A history of non-binary identities
Written by Callisto
Nowadays, a growing number of people have begun identifying as non-binary and using a variety of pronouns outside of he and her such as they, ze or xe. What non-binary means to people can vary wildly, but at it’s core it’s used to describe an identity which isn’t exclusively female or male. Despite the leaps and bounds of progress trans awareness has made in the last couple of decades, there are many who are hesitant of accepting non-binary identities, often describing them as newfangled and “just a trend”. In reality, non-binary identities have existed in many forms throughout many diverse cultures all around the globe.
We begin the journey in ancient Mesopotamia, often described as a cradle of civilization. In the Mesopotamian mythologies, there exists a deity named Ninmah with “no male organ and no female organ”. Later on, in the Akkadian epic Atra-Hasis, Enki, the Sumerian god of water, instructs the goddess of birth, Nintu, to create, in addition to men and women, a third category of people. Certain priests of Ishtar, the goddess of love and beauty were also given a third gender aside from male or female.
Moving on to India, in 400 BC, Hijras were individuals of third genders and the ancient sage Patañjali stated that the three grammatical genders in Sanskrit are based off of the three natural genders. There are further references to a third, or even fourth gender in Sanskrit epic poems, vedic astrology and the Buddhist Vinaya.
Even Greece, often seen as the birthplace of “western culture” had ideas pertaining to genders outside of male and female. In Plato’s symposium, he writes of a creation myth involving three original sexes: male, female and androgynous. This isn’t the only example of this, as in the Historia Augusta, a roman collection of biographies about roman emperors, the body of a eunuch is described as a tertium genus hominum (a third human gender).
Indigenous north Americans also had a version of a non-binary gender identity, referred to as “two-spirit”. Different tribes had different customs for these people, for example the Lakota tribe called them Winkte, who were born male but would assume many traditional women’s roles and serve as part of rituals, as well as keeping the traditions of the tribe. The Zuni tribe on the other hand had Lhamana, who could be either male or female at birth and would live as both genders simultaneously , in addition to serving key roles in society. We’wha was a famous example of this, and their story is a fascinating read.
We could go on, however it is simpler to give visual representation, in the form of an interactive map which can be found on the PBS website:
It was only with the rise of Christianity and western colonialism that the many diverse cultures who had notions of a third gender were wiped out. Therefore, instead of seeing the rise of non-binary identities as a trend, see it instead as a resurfacing of culture.