Exploring the history of gender expression (2023)

Editor’s note: Link welcomes guest writer Ianna Urquhart of the UCOP Gender Pronoun Education/Awareness Initiative for this informative background of gender identity in societies throughout the world. Learn more about Ianna in her 10-Second Bio.

Although contemporary culture likes to position gender non-conforming people as a new phenomenon, history shows otherwise. Anthropologists have long documented cultures around the world that acknowledge more than two genders. There are examples going back 3,000 years to the Iron Age, and even further back to the Copper Age. In this article, we’ll explore cultures from around the world in which the boundaries between male and female gender expressions have been fluid — and celebrated for being so.

Pacific Islands

Long before Cook’s arrival in Hawaii, a multiple-gender tradition existed among the Kanaka Maoli indigenous society. The mahu referred to biological males or females who inhabited a gender role somewhere between, or encompassing both, the masculine and feminine. They held a sacred social role as educators and promulgators of ancient traditions and rituals.

Fa’afafine are people who identify themselves as a third-gender in Samoa, American Samoa and the Samoan diaspora. A recognized gender identity/gender role since at least the early 20th century in Samoan society — and some theorize an integral part of traditional Samoan culture — fa’afafine are male at birth and explicitly embody both masculine and feminine gender traits, fashioned in a way unique to this part of the world.


Prior to colonization, the Ankole people in what is now Uganda elected a woman to dress as a man and thereby become an oracle to the god Mukasa.

(Video) Exploring gender identities

Among the Sakalavas of Madagaskar, little boys thought to have a feminine appearance were raised as girls. The Antandroy and Hova called their gender-crossers sekrata. They, like the society’s women, wore their hair long and in decorative knots, inserted silver coins in pierced ears and adorned their arms, wrists and ankles with many bracelets.

Latin America

In pre-colonial Andean culture, the Incas worshipped the chuqui chinchay, a dual-gendered god. 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, the living and the dead.”

Today, the indigenous Zapotec culture of Oaxaca is not divided by the usual dichotomies: gay or straight, male or female. There’s a commonly accepted third category of mixed gender — people called muxes. (Their name is said to derive from mujer — the Spanish word for “woman.”) Some are men who live as women; others identify beyond a single gender.


Indonesia recognizes a third gender, waria. One ethnic group, the Bugis (numbering around 3 million people) recognize five genders. Their language offers five terms referencing various combinations of sex, gender and sexuality: makkunrai (“female women”), oroani (“male men”), calalai (“female men”), calabai (“male women”) and bissu (“transgender priests”). These definitions are not exact, but suffice.

In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the hijras are officially recognized as third gender by the government, being neither completely male nor female. In India also, transgender people have been given the status of “third gender” and are protected by law, despite the social ostracism. The term more commonly advocated by social workers and transgender community members themselves is khwaja sira. This can identify the individual as a transsexual person, transgender person (khusras), cross-dresser (zenanas) or eunuch (narnbans).

(Video) Range of Gender Identities

Kathoey or katoey refers to either a transgender woman or effeminate gay male in Thailand. A significant number of Thais perceive kathoeys as belonging to a third gender — including many kathoeys themselves — while others see them as either a kind of man or a kind of woman. However, when considering transgender women (MtF) as a group in Thai society, most refer to themselves as phuying (“women”), with a minority referring to themselves as phuying praphet song (a “second kind of woman”) and only very few referring to themselves as kathoey.

Native America

Anthropological research indicates well over 100 instances of diverse gender expression in Native American tribes at the time of early European contact. The most common modern term for gender non-conforming members is “Two Spirit” (also two-spirit or twospirit) used by some indigenous North Americans to describe certain spiritual people — gay, lesbian, bisexual and gender-variant individuals — in their communities. The term was adopted in 1990 at an Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering to encourage the replacement of the anthropological term berdache.

“Two Spirit” is not interchangeable with “LGBT Native American.” This title differs from most Western, mainstream, definitions of sexuality and gender identity in that it is not so much about with whom one sleeps or how one personally identifies; rather, it is a sacred, spiritual and ceremonial role that is recognized and confirmed by the Elders of the Two Spirit’s ceremonial community. While some have found the term a useful tool for intertribal organizing, not all Native cultures conceptualize gender or sexuality this way, and most tribes use names in their own languages. While some terms are not always appropriate or welcome, “Two Spirit” has generally received more acceptance and use than the term it replaced.

