The article, Intersexuality and Alternative Gender Categories in Non-Western Culture, written by, Claudia Lang and Ursula Kuhnle discusses Western Culture’s binary gender system and compares it to cultures that support gender variance. The article emphasizes that in many of the cultures mentioned, the discussed individuals rarely have a disorder which effects sexual development. The article concludes from anthropological literature on these cultures, that a category of peoples exist beyond male and female.
In Western culture, individuals seen as intersexed are often treated for a medical condition. This treatment can extend so far as corrective genital surgery. Within Western society, individuals may be forced to “…choose either a male or female role, whereas other (non-Western) societies consider their condition special, and give them a special gender role often associated with a high social status” (Lang and Kuhnle, 240).
There is a notable difference between the terms “sex”and “gender”. Sex is defined by biolgical factors, whereas, gender is a reflection of social influnces and mental attributes. Gender Identity is how a person feels about their gender. Gender Roles are the presentation of these feelings, and Gender Status is assigned to a person by their culture based upon the other two terms. Gender Variance is a term for those who present their gender outside of typical male and female boundaries (Lang and Kuhnle).
According to Lang and Kuhnle gender variances are found in a number of cultures. Limited medical research
exists on these individuals. Because of this, “…hormonal or genetic defects have neither been sought, nor identified” (Lang and Kuhnle, 241). From this, it is Lang and Kuhnle’s assumption, that in the majority of instances, individuals have no medically defined sexual developmental problems. The author’s note that within their article, “The term ‘disorder of sex development’ has been used only when a medically proven condition was present” (Lang and Kuhnle, 241).
A 5cx-Reductase-Deficiency is a “…medically defined form of intersexuality for whom a separate and defined gender status is reported…” (Lang and Kuhnle, 241). The deficiency presents itself in individuals as an XY karyotype resulting in inner male genitalia, but outer female genitalia. Basically, the phallus is either underdeveloped, or the clitoris is bigger than in a typical female. In Papua New Guinea, these individuals, who begin life as female, but who develop into males around puberty are not unknown. These individuals are placed into a third gender category. They will be initiated through the first two of three steps to becoming a man, but in the end are considered neither male nor female (Lang and Kuhnle).
As an example of gender variance that is not explained by medical conditions, Lang and Kuhnle, describe the nadlehee (berdache) in the Navajo culture of North America. Nadlehee take on the opposite gender roles from what their anatomical sex suggests. They do so in mannerisms, sexuality, and costume. Primarily, biological males, the nadlehee represent a gender identity between male and female. Motivation for this gender swap seems to rely less on sexual preference, than preference for the opposite gender’s assigned work (Lang and Kuhnle).
Though nadlehee are almost extinct in modern times, these individuals formerly held a high status in Navajo culture. It is interesting to note, that within Navajo culture there were once “five genders and three sexes” (Lang and Kuhnle, 243). The nadlehee’s role was often as a mediator between men and women. Because of this, Lang and Kuhnle suggest that nadlehee were not individuals with a medical condtion, but rather a third gender category of neither male nor female (Lang and Kuhnle).
Gender Variance, is not always as openly excepted as with the nadlehee. In India, the hijra, are put in a separate caste of people who identify with neither male nore female constructs. A hijra can be born or made. Because one can become a hijra through surgery, hijra represent a thir gender category. Medical reports on hijra, support the claim the to be a hijra is usually, a result of the individuals desire to live as this third gender. “There is only a single medical report documenting physical and biological anomalies in six individuals claiming to be hijra” (Lang and Kuhnle, 244). Hijra are seen to be of low class, especially from the perspective of the wealthy, who often pity them. In contrast, lower-class individuals, both revere and fear them. Often hijra are attributed with supernatural powers. Hijra work primarily as prostitutes, but also are asked to perform for weddings and and birth ceremonies (Lang and Kuhnle).
The Indian view on hijra seems hypocritical. Though hijra are considered outcasts, and deviants, they are given important roles in major ceremonies. The conflicting way that hijra are viewed in Indian society brings forth the question of whether or not India is more accepting of gender variance than other cultures or less so. It would seem that in India there is more room for gender variance with the existence of hijra, but because the hijra are seen as a low caste in India, gender identity may actually be more limiting (Lang and Kuhnle).
In Siberian culture, another kind of gender variance exists. Shamans, reportedly have the ability to change sex in what has been referred to as “religiously motivated transvestitism” (Lang and Kuhnle, 245). This change is associated with the influence of ghosts. It is not considered to be the choice of the individual to transform. There are three steps within the transformation. In the first, the individual changes his hair style to a female’s. Then, the shaman begins crosdressing, before the final step of becoming completely female, including having intercourse with men. After the transformation, the individual’s social status increases (Lang and Kuhnle).
Within the article, Intersexuality and Alternative Gender Categories in Non-Western Culture, many types of gender variance within non-western cultures are discussed. A great deal of emphasis is placed on cultures that support additional gender roles, for non-medical reasons. Despite the fact that medical anomalies can result in gender variance within a culture, there are many examples of social gender variance. In the Navajo culture, nadlehee embody an in-between gender category who can act as mediators between male and female identified individuals. Indian hijra, are an example of a gender variance group who are out-casted for their identity as a third gender. However, the hijra are also asked to perform in important ceremonies. For an example of religiously motivated gender variance, Lang and Kuhnle describe the shamans of Siberia. The shamans, influenced by ghosts, change sex from male to female and will begin having sex with men in the final stage of the process. Each of these examples brings to heart the question of gender variance acceptance within our own binary-gender system (Lang and Kuhnle).
Lang, Claudia and Kuhnle, Ursula. "Intersexuality and Alternative Gender Categories in Non-Western Cultures." Department for Anthropology and African Studies: Hormone Research (2008): 240-250.