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A brief history of identities beyond the binary

A brief history of identities beyond the binary

It’s a widely-held misconception identities beyond the binary are new.

Maybe people claim lack of knowledge as an excuse for not being welcoming towards people who identify as non-binary.

There is actually evidence of people identifying as something other than male or female as far back as 400BC.


The Trans and Hijra Empowerment Mela in Mumbai will help people become financially independent. Photo: The Asian Age

One of the oldest non-binary identities, officially known as a third gender in India, is Hijra.

The Hijra community has been mentioned in a variety of ancient literature – The most known of which is the Kama Sutra.

Not only were hijra people welcomed and embraced in society, they hold ‘significant roles in some of the most important texts of Hinduism, including the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.’

How ’bout them apples?

Things changed for the Hijra community however when the British colonized India in the mid-19th century. They were not as welcoming towards difference as the country had previously been, and criminalized ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature.’

Two Spirit

Two Spirit is a Native American term for people who identify as a third gender. Some nations even recognized up to six genders.

There are pictures of two spirit tribal members dating as far back as 1896, but apparently the term ‘two spirit’ wasn’t used for the first time until 1990.

Two spirit itself is seen as an umbrella term for people who ‘see life through the eyes of both genders.’ The identity acknowledges gender is a spectrum of which people can sit anywhere on, and isn’t as simple as male or female.

Similar to hijra people, two spirit people were highly regarded in society. They often had important roles such as ‘craftspeople, child rearers, couples counselors and tribal arbiters.’

People believed two spirit people had been ‘touched by the spirits’ and were considered to have similar powers to a shaman.

Even before people identified as Two Spirit, Native American parents did not assign gender roles to their children. Neither did the children wear gendered clothing.

Settlers who arrived in Native America were confused when faced with two spirit people. Instead of respecting the Native people, they used gender binary language based on biology as a ‘violent tool of colonialism to assimilate Indigenous peoples into their Western European colonialist cultures.’

There are numerous other international examples of people who identify beyond the binary: Quariwarmi people in Peru, Aruvani people in India, Metis people in Nepal and Tida wena people in Venezuela.

Non-binary people often use gender neutral pronouns. A they/them/theirs badge.
Non-binary people often use gender neutral pronouns | Photo: theyspace Instagram

Old English

Some may be surprised to hear ‘they’ as a singular pronoun has actually been used in English for hundreds of years.

‘They’ then started to become less wildly used in 1745.

Calls for a gender neutral pronoun began again in 1794 after a series of ‘battle of the sexes‘ articles appeared.

There is also evidence of ‘thon‘ (contract of that one) being proposed as a gender neutral pronoun.

This was done so in 1858 by someone in Pennsylvania.

There were even more calls from 1860s to the 1880s for ‘they’ to be used as a singular pronoun again.

A lot of people began using it again from that point onwards.

When it comes to gender neutral titles, Mx is the most widely known and used.

There is evidence of it being used as far as as 1965. This is just recorded evidence though and it very well may have been used even earlier!

Recent history

There are now currently around 10 countries around the world that offer some form of third gender or gender neutral passport option: Canada, Denmark, Germany, Malta, New Zealand and Pakistan.

Most jurisdictions in Australia offer some form of recognition of a third gender on forms of identity.

In the United States, there are some states that allow people to use a third, non-binary option on birth certificates, drivers’ licenses or identity cards. These states are: Colorado, , Washington, ArkansasMaine, Washington DC, New York and Oregon.

California was the most recent state to start accommodating to the non-binary community.

The exact laws in each state vary however. Some states allow people to only change one form of ID, others allow people to change all three.

Facebook recognized gender isn’t as binary as simply male and female in 2014 when they introduced over 50 gender options.

In 2015, the Oxford Dictionary added Mx – A popular title for gender non-conforming and non-binary individuals.

This is all amazing obviously. However, there is still so much more progress to be made in terms of rights for non-binary people.

The non-binary flag

What next?

More and more countries are recognizing that gender is not binary.

The Netherlands issued their first gender-neutral passport in 2018.

Scotland may become the first country in the United Kingdom to legally recognize a third gender.

A majority of the 15,000 responses in a 2018 consultation backed by the Scottish government supported the creation of a legal third gender.

The majority was 65%. 56% of that majority supported the full legal recognition of non-binary people. Non-binary individuals are those who do not identify as exclusively male or female.

However there is little progress for non-binary rights when it comes to the UK as a whole.

In mid 2018, non-gendered campaigner Christie Elan-Cane lost their high court challenge against the UK government after they refused to issue gender-neutral passports.

Mr Justice Jeremy Baker upheld Home Office policy. The court was told it would ‘affect other legislation, cost too much to change computer records and increase the need for consular support abroad for gender-neutral British citizens.’

The issuance of ‘X’ passports however would only require policy change, not legislative change.

In comparison, around the same time, the Austrian constitutional court ruled that people don’t identify as male or female should have the right to recognize this when completing official forms.

Even Uruguay now offers citizens a third gender option (O) on official identity documents. There is even the option for people to choose to leave their sex entry blank.

Non-binary activists in the UK are still pushing for a gender-neutral passport option.

The UK Court of Appeal granted Elan-Cane permission to appeal the High Court’s decision. This hearing is scheduled to take place in December 2019.