The Nature of Being

rethinking the facts of life


third sex / third gender

Burrnesha: A Third Gender Inspired by Social Conditions

The burrnesha are the third gender of Albania, and unlike my previous articles, are centered on the masculine woman as opposed to the feminine man. This is because the burrnesha (derived from burra, translated to man from Albanian) is inspired by the social climate of women centuries ago when society was organized by patriarchy and women had very few to no rights.

The aspect of sexuality comes into play with a vow that must be made to be accepted as a man in Albanian society. This vow is one of celibacy- a promise to remain a virgin for their entire lives-made in front of twelve community elders- in exchange for the freedoms of men. Once this vow was made then that person was allowed to live the life of a man and allotted the status of ‘the man of the household’ when their father passed on.

As I was conducting this research my mind focused on one question- why virginity? The symbolic and historical nature of the innocent woman is one most people are familiar with, so why to be deemed a man in society does a vow to remain a virgin need to be made? This is the aspect that truly makes the burrnesha a unique case of third genders. For the third genders I have studied previously, sexual partners were an option, often times a profession, for the individual. My personal analyses of this draws on the line between virginity, nature and superiority as well as the hypersexualization of women. It would seem rational that to be accepted as a man one must first make themselves perceived as the opposite of a woman. Hence if women are hypersexualized, to be accepted as a man you must completely desexualize yourself. Another analyses could draw on the strictly conservative social organization of Albania both 500 years ago and today. In Albania, sexualities deviant from that which supports the nuclear family (supportive being heterosexual and deviant being homosexual), is considered unnatural and is associated with a very intense stigma. Therefore, for this ‘cheat loop’ in society to be coded, a guarantee against ‘unnatural’ behavior must be made.

To give a full historical picture- This practice dates back to before 15th century and was officially coded into society with a set of rules called the Kanun, which set in print all of the freedoms born women could gain if they vowed to remain a virgin and live as a man, which included owning property and socializing with other men. This may seem ridiculous to some, however, in an era where women were not permitted to earn a living, if for some reason all of the men in the family died, there would be no one to provide for the other females in the household. Such instances required the eldest daughter to take the vow and become the man of the household.

The burrnesha of Albania is a very unusual instance where social climate has shaped third sex social organization, instead of the more common observation in history, where social organization shapes, and often time oppresses, the notion of a third gender. For the burrnesha the third gender gave them a way of escaping their born reality to be free. It was less about sexuality and more about the social construct and rights awarded to the masculine gender. For this reason, the choice of freedom at the price of chastity, was for many, an easy decision.

“It began hundreds of years ago, deep in the Albanian Alps—an unusual tradition where women, with limited options in life, took the oath of the burrnesha.”


Burrnesha – source of quote.


The ‘Two Spirited’ People of Indigenous North America: an Insight into Canada’s Historical Gender Spectrum

In Indigenous communities of North America (Canada and United States), before the time of European rule, four genders were recognized in their social structure, which translated, combine the English terms that reference gender as well as sex; the feminine woman, the masculine man, the feminine man and the masculine woman. The latter two of this list would be those considered ‘two spirited’. In this organization of society it is the identification feminine and masculine that codes the individual’s role in society, not the physical sex.

The ‘two spirited’ people were highly regarded as important people in society because they were thought to be able to view the world through the eyes of both males and females. It was also thought they had a greater sensuality, meaning all five senses were heightened and many identified these third/fourth gendered people as having an innate creativity. For this reason ‘two spirited’ people were coded into historical indigenous societies as healers, intuitives, and teachers of orphans-in general, individuals of power.

