In an Either/Or World, Choose Other
“The complexity and diversity of the world is the hope for the future.” - Michael Palin
I love Baskin Robbins. It’s not so much the ice cream, per se, it’s the thrill of 32 choices, plus seasonal specialties. Not everyone likes too many choices; many suffer from the paradox of choice. Life is easy when it’s binary: front/back, black/white, good/bad. Too many choices and people tend to feel confused and overwhelmed. Perhaps to some extent that explains the range of responses one experiences just by saying, “I am transgender.”
Most tend to use sex and gender interchangeably, and to think of sex as binary: male or female. But science demonstrates that anomalies in the typical XX (female) and XY (male) genotypes can lead to outward expressions of that which is not quite either, as in XO (Turner’s syndrome) or XXY (Klinefelter’s syndrome).
Moreover, sex and gender expression are different concepts. Sex is a clinical categorization that helps define body parts and systems, particularly those involved with procreation. Gender is a subjective perception, that can be influenced to some degree by societal norms.
Much of the recent critical dialogue surrounding transgenderism focuses on transgender identity as a fad and part of a current movement to change that which has historically been “good,” “proper,” and “right.” But transgenderism has existed throughout history as a normal expression for certain individuals within a society. In ancient Mesopotamia (c. 2334–c. 2154 BC.), the Sumerian gala priests and priestesses who served the goddess Inanna were known for their androgyny and the blurring of gender binary.
Many cultures have always believed in a third gender or other spirit. In pre-colonial Polynesian cultures, the mahu were those assigned male at birth, who embraced a gender role encompassing both the masculine and feminine. Despite colonial efforts to eradicate mahu, the practice continues and the mahu are revered as the sacred bearers of tradition and rituals.
In Australia, Indigenous third gender sistergirls (male to female) and brotherboys (female to male) lived quite peacefully as the other gender within society until colonial rule. Following, many faced and still face a double stigma as both Indigenous and gender-nonconforming.
In Madascar, the sekrata are assigned male at birth, but their feminine qualities promote them as being raised female. Like many cultures, the third gender sekrata are acknowledged as spiritual workers.
The Indigenous populations within the Americas have several examples of women taking on more masculine roles—hunting, fighting—due to their warrior spirit. Conversely, men may assume the more traditional female functions—keeping the abode, tending the children—and are viewed as women.
Some American Indigenous cultures identify a person as living both genders simultaneously; for example, the Zuni ihamana. They play a key role in society as spiritual leaders and artists and perform both traditional women’s and men’s work.
In some cultures, the third gender represents a genetic anomaly within society. For example, in the Dominican Republic, approximately one percent of the population possesses an intersex genetic trait. The guevedoce are born with ambiguous genitals and recognized as a third gender.
Like the guevedoces, the kwolu-aatmwol of Papua New Guinea possess an intersex genetic trait. Because their ambiguous genitals carry through life, the kwolu-aatmwol cannot complete the ceremonial rituals required to become recognized as male and remain third gender.
Historically, assuming the opposite gender was not just a matter of gender preference, but potential social mobility. An 18th Century example of gender fluidity is the Chevalier D’Eon, who worked for Louis XV as a spy in London before later claiming political exile. The Chevalier presented as a man and a woman at various points in life, until aged about 50, they began to live permanently as a woman.
Another example is Albert Cashier, whose military exploits as a Union soldier are well documented, and who represents one of over 250 women who posed as men during the Civil War. Though his military comrades defended him after he was revealed decades later and he kept his military pension, Cashier was eventually confined to a mental institution and forced to wear women’s clothes.
More recently, Rena Kanokogi was a renowned Jewish-American judo expert, who in 1959 disguised herself as a man so she could participate in a YMCA judo tournament. She won, defeating all her male competitors. Although initially stripped of her medal, she became the first female to train with men at Japan’s Kodokan Institute. The YMCA later reinstated her gold medal.
Gender expression always has been and remains a fluid, complex state. So, the next time someone cannot understand a transgender identity, take them to Baskin Robbins with their 32 flavors of ice cream and holiday specials. If they suffer the paradox of choice, at least make it over ice cream. ▼
Sharon A. Morgan is a retired advanced practice nurse with over 30 years of clinical and healthcare policy background.