Gender identity is a relatively new term in Western culture, but has had a lasting impact on cultures all around the world for hundreds of years.
Gender identity is defined as one's innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither. It is how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth, according to The Human Rights Campaign.
Project Director for Diversity & Inclusion and Gender & Sexual Diversity Initiatives at Iowa State nicci port said gender identity is how one sees oneself as a gendered or agendered person, in which it is defined by the individual. Someone's gender identity can be fluid, depending on an individual’s experience or culture.
However, port said there is often a misconception that occurs in relation to gender identity and gender expression.
“Gender identity is how a person sees themselves and gender expression is what a person does to communicate their gender to others — clothing, hairstyle, mannerisms, way of speaking — roles we take in interactions with others and so on,” port said.
Assistant Director for the Margaret Sloss Center for Women and Gender Equity Andra Castle also said gender expression is the outward appearance of a person whereas gender identity is in their brain, someone cannot see someone’s gender identity.
The concept of gender identity and gender expression are very apparent in different cultures in the world, according to PBS.
“On nearly every continent and for all of recorded history, thriving cultures have recognized, revered and integrated more than two genders,” PBS said. “Terms such as 'transgender' and 'gay' are strictly new constructs that assume three things: that there are only two sexes (male/female), as many as two sexualities (gay/straight) and only two genders (man/woman).”
However, hundreds of distinct societies around the globe have their own long-established traditions for third, fourth, fifth or more genders. The concept of Two Spirits, which is derived from Navajo culture, believes they share both a male and female spirit and can be recognized and revered as nádleehí. The Hina of Kumu Hina is part of a native Hawaiian culture that has traditionally revered and respected Mahu, those who embody both male and female spirit as well.
This concept of multiple genders beyond the binary can be recognized in Western culture as being transgender, nonbinary or gender nonconforming.
Castle said in Western culture being transgender is identifying with a gender that is different than the gender assigned at birth. However, being gender nonconforming means a person does not conform to societal expectations of gender. Nonbinary is an umbrella term for gender identities that are not in the gender binary of woman/man.
“Language is not perfect when it comes to understanding and explaining the individual experience of gender, the umbrella terms we use to describe gender can resonate differently with people,” Castle said. “I think the important aspect is that a person can be transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, neither or all, and it is really up to the individual to determine what terms describe their individual experience with gender.”
Castle said it is important to note indigenous people and cultures around the world have a different social structure for gender, and a binary gender system consisting of two genders that is a man and a woman is not universal.
Many cultures throughout history of the world use the concept of gender conforming and nonconforming in their cultures, ultimately creating a space for multiple genders to exist in their cultures.
In North American indigenous cultures like Navajo, Zuni and Lakota tribes, they use the term two spirit to represent the concept of a third gender. The term dilbaa refers to a female-born person with a more masculine spirit in which both identities are considered to encompass both genders in one person.
The two spirit Zuni tradition is known as lhamana, in which a person lives as both genders simultaneously. Lhamana play a key role in society as mediators, priests and artists and perform both traditional women's work (pottery and crafts) as well as traditional men's work hunting in the Zuni tribes.
The term Winkte is the Lakota word for two spirit people. Very much like the Navajo nadleehi and dilbaa, the winkte are born male but assume many traditional women's roles, such as cooking and caring for children, as well as assuming key roles in rituals and serving as the keeper of the tribe's oral traditions.
Similar to the two spirit concept from North American indigenous tribes, the term Mahu is a multiple gender tradition that existed among the Kanaka Maoli indigenous Hawaiian society.
“The mahu could be biological males or females inhabiting a gender role somewhere between or encompassing both the masculine and feminine,” PBS said. “Their social role is sacred as educators and promulgators of ancient traditions and rituals. The arrival of Europeans and the colonization of Hawaii nearly eliminated the native culture and today mahu face discrimination in a culture dominated by white European ideology about gender.”
Other cultures that held the concept of a third gender were the Chukchi in an indigenous Siberian tribe, the Inca tribes in Peru and Xanith in Islamic cultures.
The Chukchi are a nomadic, shamanic people who embrace a third gender. Generally the shamans who are a part of this tribe are biologically male with some adoption of female roles and appearance who married men but also were not subject to the social limitations placed on women. Those who were Chukchi could accompany men on the hunt as well as take care of family.
The Inca tribe in precolonial Andean culture worshipped the chuqui chinchay, a dual-gendered god. The third-gender ritual attendants or shamans performed sacred rituals to honor this god. The quariwarmi shamans wore androgynous clothing as a visible sign of a third space that negotiated between the masculine and the feminine, the present and the past and the living and the dead.
