the country of the ‘Floridians.’ I believe that these Hermaphrodites are none other than the effeminate boys, that in a sense truly are Hermaphrodites. Be that as it may, they employ them in all the diverse handiworks of women, in servile functions, and to carry the munitions and provisions of war. They are also distinguished from the men and the women by the color of the feathers that they put on their heads and for the scorn that they bring on to themselves.’ This was how the Spanish traveler Francisco Coreal, who visited Florida in 1669, described the social role that anthropologists now term berdache.”

“Typically described, in the words of Matilda Stevenson, as men who ‘adopt woman’s dress and do woman’s work,’ male berdaches have been documented in nearly 150 North American societies. In nearly half of these groups, a social status also has been documented for females who undertook a man’s lifestyle, who were sometimes referred to in the native language with the same term applied to male berdaches and sometimes with a distinct term. Although the existence of berdaches has long been known to specialists in North American anthropology, the subject has been consigned to footnotes and marginal references. In the past twenty years, however, berdaches have become a subject of growing interest. An expanding base of empirical data concerning the social, cultural and historical dimensions of berdache status has become available.”

Berdache was originally an Arabic and Persian term for the younger partner in a male homosexual relationship, synonymous with ‘catamite’ or ‘Ganymede.’ …The key features of male and female berdache roles were, in order of importance, ‘productive specialization’ (crafts and domestic work for male berdaches and warfare, hunting and leadership roles in the case of female berdaches), ‘supernatural sanction’ (in the form of an authorization and/or bestowal of powers from extra-societal sources) and ‘gender variation’ (in relation to normative cultural expectations for male and female genders). In the case of gender variation, crossdressing was the most common and visible marker, but it has proven a more variable and less reliable indicator of berdache status than previously assumed.”

“A second point of agreement is that berdaches were accepted and integrated members of their communities, as their economic and religious reputations indeed suggest. In many cases, berdaches enjoyed special respect and honors. In a few cases they were feared because of the supernatural powers they were believed to possess.”

(From the chapter, How to Become a Berdache: Toward a Unified Analysis of Gender Diversity, by Will Roscoe)

The Third Sex of India

“As vehicles of divine power, hijras engage in their traditional occupations of performing at the birth of a male child and at marriages and as servants of the goddess at her temple. Hijras also engage in prostitution with men, although this directly contradicts their culturally sanctioned ritual roles.”

“While hijras, as eunuchs or hermaphrodites, are ‘man minus man,’ they are also, unlike eunuchs in other cultures, man ‘plus’ woman. They imitate many aspects of the feminine gender role: they wear women’s dress, hairstyles and accessories; they imitate women’s walk, gestures, voice, facial expressions and language; they prefer male sexual partners and experience being sexual objects of men’s desires; and many identify themselves as women. Hijras take feminine names when they join the community and use feminine kinship terms for each other such as ‘sister,’ ‘auntie’ and ‘grandmother.’ In public transport or accommodations, they request ‘ladies only’ seating and they periodically demand to be counted as women in the census.”

“As eunuch-transvestites, a major identification is made between the hijras and Arjuna, hero of the Mahabharata, who lives for a year in the guise of a eunuch, wearing bangles, braiding his hair like a woman, dressing in female attire and teaching the women of the king’s court to sing and dance. In this disguise, Arjuna participates in weddings and births, providing the legitimation for the ritual contexts in which the hijras perform.”

“With the advent of British rule, the position of the hijras began to lose traditional formal legitimacy. While the British initially recognized some of the traditional entitlements awarded the hijras as they assumed control over Indian states, ultimately the British government refused to lend its legal support to the hijras’ ‘right of begging or extorting money, whether authorized by former governments or not.’ They thereby hoped to discourage what they found to be ‘the abominable practices of the wretches.’”

“The cultural significance of the feminine, when joined to the distinctive Hindu concept of ‘svadharma,’ gives wide latitude to individuals whose gender roles and identities vary from the cultural norm. It is the genius of Hinduism that it allows for so many different ways of being human. The hijras will undoubtedly be viewed by many in the West as bizarre and pathological; yet their role becomes comprehensible when understood within the context of Indian culture. The hijra role is strong testimony that Western sex and gender dichotomies are not universal. As such, it provides a model of cultural diversity that may help Westerners reflect anew on their own culture and become more flexible in accommodating those individuals who do not fit into traditionally prescribed sex and gender categories.”

(From the chapter, Hijras: An Alternative Sex and Gender Role in India, by Serena Nanda)

Intersexed Conditions in Hispaniola and New Guinea

“The island of New Guinea and its off-lying coastal societies are home to the most ethnically diverse social field in the world. Sexual and gendered roles and practices have long been known to be extremely varied along systematic lines in economy, society and culture. …The Sambia institutionalize a strident form of gender dimorphism in their beliefs and practices regarding nature and culture, and yet they also recognize in both human and nonhuman species the existence of a third sex. …Sambia have three sexual categories, male, female and ‘kwolu-aatmwol,’ a word that suggests a person’s ‘transforming into a male thing’ [intersexed].”

“The kwolu-aatmwol, unless distinguished as a shaman or war leader, is quietly disparaged. When discovered at birth, the child is reared in the direction of masculinity, but not ambiguously; rather, it is referred to as either kwolu-aatmwol or male, because parents know that their child will not change into a female. Sometimes the kwolu-aatmwol is teased as a child and humiliated by peers for having ‘no penis.’ Nevertheless, several of these people assigned to the third-sex kwolu-aatmwol category are well known in local history. One of them, now deceased, was famous both as a shaman and a fight leader. The kwolu-aatmwol is not therefore rejected or frozen out of daily and normative social contacts and may indeed rise to distinction through special achievements, as Sakulambei [the author’s case study] has done. Nor do Sambia feel disgust towards these liminal beings. Still, theirs is a polarized society, and parents do not want infants to be hermaphroditic…”

“For the Dominican Republic and Sambia, the historical institutionalization of a third-sex category implies a cultural transcendence of human dimorphism by investing in a more ‘fluid,’ polymorphous conception of the person. In short, the gendered socialization of the hermaphrodite is not unambiguously male or female.” …We do not have to alienate human culture and history from biology to accept that, in some places and times, a third sex has emerged as a part of human nature; and in this way, it is not merely an illusion of culture, although cultures may go to extreme lengths to make this seem so. However, an illusion it would be to imagine that the answer to the problems of mistaken sex in human affairs can ever be solved without recourse to the work of culture and the study of individual desires.”

(From the chapter, Mistaken Sex: Culture, Biology and the Third Sex in New Guinea, by Gilbert Herdt)

Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History can be purchased through Amazon.com and other bookstores.


©2003 GALVA-108