Individual tribes often also have their own classifications, such as the wíŋkte among the Lakota, the mixuga among the Ponca, the badé among the Crow and many others. These are all third-gender roles adopted by males, somewhat analogous to what we might think of as a transgender woman today. They’re not exactly equivalent of course. In general, these third-gender roles were liminal social positions, standing somewhere between the categories of man and woman — being neither, but having traits of both in addition to traits unique unto themselves.

The degree to which a third-gender person could shift fluidly between man, woman and third gender roles varied among cultures. Osh-Tisch, the most famous badé, for example, generally adopted the attire of women and engaged in women’s work, but when war came to the Crow, Osh-Tisch adopted men’s clothing and fought with the men (earning the rather badass name Finds-Them-and-Kills-Them). Among the Crow of that time (late 1800s), Osh-Tisch’s gender fluidity was considered less remarkable than the fact that a woman, The Other Magpie, also fought alongside Osh-Tisch. Like most badé, Osh-Tisch never married, but did have at least one long-term relationship with a man and perhaps another with a woman (who may be The Other Magpie). When the U.S. forced their own ideas of gender on the Crow, the people rallied in defense of the badé. Though Osh-Tisch was eventually forced by US agents to adopt what they deemed appropriate attire and labor for a man, the badé managed to keep many of the traditions associated with that gender role alive.

(Video) The Science of Being Transgender ft. Gigi Gorgeous

Diné (Navajo) society has traditionally had five genders: asdzaan (female-in-woman), hastiin (male-in-man), nadleeh (hermaphrodite, androgyny or gender fluidity), nadleehi (woman-in-man, feminine gender) and dilbah (man-in-woman, masculine gender).

For the Navajo, gender had less to do with sexual preference or biology than societal role. Most of the time, there was not much special about these people. Social hierarchy meant that female-gendered individuals were more powerful because the feminine is the first gender. Nadleeh could be revered because they might express both male and female spirits perfectly, whereas every other gender could express only one spirit. (It is worth noting though that not every nadleeh does, which is why sometimes people say that the Navajo have “at least” five genders — there is some wiggle room in there).

… and beyond

Even in the heart of Catholic Italy, in Naples, there is a centuries-old phenomenon of femminielli, those assigned male at birth who dress and behave as women. They are respected figures and traditionally believed to bring good luck; a cultural tradition that may date back to pagan rituals of crossdressing, or eunuch priests.

This vast anthropological and archaeological evidence of multiple gender expression is often willfully ignored, but the reality is that gender non-conformity has been a part of human society since the very beginning. And, it’s not going anywhere.

About the Gender Pronoun Education/Awareness Initiative

Promoting diversity and inclusion is a key component of our healthy and productive workplace culture. The newest effort to nurture this culture is the UCOP Gender Pronoun Education/Awareness Initiative, which is focused on educating staff around how we can support trans, non-binary and gender non-conformingstaff by implementing simple changes in how we use pronouns in the workplace.

(Video) A playful exploration of gender performance | Jo Michael Rezes

This is the third article in a three-part series, which includes “Introducing the Gender Pronoun Initiative” (Sept. 23) and “What is gender?” (Oct. 7). Stay tuned for our next article on Oct. 22.

Tags: gender, Gender Pronoun Initiative, history

Exploring the history of gender expression (1)

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(Video) John Money: The Origins of Gender Identity


Who came up with gender expression? ›

While a person may express behaviors, attitudes, and appearances consistent with a particular gender role, such expression may not necessarily reflect their gender identity. The term gender identity was coined by psychiatry professor Robert J. Stoller in 1964 and popularized by psychologist John Money.

What is the history of gender identity? ›

Gender identity as a concept was popularized by John Money in the 1960s. He founded the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins University and formulated, defined, and coined the term “gender role” and later expanded it to gender-identity/role.

What is the purpose of gender expression? ›

Gender expression is how a person publicly expresses or presents their gender. This can include behaviour and outward appearance such as dress, hair, make-up, body language and voice. A person's chosen name and pronoun are also common ways of expressing gender.

