A concept of two genders not only limits ourselves but may be at the root of environmental destruction.
“Through acknowledgement of the existence of third genders throughout history, we can begin to understand how the Western construction of two genders ostracizes and bestializes individuals who do not fit into its binary classification, and how it can be reconstituted to create a society free of such discrimination.” —Beyond binary definitions of gender: Acknowledging the third gender in Africa by Manase Chiweshe
The binary gender boxes that we are socially conditioned to follow disregard the reality of gender. First, gender and sex are not the same. Sex speaks of the biological assignment, whereas gender speaks of how individuals identify themselves. When we look realistically at the binary gender classification, male and female, we see that there are masculine aspects within femininity and vice versa. A person who is biologically male, and identifies himself as male, still has feminine aspects within their behavior and personality if the people are truly in touch with themselves. To take it a step further, it is a fact that certain individuals may identify as female while at the same time being biologically male, and of course the other way around too. In most tribal cultures of the world, gender is not a binary thing. These cultures often identify more than two possible genders. The Bugis of Indonesia, for example, identify five different possible genders!
Within these cultures, there is not a social stigma against being biologically one sex while at the same time identifying as another gender. Due to this lack of social stigma, these cultures do not have unwritten ‘bans’ on other gendered people, and they actually revere and respect these “other gendered” people as unique and powerful. In Bugis culture, the other gendered people often hold the role of spiritual leader. This is common throughout tribal culture.
This diversity of gender identity is representative of the way tribal societies honor other kinds of diversity. In these same cultures, we also see a strong connection to nature and the environment, as well as a reverence for the whole spectrum of biodiversity upon which the continuation of life is dependent. As a society and culture, if we can learn to adapt and accept the diversity of genders and multiple social roles for all possible gender combinations, we may also be able to extend that concept to biodiversity in nature as being something that needs to not only be honored but also protected. A more open acceptance of human diversity is the first step toward the acceptance of diversity in nature, and will naturally lead to a more conscious and responsible treatment of all life that dwells on this spinning ball of stone and water that we call Earth.
The rigid forcing into a box of two genders which Judeo Christian and Islamic faiths impose upon their societies creates an underlying social imbalance, as well as shows the roots of cultural destruction that were necessary to take over a large swath of the earth. Once the swath of earth was claimed in the name of this generic god, social hierarchy created a class game of power elitism to ensure the dominance of the ruling class, be they monarchs or CEOs.
We are humans – we rule the earth.
This is the story we are given by Judeo Christian and Islamic faiths. Which makes us not guardians of nature, but oppressors who earn their birthright by enslaving nature. Daniel Quinn in Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit makes the point well about the role of the story we are fed and its relation to our home planet:
“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.”
One of the original snips that separated us from nature, and placed us as characters in a story of dominance over nature, was the cutting off of the local environment-based belief system. By being cut off from nature, the teachings within a community on the importance and role of nature as provider and mother were lost. A spiritual leader taught this roll, and in the case of the Bugis that leader was not of the two stereotypical genders that western minds are forcibly boxed into from birth.
When we are forced into a box of identity that does not truly fit who we are, or how we identify ourselves, then we have difficulty knowing our body and mind and the connection between them. It is hard to be in touch with yourself on a deeper level of complexity and know who you really are. When you don’t know, or aren’t in touch with yourself, your focus becomes misdirected. When we force others into these boxes of identity that do not match the person’s true identity, we are not respecting the diversity of human possibility. That misdirected focus naturally leads to division and separatism.
By focusing on the positive development of the individual mind/body connection, and allowing the individual to determine their own identity within society, the self can be more authentically realized and the focus becomes more positive. This, in turn, fosters cohesion and cooperation within society and can develop on a broader scale to the point where we’re able to visualize a global community of all diverse forms of life, not just human. This focus and acceptance of diversity lead to community cohesion, and this type of cohesion will more easily embrace the planetary community connection of life as a web of interconnectivity that requires the honoring of diversity in all possibilities of life. By narrowing our boxes of description, we narrow the focus not only on ourselves but also on our potential as a community of diverse life.
Even when we look at how binary gender cultures try to adopt the concepts of multiple genders we can see that the concept is not truly understood. One of the first things that comes to mind is terminology and word choice. We can create a lot of confusion and misunderstanding when we don’t look at the language we use carefully. Words are complex; they can have literal, figurative, idiomatic, subtextual and semiotic meanings for the individual, group or culture. When we analyze the term ‘transgender,’ we can see an underlying prejudice. The prefix ‘trans’ has three primary common meanings: Across/on the other side, beyond-through, Change-transfer.
Add to this the common definition of gender being bound in the binary male/female model; we can begin to see the ambiguity of meaning. When faced with the word ‘transgender’ the majority of people take the third meaning of the prefix ‘trans’; change, while a minority might take the first or second meanings. In reality, neither of these are really in line with the concept of multiple genders. Trans as change still forces us into the binary boxes, man or woman, the change being from one gender box to the other. Whereas across or beyond as the meaning of the prefix places transgender outside of the binary gender boxes.
In tribal cultures that recognize multiple genders, there is no change, no dwelling beyond. There are just multiple genders with their own identity and words to refer to them. The Bugis culture’s five genders all have distinctive names. Along with the male and female gender identities, the Bugis also recognize:
calalai, biological females who take on many of the roles and functions expected of men; calabai, biological males who in many respects adhere to the expectations of women; and bissu…who act as priests.
These other gendered individuals do not “transition” like most Western ‘transgender’ people, they are simply accepted by the society as they were born. This concept is not restricted to the Bugis. Most indigenous cultures of the Americas, India, Pacific Islands, Africa and Southeast Asia also recognize the larger diversity of gender among humans.
The breaking of a culture starts with the death of the spiritual leader, the corruption of the local natural belief system and the installation of rigid social structures that evolved from foreign environments. In particular, this is evident in the gender issue, not just the male/female boxes we have been conditioned into, but in all the different mixes that the idea of gender can cover. How can we rethink the concept of gender in Western culture? How can we accept the diversity of human identity and gain a better respect for diversity in nature?
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