The Third Gender: Women, Men, and Others

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Hijras in a beauty contest.

Bangladesh just officially recognized a third gender, known as Hijras. Germany just became the first European country to give doctors a third option for sex on birth certificates.

The country joins a growing list of countries to officially recognize third genders or provide an alternative to identifying as simply male or female.

The concept of a third sex is much more common in Asia than the West. Pakistan, Nepal, India and Thailand all recognize third sexes or genders. India has the largest population of third sex individuals, known as Hijras, reportedly between five to six million. Hijras are born intersex or male, dress in feminine clothes and generally see themselves as neither men or women. Roughly eight percent are castrated.

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A beautiful Thai katoey (ladyboy)

Thai third sex are known as kathoeys or “ladyboys”. They often see themselves as a second category of women, men who have the heart of a woman.

There are also individuals born women who choose to identify as a male. Historically, it appears many women chose to identify as male in order to access rights and privileges denied to women. Here are ten amazing historical women who lived as men.

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A Sworn Virgin of Albania.

In Albania, there was a long tradition of women choosing to live as men in order to avoid having to follow the archaic code of law called the Kanun. In this case, women identified as males due to gender roles, not necessarily sexual preferences. The Kanun mandated that women cannot vote, drive, earn money or wear pants. Women were the property of their husbands. However, women could bypass the Kanun’s restrictions by becoming Burrneshas, or sworn virgins.

“According to tradition dating back to the 15th century developed out of the Kanun, a tribal code of law, tribal clans from the Balkans considered families without a male presence as pariahs. When blood feuds decimated all the men in a family, the only way to salvage their honor was for a woman to become the patriarch of the clan and start acting like a man.” – Slate.com

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A white-striped form of the white-throated sparrow.

The flexible approach to multiple genders mirrors nature, where hundreds of species have multiple genders. Red deer have two male genders – those with antlers (hummels) and those without (notts). The white-throated sparrow has two genders (known as morphs) per sex. In both sexes, there is a morph for white-striped and one for tan-striped. White-striped individuals are more aggressive and defend territory, while tan-striped individuals provide more parental care. The side-botched lizard has five genders – three males and two females.

As humanity continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see what happens to sex and gender identity.

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