Ancient and Worldwide

If one were to track the commentary on articles which focus on a transperson in singular or transpeople as a group, one would nearly universally discover someone stuck in opposition to our existence because transgender is “new” and/or a western/American phenomenon.

But it is neither new, nor western in origin.

The only thing that is relatively new is the fact that there are now medical procedures to treat the transgender condition.  And the word itself, I guess.  Etymology online dates it to 1988, although it dates the word “transsexual” to 1957.  The derogatory “she-male”, on the other hand, dates to the 19th Century.

Not surprisingly, it’s an English term…which is what probably spurs the thought that it is a Western phenomenon.  But the words for the phenomenon in non-western cultures are ancient.  In ancient Rome some of us were the Gallae, the castrated followers of the goddess Cybele.

Cybele’s religion was a bloody cult that required its priests and priestesses as well as followers to cut themselves during some rituals.  The cult was a mystery religion, which meant that it’s inner secrets and practices were revealed to initiates only.  The priests castrated themselves at their initiation; there was wild music, chanting, and frenzied dancing.  Cybele’s retinue included many priestesses, including Amazonian, transgendered female priests as well as traditional masculine functionaries such as the dendrophori (tree-bearer) and cannophori (reed-bearer), and transgendered males known as the Gallae.

In ancient Medina, we were the mukhannathun (the “effeminate ones”, “men who resemble women”.

In one hadith the prophet Muhammad banishes a mukhannath to a region near Medina, but prohibits people from killing them.

The mukhannath is not only the one who is known to be promiscuous.  The mukhannath is (also?) the one who looks so much like a woman physically that he resembles women in his softness, speech, appearance, accent and thinking.  If he is like this, he would have no desire for women and he would not notice anything about them.  This is one of those who have no interest in women who were permitted to enter upon women.

Ibn Al-Barr

That is only one of numerous commentaries on the mukhannathun.

In Thailand and Laos, the ancient word is “kathoey”, although it is extended to include effeminate gay men.  

In South Asia, the word is “hijra”.  Hijras appear in the Kama Sutra, the Mahabharata, and other Hindu texts.  Indeed one form of the Lord Shiva merged with the the goddess Parvati to become the half male and half female god Ardhanari, the Lord of Dance (see my series on transgender and the arts).

In Book XIII [of the Mahabharata], Upamanyu praises Shiva rhetorically asking if there is anyone else whose half-body is shared by his spouse, and adds that the universe had risen from the union of sexes, as represented by Shiva’s half-female form.

So to the rest of the universe, we say, “You are most welcome.”

In ancient Akkadian empire (north of Sumer, in present day Iraq), a salzikum was someone who was biologically female but had male traits.  The word’s literal translation is “male daughter”.  As such, a salzikum had the same inheritance rights as a son in the Code of Hammurabi and had the right to start a family with wives of “her” own.

In traditional Hawaiian culture, we were the Mahu.  In Gauguin’s Contes Barbares (aka Primitive Tales–seen on the left) from 1902 the figure in the middle is a mahu.

In Tanga we are the fakaleiti and in Samoa the fa’afafine.  Transgender is now an official sex in the Nepalese census and GLBTI Nepalis may now select Other on their official ID documents.

On this continent First Nations people have recognized and even honored the Ła’mana of the Zuni (to the right is We’wha, the Zuni lha’mana who was the toast of the capital when she visited DC in 1886 and met President Cleveland), the Lakota Winyanktehca (which has been shortened to winkte), the Mohave alyhaa and hwamee, and the Navajo nadleeh. not to forget the

I-coo-coo-a (Sauk and Fox); Agokwa (Ojibwa); Hee-man-eh (Cheyenne); Ougokweniini (Anishnawbe); Tanowaip (Shoshoni); Kwidó (Tewa); Manly Hearts (The North Piegan)

What has Western civilization lost by its apparent lack of a counterpart to “Wintke” – by, indeed, bending every social institution to the task of stigmatizing gender mediation?  More than the waste of the individual’s potential which suppression entails, there is the loss of the “Wintke spirit guide” who serves men and women alike with the insights of the intermediate position.  This raises the question whether men and women today can ever achieve mutuality and wholeness, as long as men who manifest qualities considered feminine, and women who do the same in male realms, are seen as deviants to be criminalized and stigmatized.

–Marjorie Anne Napewastewiñ Schützer

In anthropological cicles the term berdache is often used collectively to describe these people.  Both Native Americans and transpeople wish they wouldn’t.  The word derives from the french word bardache (catamite), from the Arabic bardaj (slave) and Persian bardah (prisoner).

In Mexico there is the Oaxachan Zapotopec muxe.

the idea of choosing gender or of sexual orientation is as ludicrous as suggesting that one can choose one’s skin color.

–Beverly Chiñas

Of course, when a muxe goes to a larger town or city, the muxe is likely to encounter men from the predominately macho mestizo culture and face discrimination and danger.

I left the world’s fourth largest country, in terms of population, and largest Muslim nation for last.  In Indonesia we are the waria.

The World Channel is showing Tales of the Waria on Sunday evening at 10pm eastern.  In the NYC metro area, it will be on WLIW.

We’ll be able to learn about the waria community together.

Here’s the trailer:

And here is the creator talking about the documentary:


    • Robyn on June 2, 2012 at 12:03 am

    …we have one, courtesy of Gwen Smith in 2005:

    Take one drink if…

    (1) A transwoman is shown putting on makeup or fixing her hair, or if a transman is shown shaving or slicking back his hair. If they show two transfolks in one shot, take two drinks.

    (2) The narrator uses the words “unusual,” “shocking,” or “disturbing” to describe a transgender person and/or the process of transitioning from one gender to another.

    (3) “She” and “her” is used to describe a transman, or “he” and “him” is used to describe a transwoman.

    (4) The birth name of a transgender person is used to describe the person after ze begin transition or when ze is shown in a preferred gender. Take an extra drink if the narrator has already stressed that the person in question has changed hir name.

    (5) If anyone makes the assumption that genitals equal gender.

    (6) A transwoman is shown doing a stereo typically feminine action, like shopping in the mall, or a transman is shown doing something stereo typically masculine, such as playing a sport.

    (7) If a transman is shown putting on and/or straightening a tie.

    (8) If old photographs are used to try and show that a transperson used to visually fit into their birth gender.

    (9) If anyone uses the phrase “a man trapped in a woman’s body,” or vice versa.

    (10) If undergarments are shown. Make it two if they happen to be a gaff or a binder.

    Take two drinks if…

    (1) No transmen are shown.

    (2) The transgender people presented are predominately Caucasian, and predominately middle or upper class.

    (3) An “expert” is brought on to talk about how “wrong” being transgender is. You may as well add a third if they happen to be using a religious argument against being transgender.

    (4) The family of a transgender person is shown, particularly if they are negative towards their loved one’s transgender status.

    (5) If anyone says “You will always be __ to me, where the blank represents a transperson’s birth gender.”

    Finish the bottle if…

    You discover you accidentally put on Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda, or if the only thing you can find on that has to do with being transgendered happens to be The Jerry Springer Show.  Just don’t waste anything expensive in the process.

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