To be deemed a ‘two spirit’ a variety of rituals (determined by the specific tribe) must take place when a child is first noted to be sexually deviant of the first two genders recognized in society. Only after the rituals are passed and the elders give permission is the ‘two spirit’ status awarded. However, once awarded this status, the entire tribe is accepting and fully acknowledge this status. One of these rituals consisted of a ‘man’s’ bow and a ‘woman’s’ basket in the middle of a circle. The circle would then be set on fire and the child would be told to run in and grab one item; whichever item the child chose to save would be how he/she would be raised and how they would contribute to society. It is important to note that this differs from homosexuality in that a man or a woman who is homosexual still takes the roles of their physical sex, where the ‘two spirited’ people take the roles of the gender they have chosen to identify with.

To illustrate how this would look in practice I am going to present some examples I have come across during my research. The first of which is one less discussed in transgender research, the masculine woman. A masculine woman contributes to society as a man, often taking a wife, and is not expected to have a relationship with a man to produce an offspring, because they contribute in other ways such as ‘military like’ positions. Furthermore the feminine man acts in society as a woman, wearing woman’s clothing, taking on care-taker positions and often takes a husband but is not expected to. Note that this is not rigid and that this can vary across First Nations societies. For example in some societies the biological masculine qualities of a feminine man would still be embraced, such as strength, however, in other societies the biological masculine qualities were overshadowed by over exaggerated feminine qualities such as face painting, braided hair and jewelry.

The historical organization of First Nations peoples gives a very unique insight into how possible societies in the future could organize themselves in a way that takes into account the identity of each individual. For many western cultures the binary of male/female gender is a way of coding the population into roles thought to be beneficial to the common interest of society. The belief in the nuclear family has been used to justify this binary and simultaneously suppress the natural identities of many transgender, third gendered or ‘two spirited’ people. A look at the First Nations fluidity towards gender is valuable for pursuing the main goal of sociologists, a goal I think is summed up the best in a quote, to find the general in the peculiar and the strange in the familiar (source of quote can be found in references below).



Hijra (to leave one’s Tribe): A Look at the Third Gender of India

The roughly 4000 year old story of the hijra community, which is that of an estimated 6 million people today, is a complicated entanglement between acceptance and non-acceptance, fulfilling a niche in society and living as an outcast. As the title of the article points out, hijra is translated from Semitic roots hyr meaning to leave ones tribe. This term is rather fitting considering the life style nearly all hijras are forced to live, as they are usually shunned from their families at a very young age.

To explain the complex area of society that the hijras occupy, I am going to discuss the same three factors that also served as common themes in my previous posts- religion, colonization/politics, and self-identity- all of which have been significant contributors to the entanglement of hijra society.

To start, religion has coded the hijras as possessing spirituality and thus providing them with the niche of spiritual being-giving blessings to Hindus. This idea originates from some Hindu gods that have both female and male genitalia-what would be considered ambiguous reproductive organs in today’s western society. This gives hijras an intersex status in society as well as a guru status for the older and well known hijras-who make several hundred dollars for each blessing they do at weddings, business openings, and naming ceremonies. The majority of hijras make very little income however (and have to give much of what they do make to the gurus they work under), which leads to the entanglement of acceptance/non-acceptance. This is because many hijras supplement their income with prostitution and many leave home so young that they do not have the education or parental guidance to have proper communication skills; another reason why the rest of society has coded the hijras as not just a third gender, but also a third class.

That in mind, the political climate the hijras are living in today is much different than it once was, with the new bill passed by the Indian Federal government which officially recognizes the hijras as a third gender and protected class; hijras now have the right to vote and go to university. This is a big leap from British colonial times, when the hijras were stripped from their high class status as spiritual beings and criminalized as homosexuals, prostitutes and sexual deviants. This criminalization was justified on the basis of the belief in the nuclear family and the rigid two gender system of the much more conservative British culture. The criminalization of hijras lead to a hyper-sexualisation, which in turn, lead to the hijras being coded as both societal outcasts as well as simultaneously acting as an indulgence for the British, leading to their complex status today. The hijras have been organized into society in many different ways over the centuries as everything from first class to third class, to highly regarded individuals to criminalized prostitutes, but they have always kept their place in society as an ancient spirituality.