What is the historical definition of gender? ›

1300, "kind, sort, class, a class or kind of persons or things sharing certain traits," from Old French gendre, genre "kind, species; character; gender" (12c., Modern French genre), from stem of Latin genus (genitive generis) "race, stock, family; kind, rank, order; species," also "(male or female) sex," from PIE root ...

When did more than 2 genders start? ›

Anthropologists have long documented cultures around the world that acknowledge more than two genders. There are examples going back 3,000 years to the Iron Age, and even further back to the Copper Age.

When did gender become a social construct? ›

The differentiation between gender and sex did not arise until the late 1970s, when researchers began using "gender" and "sex" as two separate terms, with "gender" referring to one's self-identity and "sex" referring to one's chromosomal makeup and sex organs.

What are some examples of gender expression? ›

Gender expression is how a person publicly presents their gender. This can include behaviour and outward appearance such as dress, hair, make-up, body language and voice. A person's chosen name and pronoun are also common ways of expressing gender.

What influences gender identity? ›

Our gender identity is influenced by our personal experiences throughout the socialization process, the people with whom we relate, and our own choices. Thus we must understand that gender roles and traits for men and women are dynamic.

What is the history of gender and development? ›

Gender and Development was developed in the 1980's as an alternative to the Women in Development (WID) approach. Unlike WID, the GAD approach is not concerned specifically with women, but with the way in which a society assigns roles, responsibilities, and expectations to both men and women.

Why is gender important in society? ›

Gender is of key importance in defining the power, privilege and possibilities that some people have and some people do not have in a given society. It affects progress towards equality and freedom from discrimination.

Why is gender representation important? ›

Representation is the core basis of democracy. Improved decision-making. UN Women have found that women's involvement impacts decision-making in a positive way - with examples including better childcare in Norway and more drinking water projects in India linked to higher levels of female representation.

Why is it important to learn about gender identity? ›

Learning more about gender and sex and how we see ourselves as a boy/male, girl/female, transgender, intersex or somewhere in between, can help increase understanding and help youth establish their own gender identity.

What are the 4 main genders? ›

In English, the four genders of noun are masculine, feminine, common, and neuter.

What are the sources of gender history? ›

Women's and Gender Studies
  • newspaper articles.
  • interviews and transcripts.
  • speeches.
  • letters.
  • diaries.
  • photographs.
  • research data.
Sep 29, 2022

What is gender equality in history? ›

Gender equality, also known as sexual equality or equality of the sexes, is the state of equal ease of access to resources and opportunities regardless of gender, including economic participation and decision-making; and the state of valuing different behaviors, aspirations and needs equally, regardless of gender.

What was the first gender? ›

The first sexual beings to emerge perhaps 2.5 billion years ago were what biologists call isogamous — which is a little like being gay, except everyone is somewhere between male and female.

When did male and female sexes evolve? ›

Recombination probably evolved ~ 3 billion years ago as a mechanism of DNA repair; sex evolved ~ 1-2 billion years ago in the early eukaryotes; the reason is unclear but it its likely that it is maintained in the current day by selection.

When did male and female start? ›

They have established that the first " sex genes " appeared concomitantly in mammals around 180 million years ago.

How is gender created by society? ›

The social construction of gender is demonstrated by the fact that individuals, groups, and societies ascribe particular traits, statuses, or values to individuals purely because of their sex, yet these ascriptions differ across societies and cultures, and over time within the same society.

Are gender roles biological or social? ›

Sex is a biological concept, while gender is a social concept and refers to the social and cultural differences a society assigns to people based on their sex.

What is the cultural construction of gender? ›

Cultural construction of gender talks about the construction of masculinity and femininity in the context of socialization, i.e., the individual acquires the gendered bodies of being feminine or masculine in the course of social development.

How do you encourage gender expressions? ›

Where to Begin?
  1. Do Your Research. There is growing recognition that gender is not a simple binary (male and female), but rather a spectrum. ...
  2. Show Respect. Be respectful of an individual's affirmed gender identity, name, and pronouns. ...
  3. Be an ally and advocate. ...
  4. Get support if needed.

