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Gender identity in indigenous cultures

22 February 2021

3 mins

Author: Catherine Armstrong

It is important to understand that the lives of LGBT+ people in the past were experienced very differently in cultures outside Europe and Americas. Examining indigenous cultures, it is clear that the more subtle and nuanced approaches to LGBT+ people that we associate with the recent past have been part of their cultures for many generations. The notion of a third gender is part of Polynesian culture. It can mean a gender between male and female, or alternatively gender fluid. For example in Hawaii and Tahiti, third-gender individuals were known as ‘Mahu’. They were highly respected within native culture as keepers of oral traditions and historical knowledge. They often taught the hula dance, famous to the region, which has a leisure function but also an important spiritual and historical meaning. Mahu people exist not only in the past, but are an important part of queer culture in Hawaii today. Within native culture, the term ‘Aikane’ has come to mean ‘bisexual’ although more accurately, historically, the term referred to those undertaking same sex sexual service to please the chief class. For example, chief Kamehameha, the ruler when Captain Cook visited Hawaii, had several male ‘Aikane’ lovers as well as heterosexual partners.

Other native cultures also display a deep respect for gender diversity. The Navajo tribe from the south-west United States have a gender category called Nadleeh, which can refer to transgender people who have transitioned in one direction along the gender binary, gender fluid individuals and to those whose gender presentation is more masculine or feminine than their gender identity suggests. As with Mahu in Hawaii, Nadleehi in Navajo culture have a spiritual function as well as being respected tribal members in their own right. Compared to Western society, this difference in perception was noted by anthropologists as early as the 1920s, when author William Willard Hill was surprised that Navajo society considered a transgender person ‘very fortunate’, unlike in his own culture in the United States, for which gender fluidity caused anxiety in the mainstream. A timely reminder that it’s always important to look outside one’s own cultural context to learn lessons about inclusion and diversity. You might be surprised by what you discover!

Photo by Bosque Redondo, 1866

Further reading

Coming to Terms with Navajo Nádleehí: A Critique of Berdache, “Gay,” “Alternate Gender,” and “Two‐spirit” by Epple, Carolyn. Published in American Ethnologist (Electronic article)

Gender on the edge : transgender, gay, and other Pacific Islanders / edited by Niko Besnier and Kalissa Alexeyeff.

The Mahu of Hawii / Robertson, Carol. Published in Feminist Studies (Electronic article)

Native American men-women, lesbians, two-spirits: Contemporary and historical perspectives / Lang, Sabine. Published in Journal of lesbian studies (Electronic article)

Neither man nor woman : the hijras of India / Serena Nanda.

Who is Takatapui? Maori language, sexuality and identity in Aotearoa/New Zealand / by Murray, David. Published in Anthropologica (Electronic article)

LGBT+ Staff network blog

Posts and articles from the Loughborough University LGBT+ staff network

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