Transcript for Global Genders

Jim Fleming: So maybe there's some changing ideas about gender in parts of North America but around the globe it's still pretty much male and female, right? Not so, says Purdue University anthropologist Evie Blackwood. Anne Strainchamps got the scoop.


Anne Strainchamps: Evie, most of us have grown up assuming that there are only two genders, male and female, and that you're either one or the other. But there are, it turns out, a few older cultures around the globe where that's not the case. Where, for example, sometimes there's a third gender option.


Evie Blackwood: Right, and it's not even just a few cultures around the world but in a lot of other cultures around the world there have been, and there still are, places for what I'll call alternative genders. Some people also use the term third genders, but if we really get technical we can start talking about third, fourth, fifth, and sixth genders.


Strainchamps: Wow. For, example, what are some of them?


Blackwood: So if we start with Native Americans in the past and still in the US today, there are individuals who become what's now being called two spirit.


Strainchamps: Two spirit. Is it because they literally think it's an individual with two spirits?


Blackwood: Well, the idea is that they have two ways of being. So they can be masculine and they can be feminine, and that was typical among the Navajo in the Southwest. Navajo nadleeh was a person who combined both male and female and was seen as different from both. So these people weren't called man or woman. They were called by their own term and were seen to have actually special powers usually and special capabilities that the rest of us as just plain men and women didn't have.


Strainchamps: What kind of special powers?


Blackwood: The [sic] two spirit person was said to be very good at financial management, at household management, and any household that had a [sic] person as a family member was likely to be a very successful household and do very well over time.


Strainchamps: So does that mean the [sic] people would go ahead and have families? Did they marry?


Blackwood: Yeah, that depends. Now, I gave you one example of the Navajo. Now, among the Mojave Indians, who are also in the Southwest, they had both male and female two spirit people and, say, a female bodied young child who decided she was really much more interested and drawn to what the boys were doing, her family would allow her to follow those inclinations, and at puberty this person would be initiated into the category of two spirit, which among the Mojave was called [sic] for the female. And once this person is initiated, would then be able to marry a woman. And if this woman that she married actually had children, say, by a previous spouse then the two spirit person would take on those children as hers as well.


Strainchamps: And what about clothing. Would two spirit people tend to wear men's clothing, women's clothing, or something that nobody else would wear?


Blackwood: Oh, that's such a good question. Again, there's a whole range. So some two spirit people, and like the [sic] who basically lived her life as a man or the male bodied ones who lived their lives as women, would dress like men or women, but other two spirit people might have a combination of male articles of clothing and female articles of clothing. There's this really interesting pictures that's in the Smithsonian archive of a female bodied two spirit person who's living as a man. In this photograph she is wearing a breach cloth and her hair is dressed in the style of the men, but other than that she had nothing else on. So this is what always confused the colonizers who said, "Oh, that's a woman," and Native American people would look at this person and say, "No, look. Obviously, according to the dress, that person is a man and should be treated as a man."


Strainchamps: Well, what's so fascinating about what you're saying is that it sounds like, unlike in our culture, people who didn't fit one of the two regular gender roles was not seen as imperfect but as someone special, gifted even.


Blackwood: Right, that's an excellent way to put it. They were seen as gifted and many of the two spirit people saw it as a spiritual role, not just individual interest. And some two spirit people were considered very strong medicine people.


Strainchamps: Now, when we began you said that there are third gender options in many cultures around the world. We've been talking about Native Americans. What about on other continents?


Blackwood: So another fairly well known example is the Hijra of India. Now, the Hijra are male bodied individuals who feel called to become worshippers of one of the Hindu deities. They are expected to have a procedure in which they are emasculated, and so Hijras in India are considered people who are neither men nor women.


Strainchamps: That's a personal choice.


Blackwood: Yeah. And I should say, when we're talking about personal, it's also not just personal but it's also very deeply embedded in the larger society and in Hindu mythology, this idea that someone could give up their gender in order to become more spiritually powerful. It is a product of Hindu mythology and Hindu religion.


Strainchamps: What would be the path of a boy who might decide to become Hijra?


Blackwood: So usually as a young boy they evidence interest in feminine things. So as they get older they come to find out about the Hijra communities because once you become a Hijra you usually live with the community. You don't live with your household anymore like among Native Americans. So Hijras, once they are initiated into the community, then will live and dress as women. But, again, they're not considered fully women because they don't have the genitalia of women and they also don't have the ability to reproduce as women, which in India is considered part of gender.


Strainchamps: Does any of this relate to sexuality because we've been talking about gender, which is of course not the same?


Blackwood: Yeah, and that's a good question too because a lot of people get confused with that. I like to say that gender comes first. Some of the early research used to say that these people are really homosexual, that's why they're changing their gender. But it turns out that, no, these people are really gender oriented, and then what happens is in most societies, including in the US, there's this idea that if you're a man you're attracted to women, if you're a woman you're attracted to men, so a two spirit person who lives as a man would be assumed to be attracted to women. In that case, the gender trumps and what we think of as a same sex relationship is not at all--, it's really not a product of a sexual desire as much as it is a product of gender.


Strainchamps: So I'm curious, in these cultures in which there are these third gendered options do people treat all the genders a little differently as a result?


Blackwood: Yes. In some of the research that I've done it seems to be that the attachment to gender is looser. In other words, people aren't rigidly assumed to be only man or to be only woman. In fact, research on some of the Native American tribes shows that there were manly women as well as women, so women didn't fit into just one role and men didn't fit into just one role. In Western societies where you have this patriarchal ethos, where you have this idea that men are the leaders and authority, if you get somebody that's a female who starts living as a man then what happens to men's power? It really threatens men's power because it says: no, really that power doesn't belong to you because you have a male body. You're just claiming that power.


Strainchamps: Oh, so are you suggesting that in cultures in which the genders are assigned status, like if there's a high status gender and a low status gender, of course they're going to be more rigid because who wants to be the low status gender? Which then makes me wonder, you know, we've been talking in this hour about the way in which we talk and think about gender in this country, how that's changing. Maybe that's because the status of women has come up in the last 50 years. Maybe we're approaching a place where there's more gender equality, and does that lead us then to relax some of those rigid attitudes towards gender?


Blackwood: That's a really good point because certainly where one gender has a high status to protect, they're going to protect it by creating boundaries around it and saying, "No, this is what men are. You all over there are women, then you can only be that." The more status there is to protect or the more entitlement there is to protect, then the more rigid those gender boundaries are going to be. So if we think that the genders in the US are becoming more equal, and sometimes I wonder, that may mean that there's less border guarding. I mean, and I do see that happening on one level and as this younger generation's coming along, but when I look nationally at what's going on in the media, I don't see that happening at all. There still seems to be quite a difference between men and women, and there continues to seem to be a very rigid sort of difference.


Fleming: Evie Blackwood is a professor of anthropology at Purdue University. She's edited a handful of books. You can find a list on our website, I'm Jim Fleming. It's To The Best of our Knowledge, from Wisconsin public radio and PRI, Public Radio International.

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