Gender fluidity refers to change over time in a person’s gender expression or gender identity, or both. It stands in contrast to the gender binary, which classifies gender into two absolute categories, and assigns characteristics to them (i.e.: man = masculine, woman = feminine). More and more people across the globe are recognizing gender identity and expression as unfixed, and that gender binarism reinforces negative attitudes, biases, and discrimination toward people who display expressions of gender variance or nonconformity.
While it may seem like a newer concept to some, indigenous cultures have recognized, revered, and integrated more than two genders for centuries.
Let’s take a look at the origins of gender fluidity:
North and South America: Two-Spirit
“Two-spirit” refers to a person who identifies as having both a masculine and a feminine spirit. It is typically used by the Indigenous communities in North and South America. As an umbrella term, it may encompass same-sex attraction and a wide variety of gender variance, including people who might be described in Western culture as LGBTQ+. It can also include people in polyamorous relationships.
South America: Travesti
In some South American cultures, a Travesti is a person who was born male, has a feminine gender identity, and is primarily sexually attracted to non-feminine men. While they often express themselves through feminine dress, language, and social roles, they often don’t see themselves as women.
They are males who dress as women and assume female gender roles in Neopolitan society. Their station in society is (or was, up through the 19th century) privileged, and the rituals, including marriage to one another, was based on Greek mythology related to Hermaphroditus and Teresias, who was transformed into a woman for seven years.
Ottoman Empire: köçek
köçek is a cultural phenomenon in which young men dressed in women’s attire and formed traveling dance troupes. The practice is still in place today in Turkey.
Maale, Ethiopia: Ashtime
Historically among the Maale people of southern Ethiopia, the word ashtime referred to eunuchs who lived in the home of the most powerful spiritual or political leader, because biological women were forbidden to enter. Anthropologists have found that Ashtime is a broader term that includes any gender-nonconforming male, dating back to the arrival of Protestant missionaries in the 1970s.
South Asia: Hijra
Hijras are males who adopt a feminine gender identity. They wear women’s clothing and take on other feminine gender roles set by their culture. However, most Hijras do not consider themselves men, women, or transgender. There is a long history of their existence in the Indian subcontinent, from the Mughal Empire period onwards. They remain in many South Asian cultures like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Maori, New Zealand: Whakawahine/Wakatane
In Maori culture, wakawahine are men who prefer the company of women and take up traditionally feminine occupations such as weaving. Wakatane denotes a biological female who pursues traditionally male roles, such as becoming a warrior or engaging in physical labor.
Historically, a multiple gender tradition existed among the Kanaka Maoli indigenous society. The mahu inhibits gender roles that sits anywhere between man and woman, feminine and masculine. Their social role is sacred as educators and elders of ancient traditions and rituals.
Since these early origins, gender flexibility has been largely marginalized or eradicated by mainstream societies, until human rights movements have helped grow awareness and acceptance in more recent history.
With so much of our day-to-day lives spent at work, it’s important that our workplace cultures demonstrate a respect for gender diversity, with each of us recognizing gender identity and expression as deeply important parts of who we are and what we bring to the world.
Grow greater gender diversity inclusion at your organization with our Quick Guide to Gender Pronouns.