With this understanding of how the hijras have come to find their current social status-the most important question arises-how do the hijras view themselves? To answer this question I have done a great deal of research reading interviews of individual hijras done by journalists and I have come across an interesting fact. Many (but not the majority) hijras were not born wanting to be a hijra, but rather joined the society because it offers a niche in life to exist within, and a way of attaining money. After some time these individuals, who felt they had no other choice but to become a hijra, then started to feel the embodiment of this third gender. This acts as proof that gender truly is a social construction and that it is the right of each individual to define that construction for themselves and continually redefine it through out an individual’s life if they choose to do so.



The Muxe: A Comparisn Between the Third Genders of Mexico and Indonesia

Much like the waria of Indonesia, the third gender of Mexico, the Muxe (pronounced Mooshay using English pronunciation) have arrived at their place in society through many of the same historical events: religion (cross dressing priests and Mayan gods that were male and female at the same time), colonization, and the justification of self-identity.  In the region of Oaxaca, Mexico, lies the district of Juchitán where the land of the ancient Zapotec civilization, whose language and culture still thrives, is much like it used to be before Spanish colonization. The Muxe are very welcomed in Juchitán, even considered an important aspect of society by both their communities and local governments and even though life is not perfect for many Muxe, my research suggests that there is little to no feeling of segregation between the three genders-male, female and Muxe-in the region of Juchitán.

The outer appearance of Muxe and warias are similar, however, there is a very significant difference between the warias and the Muxe; the warias, although considered a third gender in Indonesian society, still identify as transgender-saying they are the soul of a woman born in a man’s body. Alternatively, the Muxe identify not as transgender, but as an entirely different entity- saying that they are neither man nor woman.

Another very important distinction is that of sexuality. The muxe recognize themselves as being homosexual because they have male reproductive organs and are attracted to people also with male reproductive organs. Referencing my previous article once more, the warias do not categorize themselves as being homosexual and neither do their partners; the warias are attracted to ‘straight’ men and those men are attracted to their feminine soul. The question of reproductive parts does not affect the label used in the case of the warias as it does with the muxe.

The organization of society in both cases is clearly very different when analyzing from the point of view of gender, sex and sexuality and the outcome of these alternative modes of societal organization have had different affects. For example the warias were fitted to the niche of ‘entertainers’ in quite literally all aspects of the word, however, the muxe have been fitted to the niche of caregiver. This is due to a few reasons. The first that comes into play is the fact that they can’t have children of their own, and therefore adhere to the expectation of taking care of the parents in the family as they grow older and can no longer take care of themselves. The second is that the majority (not all), of muxe take on skills and chores deemed feminine by the rest of society, such as cooking, cleaning, making clothes, and hairdressing. These roles that most muxe tend to fill have coded them as having feminine qualities, the most significant of which is that of the caregiver or natural mother to reference Donna Haraway’s book Primate visions.

To give justice to the gender spectrum that the muxe have established in the Zapotec culture, I would like to point out that not all muxe are the same, in fact they have a spectrum of their own. In particular there are two labels on either side of the muxe spectrum: the less common pintadas (translated to graffiti) who wear men’s clothing and make-up, and the vestidas (derived from the Spanish word of dress) who often get breast implants and nose jobs. This spectrum holds value for western feminist theory which still holds rigid, the border between feminine and masculine and the necessity of the two genders to align with female and male sex as well as heterosexuality. What a look into this organization of this south western Mexican society has done is bring to the light that fact that these three aspects of identity are just that, three, individual aspects that should be treated as independent from each other in a societal organization that is fluid rather then rigid.




Questioning Gender: Indonesia’s Third Gender-Waria

To start I would like to define some terms as a prerequisite to this and my following posts. Firstly, gender, which I will be using to reference the societal normative construction of masculine and feminine. Secondly, sex will from now on be defined as the biological traits that code female and male. Lastly sexuality, defined as sexual attractions practices and identity, which for my purposes is used with the acknowledgment that it may or may not align with sex and gender. That said this misalignment can be considered by some cultures as a third gender. This leads me to my main topic of this post; the third gender of Indonesia-waria.