The Xanith of Oman are considered an intermediate gender in the Islamic nation. They are biological males and do not practice emasculation, but do assume the dress, mannerisms and some social roles of women. However, those who are Xanith have masculine names and are referred to in the masculine grammatical gender form. Under Islamic law they have all the rights of a man, for example, the right to testify in court, a right that is denied to women. They also worship in the mosque with men and are also permitted, unlike women, to hold paying jobs.
Another nonconforming gender identity concept in many cultures around the world is when biological males take on a feminine role in their cultures, such as those in the Zapotec of the Oaxacan peninsula in Mexico.
The Muxe, or Muxhe, are generally males who either dress as women or dress as males with makeup. They may adopt “feminine” social roles such as working in embroidery, but many also have white-collar careers in Mexico. In recent decades, the term has also come to apply to gay men.
In the Philippines, they use the term Bakla as a Tagalog term that encompasses an array of sexual and gender identities, but especially indicates a male-born person who assumes the dress, mannerisms and social roles of a woman. The Bakla actually developed their own language to use with each other, called swardspeak. It is a mixture of Filipino, English and Spanish and is spoken with a "hyper-feminized inflection." While the Bakla have existed as a recognized third gender for centuries, more conservative influences in recent decades have marginalized them.
The Italian culture also has a similar concept in their culture called the Femminiello, translated to “little man-woman.” It refers to biological males who dress as women and assume female gender roles in Neopolitan society.
“Their social place in society up through the 19th century was privileged,” PBS said. “Many cultural rituals, such as marriage to one another, were based on Greek mythology related to Hermaphroditus and Tiresias (who was transformed into a woman for seven years).”
Cultures in different countries around the world also have terms for the Western term of being transgender, in which their gender identity is different from their sex assigned at birth.
The Sakalavas in Madagascar used the term Sekrata for little boys thought to have a feminine appearance, in which they were raised as girls. They called their gender crossers Sekrata, who, like women, wore their hair long and in decorative knots, inserted silver coins in pierced ears and wore many bracelets on their arms, wrists and ankles. The Sekrata considered themselves "real" women, totally forgetting they were born males, and through long practice spoke with a woman's voice. Their society thought their efforts to be female natural and believed they had supernatural protection that punished anyone who attempted to do them harm.
Another culture that has used the concept of being transgender is the Aboriginal Australians. In Australia, indigenous transgendered people are known as "sistergirls" and "brotherboys." In other native cultures around the world, there is evidence transgender and intersex people were much more accepted in their society before colonization, but now there are more stigmas attached.
However, there is an increasing number of support groups specifically aimed at sistergirls and brotherboys, there has began a destigmatization of the concept of being transgender or being intersex in Australia, as well as using the terms sistergirls and brotherboys.
In Western culture, where in recent years it has just started to differentiate the concept of gender identity and the different identities there are, as well as the concept of gender expression, other cultures for a lot longer have accepted and given roles to those who don’t identify with the binary.
port said in Western culture, gender impacts your everyday life, especially when your identity lies with the sex you were assigned at birth — which is defined as being cisgender.
“Our country’s colonial foundation props up systems built for and by cisgender people,” port said. “While other societies and cultures revere and honor transgender and agender individuals and ways of thinking, we have not. Because of this, daily life is shaped in every way. Gendered language, systems, ways of acting, expectations and punishment pervades the U.S. experience. Beyond that, as a cisgender person, I think for me to provide a list of specific ways in which others’ lives are impacted would be an insult to the experience of my transgender and nonbinary siblings. As a cisgender person, I live a life virtually free from the negativity and harm around gender identity.”
Castle also said gender is not a “one size fits all” experience. Even individuals that use the same umbrella terms to describe their gender have their own very specific experiences with gender. Gender is often used to describe everything from bathrooms to clothing to behaviors and that can be very affirming and supportive for some people but other people have a very conflicting experience with gender labels as they navigate basic needs in their daily life. That conflicting experience is often very dangerous and people are denied access to bathrooms, health care, homes, food and threatened with or experience physical violence for not conforming to society's broad expectations of gender.
Information about gender identity, gender expression and more can be found at the Margaret Sloss Center for Women and Gender Equity, the Diversity and Inclusion Office and the LGBTQIA+ Center for Student Success.
port said she would like to acknowledge that information around topics of gender, gender identity, gender expression and gender confirmation is expansive. Gender and Sexual Diversity Initiatives in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion will always try to impact that expansion and is a willing partner with Iowa State community members who want to challenge themselves to evolve in their thinking too.