A brief history of cultures that don't recognize the gender binary

Man/Woman is a relatively recent development

Written by Abby Lee Hood
There have been a lot of great inventions in the last few hundred years: electricity, sliced bread, cars, phones, and those little skillets made just for eggs. But did you know the gender binary is also a relatively recent invention in human history?

It’s true. The gender binary (aka men or women, boy or girl, blue or pink) is an invention white colonists created a few hundred years or so ago. It’s due in part to religion, but the pain and long-term effects of this invention can’t be overstated. If people didn’t always conform to one of two default options, though, what came before?
Let’s cover a basic history of cultures that don’t (or didn’t historically) recognize the gender binary. 

First of all, what’s outside the binary?

If you don’t identify with either gender option, you may describe yourself as nonbinary, agender or genderfluid. Each means something a little different and varies person to person, but these are some common terms you may hear when speaking with folks off the binary.

Nonbinary, at its core, means that a person doesn’t identify with either gender. But no matter what word a person uses, it's important to ask what it means to them. A person may identify with both genders, no gender at all, or fluidly switch back and forth.

Although that may seem like a modern, progressive concept, it’s actually not. According to Healthline, nonbinary people have been around since at least 400 B.C. to 200 A.D., when “Hijras (people in India who identified as beyond male or female) were referenced in ancient Hindu texts.”

Hijras were revered in Hindu text

According to Culture Trip, Indian law recognizes Hijras and transgender people. Some South Asian countries, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, only recognize Hijras, and this doesn’t mean that queer people aren’t targets of violence and hatred, because they are still discriminated against.

But it wasn’t always this way. Culture Trip says the Hijra community has been mentioned in ancient literature, the most known of which is the Kama Sutra, and that one of the many forms of Shiva, a key Hindu deity, involves him merging with his wife Parvati to become the androgynous Ardhanari. This, of course, all changed when British colonizers took control of the country.

“When the Indian subcontinent came under colonial rule during the 19th century, British authorities sought to eradicate and criminalize the Hijra community through various laws,” Culture Trip states.

While some of those laws have since been rolled back, the LGBTQ+ community as a whole still faces discrimination in India.

Native American Two-Spirit folk were honored

On the other side of the world, Native Americans developed their own traditions for Two Spirit community members, according to the Indian Health Service

“In tribes where two-spirit males and females were referred to with the same term, this status amounted to a third gender,” the organization states on their site. “In other cases, two-spirit females were referred to with a distinct term and, therefore, constituted a fourth gender.”

Four distinct genders! Two-spirit Native Americans commonly shared and held specialized work roles, special religious roles like shamans and healers, special dress and social roles, and same-sex relationships. They were even considered lucky in love, and could bestow this luck on others!

Because Native American culture was decimated by white settlers. we don’t have a full picture of two-spirit people. However, the IHS states that many LGBTQ+ Natives are reclaiming this tradition.

Public Universal Friend inspired hundreds of followers

In 1776, a young Quaker woman experienced a terrible fever, and on her deathbed, says they became reincarnated by God, and would therefore go on to become a genderless prophet. Their name became Public Universal Friend, and according to the Washington Post, The Friend gathered hundreds of followers over their lifetime.

The Friend signed documents simply with their name and eschewed pronouns entirely, although the Post says some of their friends and followers used “he” and “him.” Some historians say using pronouns for the Friend at all would be historically inaccurate. 

The Friend died of an illness in 1819, but no one is certain where they are buried in Yates County, New York. Some of The Friend’s descendants still live there, and a public exhibit holds The Friend’s will. 

What does all this mean for you?

Well, it’s important to note that many parts of gender-diverse culture, like Hijras and two-spirit, are closed to people not from those areas or who don’t study and practice, for example, Hinduism. You need to research before you identify with any culture that isn’t your own to make sure it’s not closed to you. 

Public Universal Friend is a great example of a genderless white person who died fewer than 250 years ago, and we should be looking for and studying more genderless or gender-diverse examples through history.

If you identify with any nonbinary figure, living or deceased, welcome to a personal journey of discovery in the LGBTQ+ community. Allies, too, should do their best to learn the colonial history of transphobia to better undo those harmful effects on society. 

Now and every Pride, let’s decolonize the queer community and support each other in love, just like Public Universal Friend.

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