There’s no question that Western colonialism (and non-Western colonialism, which also exists by the way) was bad and is bad. I am also not so much of a Western cultural imperialist to suggest that Western culture has, necessarily, been a net benefit to anyone where it has been foisted upon them violently and where it has displaced a native culture. However, one of the decolonization talking points that has always struck me as odd is the following indictment: if it were not for Western colonialism, the idea of a gender binary would not exist in many cultures today.
I confess to a certain amount of ignorance about a wide array of cultures, both ancient and modern, but this claim has always struck me as specious. I am not necessarily doubting that some ancient and indigenous cultures have had room for a proverbial “third sex” or a flexibility of gender roles. There are a few notable examples that come to mind: the Galli priest(esse)s of the ancient Mediterranean and the similar eunuch priest(esse)s of the cult of Atar’atheh in the Levant, the “two-soul” people of certain Native American cultures, the hijra of Indian, the fa’afafine of Samoa, and so forth. There are some that could be offered as well that are much more of a stretch, like the ergi men of Scandinavian lore, who may better be described as men accused of effeminacy rather than a separate gender identity. Perhaps even the castrati associated mostly with 16th, 17th, and 18th century operatic male soprano practice could be considered another stretch, depending on how loosely one chooses to define a third sex. However, were these third sexes really all that common? Furthermore, when and where they existed, are they at all comparable to the modern notion of transgender and nonbinary identities?
I honestly don’t know the answer to that first question, and I fully admit that I’m not particularly interested in taking the time to track down every possibility. I feel that most of what I would find may be exaggerated anyway, much like my examples of the ergi and castrati above, both of which can only disingenuously be called gender roles of their own and are not comparable to a third sex or a trans identity. (And indeed, since castrati are very clearly part of a relatively modern Western European tradition, it would mean that even “the West” has had a messier view of gender than the oppressive and absolute binary which it is blamed for propagating.) The second question, however, is much easier to answer, and it becomes quite easy to dispute the decolonizer talking point that the West is responsible for a rigid gender binary that is practiced throughout the world.
For one, I think it’s safe to say that most world cultures have practiced a relatively strict gender binary throughout human history, and the examples usually proffered are the exception, not the rule. Let’s be honest: what percentage of human cultures that have existed have truly had a third (or fourth or fifth) gender role that was an accepted part of their societies? Is it even ten percent? Five percent? Less? Secondly, how many cultures with additional gender roles gave those roles dignity? The hijra, for example, have a history of merely being tolerated, an otherwise unwanted part of society that was nevertheless deemed useful in certain kinds of religious rites. Indeed, it seems that a lot of third sex roles in societies were subject more to toleration than to anything resembling true acceptance, and these people represented the fringe of their society’s generally accepted behavior at best. Perhaps there’s something to be said for a culture that allows the existence of these folks at all rather than denying or erasing them entirely the way the Protestant West has had a history of doing, but the irony is that it’s probably the progressive West that is now beginning to make strides for those third sex individuals. (I’m not trying to say that this makes colonization ok by any means, and it’s impossible to know how these cultures would have fared in terms of trans acceptance if they had been allowed to continue uninterrupted.)
It should also be noted that third sex roles can almost never be considered comparable to the modern and mostly Western idea of transgender identities. For one, many third sex people in such societies seem to have been placed there without their consent, which is no different than being assigned male or female at birth. If you behaved a certain way or showed certain traits, you were pushed into a role that you may not have wanted in the first place. Just because there’s more than two gender roles, it doesn’t mean that the gender roles themselves were any less strict or more fluid or that individuals had the right to assert their identities without censure or persecution. It’s actually kind of comical in its absurdity to imagine a third sex individual being “transgender” themself, i.e., being forced into a third sex identity but wishing they were a man or a woman instead. Second, the idea of trans identities is still more or less a modern, Western concept. Many third sex roles are contingent upon certain kinds of social structures (which, by the way, were universally patriarchal despite an additional gender role being added to the society) or even religious beliefs. In fact, the use of third sex people as priest(esse)s, healers, or prophet(esse)s and mystics seems to make up the bulk of third sex roles I’ve seen proposed by decolonizer folks. Without intending to be glib, it’s kind of like calling celibate Catholic clergy a third gender simply because their existence is solely predicated upon the completion of religious rites and not on the normal patriarchal binary of fathering and mothering children (i.e., the binary identities of man and woman, respectively, in a strongly patriarchal society). Were the Galli really a third sex, or just homosexual eunuchs who were tolerated as necessary for the sake of Cybeline rites? Did such “trans” people as the Galli, if they were indeed such, take on that identity for devout religious purposes, or was the Cybeline cult simply a haven for them to express their gender identities in a society that was otherwise hostile to them? We can only speculate, and therein lies the problem with many of the proposed examples of historical third sex roles in these societies.
I think the discussion of third sex roles and supposedly nonbinary identities in non-Western cultures leaves us with more questions than answers. I think it’s pretty clear that the supposedly trans and nonbinary identities found in (a very small amount of) indigenous and pre-modern cultures were not at all comparable to the modern idea of being transgender or nonbinary, and, in the very least, were probably just as restrictive considering the patriarchal cultures in which they existed. In short, I think the rumors that the sex binary is a particularly Western Protestant invention foisted upon the world, and that the gender constructs of other societies were/are less oppressive (especially to trans-identifying people today, such as they are), are greatly exaggerated . . .