Non-binary people in history have always been around. They are people who do not identify as male or female. In this article, we explore third gender history, including two-spirit history.
They may be somewhere on the spectrum in-between, have a fluid identity, or not have a gender at all. In fact, non-binary doesn’t describe a single-gender identity so much as a vast range of identities that don’t fit into a binary gender structure of male or female.
Recent studies have found that non-binary people make up as much as 11% of all LGBTQ+ people – in the USA alone that’s around 1.2 million people.
Despite this, the recognition of non-binary people in history and their rights has been sluggish worldwide.
While some countries like Uruguay, Nepal, Iceland, Argentina and Australia legally recognise non-binary identities, and others recognise traditional genders (like the kinnar and khawaja sira of India and Pakistan), many do not.
In the UK, for instance, non-binary people cannot have the correct gender marker on their legal documents or IDs.
This isn’t just upsetting to non-binary people, it comes with real dangers. Without proper legal recognition, non-binary people are at risk of falling through the gaps in anti-discrimination protections.
For instance, the UK’s Equality Act 2010 names gender identity as one of its protected characteristics, but it took until September 2020 and the ruling of Taylor v Jaguar Land Rover for it to be clarified that this includes non-binary people.
The lack of visibility can also make it difficult to access care and support services, with non-binary people having a higher occurrence of depression and suicidality and lower uptake of mental health services than transgender people in general.
One of the reasons for this lack of recognition is the perception that non-binary people are a new phenomenon.
Over the past ten years, the number of people identifying as gender-incongruent (their gender identity does not match their assigned sex at birth) has doubled.
Non-binary people are more visible than ever in arts and media, like musician Janelle Monae, showrunner Noelle Stevenson and actor Asia Kate Dillon. But this isn’t something new – rather, it’s the consequence of better knowledge and improved visibility.
Non-Binary People In History
Two-spirit is an umbrella term used by some Native American and First Nations people to describe identities that exist beyond male and female, and do not correspond to non-Native structures of gender. In Hawaii, māhū are non-binary people with a rich history of important spiritual and social roles.
Recent research has found that many non-binary people throughout history expressed some kind of non-binary gender identity.
In the Byzantine Empire, some people who were assigned female at birth went on to join all-male orders of monks, using
male and female pronouns interchangeably.
The famous French warrior Joan of Arc used female pronouns, but when she was called by God, took up exclusively masculine clothing and social roles.
In more recent non-binary history we can find people like Vita Sackville-West, who had relationships with both men and women, sometimes presenting as a woman and sometimes as a man.
We don’t have to look hard to find non-binary people in history, and all around the world. The problem isn’t that they are new, but that governments – particularly now, in the 21st century – have failed to recognise them.
Non-Binary People In History: The History of Two-Spirit
Two-spirit and non-binary people in native American history, have a rich, abundant, and colourful history.
Despite the depth of non-binary people in history in native American culture, the term was coined in 1990 – the term was respectfully promoted as an all-encompassing term that represents indigenous American peoples’ deep-seated “LGBT” and non-binary history.
Two-Spirited people in Native American history typically enjoy and fulfil ceremonial and social roles that are outside of their sex assigned at birth.
Under the two-spirit umbrella, we find more granular terms, such as Blackfoot and crow, both of which traditionally describe effeminate gay men and trans women or “men who live as women”.
As such, the acceptance amongst some tribes in Native American and non-binary history enabled these pioneering, gender non-conforming natives to enjoy social roles outside of their sex assigned at birth.
Non-Binary People In History: The History of the Term Two-Spirit
Believe it or not, Two-Spirit is a contemporary, blanket term for all people in indigenous communities who carry out third-gender, or gender non conforming social or ceremonial roles within the culture of their tribe.
As mentioned above, it’s a modern Native American term, which was created in 1990 at a Native American and First Nations lesbian and gay international gathering in Winnipeg.
The term was coined to elegantly portray the uniqueness, character, and nature of the vibrant indigenous third-gender tribal culture as acutely independent, distinctive, and totemic when compared to non-native LGBT culture.
As with all cultures, despite acceptance blossoming across indigenous tribes, many historians have previously titled the lively two-spirit people of Native America ‘berdache‘. A highly offensive term in Native American linguistics.
Two-Spirit people harbour both the soul of a male and female spirit within themselves, graced with the vision to see life through the eyes of both genders. It doesn’t necessarily mean the person was gay or transgender.
The term is generally only appropriate for Native people and is a highly ceremonial role for what modern society calls gender fluid, genderqueer, or gender non-conforming.
As a show of strength, desire, and tradition – the term was elegantly and deliberately designed as a bastion of staunch resistance to their colonizers, to ensure the potency of their ceremonies, culture and deeply-rooted non-binary people in history were different and not interchangeable with other cultures.