What are the 6 gender identities? ›

Gender Identity Terms
  • Agender. Not having a gender or identifying with a gender. ...
  • Bigender. A person who fluctuates between traditionally “male” and “female” gender-based behaviours and identities.
  • Cisgender. ...
  • Gender Expression. ...
  • Gender Fluid. ...
  • Genderqueer. ...
  • Gender Variant. ...
  • Mx.

What part of the brain controls gender identity? ›

Regarding grey matter, the main sexually dimorphic areas associated with the development of gender identity are represented by the central subdivision of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) and the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH3).

What are the 3 determinants of gender identity? ›

These are: 1) the role of the brain; 2) the role of socialisation; and 3) multi-dimensional gender development.

Can a child be non binary? ›

Children who do continue to feel they are a different gender from the one assigned at birth could develop in different ways. Some may feel they do not belong to any gender and may identify as agender. Others will feel their gender is outside of male and female and may identify as non-binary.

How did gender roles start changing? ›

New ideas like socialism, nationalism and women's rights helped transform traditional attitudes and expectations. As a result, gender roles began to shift and change. The labor-intensive Industrial Revolution brought many women out of the home to work in factories. Colonized people began to resist European control.

What are the three major theories of gender development? ›

Given the ubiquitous influence of gender in a person's life, a number of theories have been developed to explain gender development. These theories can be generally divided into three families: biological, socialization, and cognitive.

How did gender roles start? ›

Historically, gender roles have been largely attributed to biological differences in men and women. Although research indicates that biology plays a role in gendered behavior, the extent of its effects on gender roles is less clear. One hypothesis attributes differences in gender roles to evolution.

How does gender affect our daily lives? ›

Every day of their lives, people's gender influences the manner in which they are expected to behave, the way that they are perceived and evaluated by others, the kinds of roles that they take on, and the possibilities that are available to them.

What are five factors that influence gender roles? ›

Gender roles are influenced by the media, family, environment, and society. In addition to biological maturation, children develop within a set of gender-specific social and behavioral norms embedded in family structure, natural play patterns, close friendships, and the teeming social jungle of school life.

Why gender is a development issue? ›

Why is gender a development issue? The roles that women play are different in any given society, and their situation is determined by the legislation, religious norms, economic status or class, cultural values, ethnicity and types of productive activity of their country, community and household.

How does social media influence gender roles? ›

Media nurture gender roles and behavioral traits through advertisements and photos where women's roles vary from childcare to workplace activities displaying women dependence while, on the other hand, men are portrayed as more independent and less likely to express their emotions.

What is the concept of gender representation? ›

A definition of gender representation in media

In sociology, many scholars perceive that media representations not only associate the concepts of femininity and masculinity with popular stereotypes, but also present role models that men and women should look up to or get inspiration from.

What are the 7 types of gender? ›

Through these conversations with real people Benestad has observed seven unique genders: Female, Male, Intersex, Trans, Non-Conforming, Personal, and Eunuch.

What pronouns are gender neutral? ›

Gendered pronouns are those that indicate gender: he, she, him, her, hers, his, himself and herself. All others, like "it, "one," and "they," are gender-neutral. You probably already use some gender-neutral pronouns: they, their, and them.

What causes gender dysphoria? ›

The exact cause of gender dysphoria is unclear. Gender development is complex and there are still things that are not known or fully understood. Gender dysphoria is not related to sexual orientation. People with gender dysphoria may identify as straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual.

What are the five elements of gender? ›

The concept of gender includes five important elements: relational, hierarchical, historical, contextual and institutional.

What were women's roles throughout history? ›

Women traditionally ran the household, bore and reared the children, were nurses, mothers, wives, neighbours, friends, and teachers. During periods of war, women were drafted into the labor market to undertake work that had been traditionally restricted to men.

What was women's role in history? ›

Throughout history, women have been healers and caretakers, playing multiple roles as pharmacists, nurses, midwives, abortionists, counselors, physicians, and 'wise women,' as well as witches. As early as 4000 BC, there were women who studied, taught, and practiced medicine.

What cultures have more than 2 genders? ›

6 Cultures That Recognize More than Two Genders
  • Hijra. Hindu society features the gender hijra, the most common nonbinary identity recognized in India today. ...
  • Calalai, Calabai, and Bissu. The Bugis ethnic group of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, recognizes three genders beyond the binary. ...
  • Muxe. ...
  • Sekrata. ...
  • Two-Spirit. ...
  • Bakla.

