Transgender Around the World


I just took a virtual tour around the world, looking for transgender science, in this case anthropology, to put in my next book. As I expected, I found historical and contemporary diversity which confirms for me that transgenderism is a natural biological phenomena. I also found several interesting situations, some are funny and some are edgy.

Zuni two-spirit "wewah"

      Zuni two-spirit “wewah”

Worldwide, the number and diversity of gender categories is overwhelming. Starting with the North American Native tribes, about 100 of them had 3 genders and about 50 tribes had 4 genders. Gender 3 consisted of males who presented in feminine clothing and some were highly regarded as artisans, shamans, medicine men and tribal leaders. Gender number 4 consisted of females who presented in masculine clothing and became warriors and leaders. The tribes identified those in categories 3 and 4 in childhood because of their behavior and “two-spirit” gift. We know these categories from their names that survive, like the Lakota winkte. Most TG have heard about these 4 gender categories but I found some new wrinkles. First, two-spirits were allowed to move between gender behavior categories at will. They could dress in category 3 one day and be a weaver one day and dress as category 1 the next day and act as a warrior, very much like transgendered people. Second, some of the Indian Chiefs like Sitting Bull actually had two-spirit nicknames. His Lakota winkte name was evidently “Slon-he.” The North American Natives must have seen the need for multiple gender categories to accommodate the biological gender predispositions of their children. This is seen all over the world in native tribes; it is only Western culture that balks at more than 2 genders.

Transgenderism can be tolerated by even the strictest religions. Case in point is the bugis subculture of Indonesia which was converted to Islam in the 17th century and still exists today. The bugis have 5 gender categories despite living in a country in which Sharia law is accepted and Islam is the state religion. The bugis gender categories 1-4 are similar to the North American Native genders but gender category 5, the bissou, is a non-gender or transformational gender category. The bissou present in a combination of masculine and feminine dress. They provide inspiration and advice to people in the sect. This would seem to be at odds with Sharia law because only Islamic clergy are allowed to provide such services. But in order to avoid conflict during the bugis conversion, Islam scholars issued a fatwa allowing the bissou to carry on in their traditional ways as long as they did not challenge the clergy for power. If you are trying to convert people to a religion, sometimes you have to be flexible.

A Zapotec muxe

A Zapotec muxe

Another similar example where religion looks the other way is the Zapotec Native American groups who live in the southernmost state of Mexico. The muxe Native American heritage is pre-Columbian and continues strong today. The Zapotec natives somehow survived the Conquistadores and the advance of modern Western culture to maintain a third gender category, the muxe. The muxe are accepted as part of the Zapotec culture. They have festivals in the towns of Juxitan and Oaxana where they are celebrated. Accompanying these festivals and at other times are special church services in honor of the muxe provided by the Catholic and other churches. The local religious officials accept muxe, in spite of their connection to world churches preaching intolerance. Churches sometimes go with the flow of local culture.

There is a native Siberian tribe called the Chuckchi who have a third gender behavior category. They still exist today as they were centuries ago and are largely unaffected by intruding cultures because these guys are tough cookies. The Chuckchi are mainly nomadic people who rely on reindeer for food and clothing. The members of this third gender category are males who adopted feminine roles but go with the males on the hunt. This is similar to the North American Native American models, and, after all, the North Americans originally migrated from Siberia. The Russians now leave this tribe alone but tried hard to eliminate them because they did not fit with Communism. The Russians unsuccessfully tried three times to commit genocide the Chuckchi. The last one ended with the Russian commander’s head on a pike. Sometimes intruding cultures lose.

Athena, an Iranian TS

             Athena, an Iranian TS

Iran bans transgenderism. The penalty is death. Yet because the Ayatollah Khomeini once published a fatwa allowing for genital plastic surgery (GPS) (sometimes called gender reconstructive surgery) for transsexuals, Iran is forced to accept the legality of transsexualism. So, if you are transgendered or do not wish GPS, you are subject to the death penalty. To make things easier, the Iran government actually provides GPS as part of its national health service. As a result, more GPS surgeries are conducted in Iran than in any other country except for Thailand. Yet another reason not to move to Iran unless you want the op.

Because Barack Obama had a waria nanny, this group in Indonesia has received increased attention. Ann Dunham, the mother of Barack Obama, was an anthropologist who went to Indonesia for fieldwork. She hired a nanny for Barack, named Evie who turned out to be a waria. There are about 7 million waria in Indonesia who are males who present as women full or part time. Many only crossdress outside of work. In time for the 2012 election, an article was published in The Guardian that included an interview with Evie. Until that article, she had fallen on hard times, beaten by both thugs and the police and left homeless. She fondly remembered Barack and swore that he never saw her crossdressed although that seems highly unlikely to me.

All in all, my world tour confirmed three things for me. First is that when they are free to do so, cultures have invented appropriate gender behavior categories to fit with the biological gender predispositions of their offspring. These categories appear all over the world, sometimes in isolated areas which means that they were invented independently. The second is that it is possible for seemingly hostile cultures and religions to come to accept transgender and transsexual people, if they work at it. The third is that transgenderism is a perfectly natural biological phenomenon.

Story Courtesy of Dr Dana Bevan,

July 22, 2013.