Incredibly, Many Elders in Native American society have vindicated the term’s use, imploring that it’s different from western LGBT identity and has much more of a spiritual, sacred, and ceremonial role in Aboriginal societies.
Being two-spirit was absolutely secondary to their ethnic identity, but continued to play a very important anthropological role within native American society.
Despite the term’s positive intentions across native peoples’ cultures, it was not without criticism within the Native community, as with all non-binary people in history.
Some native tribes claimed it will erase their own tribes’ bespoke and sewn terms with deep meaning for their non-binary people in history. However, even though many of the tribes oppose the term berdache, there are still individual terms that are deeply woven within their culture, many of which are delightfully celebratory and gracefully commemorated.
Furthermore, there’s also alarm that this might promote the idea that all Native Americans believe that Two-Spirit people have the spirit of both male and female, which is not always the case.
With that being said, it has received much more acceptance than the offensive term it has since replaced.
Despite this, there are various terms that can be used, each of these terms are totally bespoke to the tribes that each one represents.
List of Two-Spirit Indigenous terms:
● Aleut: “Man who has transformed into Woman”
● Blackfoot: “A man who acts like a woman”
● Cree: “A man who dresses like a woman”
● Crow: “A word that describes trans women and male homosexuals”
● Lakota: “Wants to be like a woman”
● Navajo: “One who changes”
● Ojibwe: “Man who chooses to function as a woman.”
● Zuni: “Men who at sometimes, may take on the ceremonial and social roles typically undertaken by women in some Native American tribes.”
Among the goals of various two-spirit societies are a combination of group support, outreach, education about non-binary people in history, a variety of activism, and a multitude of different cultural traditions, including the preservation of old languages, skills and a variety of ceremonial dances.
They take on a variety of traditionally feminine activities such as cooking and cleaning amongst themselves too!
Some of the Two-Spirit Societies around the world, include:
● 2Spirit of Toronto
● The Wabaki Two-Spirit Alliance in Nova Scotia
● The Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (San Francisco)
● Two-Spirit Natives in Oklahoma
● The East Coast Two-Spirit Society
● NorthEast Two-Spirit Society in New York
● Idaho Two Spirit Society
● Indiana Two-Spirit Society
● Minnesota Two Spirits
● The Montana Two-Spirit Society (Browning)
● Northwest Two-Spirit Society (Seattle)
● Ohio Valley Two-Spirit Society
● Portland Two-Spirit Society
● Regina Two-Spirited Society
● Texas Two Spirit Society
● Tulsa Two-Spirit Society
● Two-Spirit Society of Denver
Two-Spirit Historical Accounts
When certain people of native tribes did cross-dress, this was not indicative of the person’s gender identity, ceremonial role, or social role in Native American tribes.
Some native Americans and non-binary people in history may have mistakenly portrayed as Two-Spirit, when in fact this may have holistically been a cultural misunderstanding by Western Historians.
The overall role and existence of Two-Spirit People within Native society have been acutely described as being an absolutely fundamental institution among many of the tribal people of Native America.
They have been recorded as being in over 130 indigenous American tribes, across all regions of the North American continent.
When explorer Don Pedro Fages went on his expedition in 1770, he noted the presence of Two-Spirit people, or as he allied them “sodomites”, and was relatively surprised at the high level of spirit, and their high rank within societies of Native American culture.
Recognizing Non-Binary People and Their History
The fight for legal recognition for non-binary people may be ongoing, but there are a few easy things we can do to help improve the situation.
For instance, it is already becoming commonplace to include gender pronouns in social media profiles, work emails, and similar. While this shouldn’t be mandatory,
it can help non-binary people who use neither masculine nor feminine pronouns to be open about how they want to be addressed. The evidence for non-binary people in history should add conviction to the fight.
In public services, like shelters and outreach programs, we should consider whether enough is being done to ensure non-binary people are included.
In women’s services, for instance, even trans-inclusive organisations run the risk of excluding non-binary people if they exclusively use terminology like ‘female’ or ‘women’.
We need to look at more non-binary people in history for inspiration.
Likewise, in healthcare, it’s important to understand how gender binaries can prevent people from accessing vital services.
Non-binary people are more likely to miss cervical screenings, for example, because the associated information and procedures are so heavily gendered. This can even extend to transgender healthcare, where some services only consider transition options for trans women and trans men.
At GenderGP we understand that not all gender journeys fit into a binary structure, and endeavour to provide non-binary people with a pathway tailored to their identity and their needs.
By looking at non-binary people in history, we have a strong understanding of non-binary people’s needs and wants.
The first step to better recognition of non-binary people is to see them and to hear them. That means listening to them forthwith and recognising their stories throughout history. If we can do this, then we can bring about a cultural shift that will lead us to better protections, better understanding, and better rights for all.