How many genders did the Romans have? ›

Gender In Ancient Rome

There were three genders in ancient Rome: male, female, and slave. Male and female citizens were afforded different rights and privileges, and slaves were considered to be outside the pale of humanity altogether.

What cultures have gender fluidity? ›

In cultures with a third or fourth gender, these genders may represent very different things. To Native Hawaiians and Tahitians, Māhū is an intermediate state between man and woman, or a "person of indeterminate gender".
  • 4.7.1 Mesoamerica.
  • 4.7.2 Inca.
  • 4.7.3 Indigenous North Americans.
  • 4.7.4 Inuit.

What were the genders in ancient Egypt? ›

Inscribed pottery shards discovered near ancient Thebes (now Luxor, Egypt), and dating from the Middle Kingdom (2000-1800 BCE), contain a listing of three genders of humanity: males, eunuchs, and females, in that order.

Is intersex a birth defect? ›

Intersex variations are not abnormal and should not be seen as 'birth defects'; they are natural biological variations and occur in up to 1.7 per cent of all births. Most people with intersex variations are not born with atypical genitalia, however this is common for certain intersex variations.

What is the Mexican third gender? ›

There are two types of muxes, the gunaa and the nguiiu. The gunaa are those who were born as men but who identify as women, are attracted to men and assume feminine roles in society. The nguii are those who were born as men and are attracted to other men.

What two languages have no gender? ›

There are some languages that have no gender! Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish, and many other languages don't categorize any nouns as feminine or masculine and use the same word for he or she in regards to humans.

What age did Roman girls marry? ›

The age of lawful consent to a marriage was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Most Roman women married in their late teens to early twenties. Still, noble women married younger than those of the lower classes, and an aristocratic girl was expected to be a virgin until her first marriage.

How did Romans treat females? ›

Defined by the men in their lives, women in ancient Rome were valued mainly as wives and mothers. Although some were allowed more freedom than others, there was always a limit, even for the daughter of an emperor.

How tall was the average Roman woman? ›

Killgrove said in her post that, while she thinks the male estimate seems right, the female estimate might be a bit off. Roman women were only about 5 feet 2 inches tall on average, and size 10 is quite large comparable to that stature.

What are the 5 Native American genders? ›

Many indigenous communities recognize at least four genders (feminine female, masculine female, feminine male, masculine male), and most indigenous communities and tribes have specific terms for sexual and gender fluid members. The Two-Spirit tradition is primarily a question of gender, not sexual orientation.

What culture has the most gender equality? ›

Iceland's near neighbours Finland, Norway and Sweden dominate the top five, while only four countries in the top 10 are outside Europe: New Zealand (4th), Rwanda (6th), Nicaragua (7th) and Namibia (8th).

What is the most feminine culture? ›

Countries that are considered feminine cultures are Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Costa Rica. According to Hofstede, "Femininity stands for a society in which social gender roles overlap: Both men and women are supposed to be modest, tender, and concerned with the quality of life."

What was Cleopatra's gender? ›

Cleopatra is argued to be one of Shakespeare's most fully developed female characters ever. As a woman in power, she's unique from the get-go, and the play constantly questions whether gender identity is a central part of how people act in powerful positions.

What age did girls marry in ancient Egypt? ›

Girls were married as young as age 12 and boys age 15 although the average age seems to have been 14 for girls and 18 or 20 for boys.

What gender was Nefertiti? ›

However, the report concluded that the mummy was a female because of a lack of evidence of male genitalia. Hawass said a double-piercing in the mummy's ear was common to both sexes, but in a different period to the Amarna era in which Nefertiti lived. He said it was even more common in men.


1. Fashion Policing & The Double Standards Of Gender Expression | Taryn de Vere | TEDxDerryLondonderry
(TEDx Talks)
2. What Gender Identity Means to Today's Teens
3. Exploring Gender Identity: Facilitating or Thwarting Development?
(Sasha Ayad)
4. Gen Z's Fluid Take on Gender Expression | Courtney Lucius | TEDxYouth@BrooklynLab
(TEDx Talks)
5. Beyond Binary: An Exploration of Gender Identity and Expression
6. Lesson from History: Transgender Mania is Sign of Cultural Collapse - Camille Paglia


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