In Indonesia there is a relatively large demographic of people that identify with the gender of women but have the sex of a male and because of their Muslim faith do not wish to change their bodies, but instead exaggerate other forms of womanly normative behavior such as make-up-deemed provocative by some.

This demographic of people, though perhaps not accepted by the ‘extremist’ Muslim community, or in many cases the police force, the waria however are accepted by the general public who have coded them into a very specific niche in society. This niche establishes the waria almost exclusively as street singers, entertainers, dancers, and unfortunately, prostitutes. These ‘self-employment’ options stem from the fact that the paperwork necessary to become employed by others, states the gender observed from birth, and not the gender identity of the individual. Due to current stigma, this creates a problem for many waria looking for work.

To understand the societal organization behind this created niche three separate spheres of discourse must be looked at; the historical and current religious beliefs, the past influence of Dutch colonialism, and finally the self-proclaimed identity of the waria. The religious culture of Indonesia pre-colonization looked at gender as a source of power. Hence, gods were said to have both genders or to be gender transgressive and humankind were believed to be created from those gods as split genders. Intuitively this gave the warias a sacred notion, thus the construction of gender was seen as fluid and open-minded. Discourse on gender changed however during Dutch colonization which is when gender came to know bureaucracy and the two genders were established as rigid. Most interestingly, the degree of acceptance of waria in Indonesian society is most strongly attributed to the fact that waria identify as women who are attracted to men-straight men specifically. This means that they are considered heterosexual or ‘normal’ by society. This is important to Point out because it shows that it is not the transgressive gender that holds the strongest stigma, it is the sexuality that accounts for the most in this specific organization of society.

The Warias question the relationship between sex and gender and prove that an ‘alignment’ is not necessary to form a full definition of identity. From the perspective of historical western science these women are nothing more than perverse men parading around in a costume they were not born to wear, however, I find it to be absurdly contradictory that these then ‘men’ in their perspective lose all rights by simply dressing like that of the believed inferior sex, stripped of the same opportunity as everyone else- often times forced into prostitution.

My question now is- why are these women hypersexualized? It could simply be the flamboyant outer appearance, however, for me this more of a functional answer then the truth behind this phenomena. There is a consistency across cultures to demoralize the feminine gender and in a world where women (of whom their sex and gender align) are slowly rising to the equal state of men (also of whom their sex and gender align), it is the waria, or third gender, that are filling the vacant niche of third class citizens in Indonesia; stripping them of any chance to elevate themselves in society.

Stemming from Donna Haraway’s ‘Primate Visions’ it might also be possible that this hyper-sexualization arises from the heavy influence of the believed importance of the nuclear family where women are deemed the most valuable as mothers. Hence, a woman that cannot have children, due to her male sex, poses a problem for this form of societal organization. I has been observed in history that when the woman cannot or has not yet succumb to the role of ‘natural mother’ a hyper-sexuality associated with stigma and a perceived inferiority becomes entrenched as a cultural construction.

In a world where women are feminine and men are masculine, the warias serve a role much to the same extent as what 18th century anatomists would refer to as a ‘bridge species’ for question of nature versus culture; paving the way for an alternative discourse on gender and sex that revolves less around social construction and instead more heavily on that of the individual and her identity.






My Introductory Post

My name is Brianna Watson. I am 19 years old, in my third semester of study, currently on an exchange program in Tubingen, Germany, from Edmonton, Canada.
For my next four or five posts I would like to do a series analyzing third genders in various cultures; comparing those societies with that of the western ‘ideal’ culture which has been the largest contributor to the scientific sphere. Specifically I will be researching how different cultures have organized gender and sex into their societies and what historical events or modes of thought led to that form of organization. I will be doing this from the point of view of critiquing the current and historical organization of gender in western cultures using case studies of transgender women across the globe.


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