Q & A: Some people say that gender identity is a new concept, but I know there are records of people and societies who didn’t confine themselves to our modern binary. Can you give us a list of notable non-cis people throughout history? Perhaps with sources?

February 12, 2024

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Such a cool question. Historical accounts of people who didn’t confine themselves to our modern binary aren’t always easy to find because the modern binary is…modern. The terms gender identity, gender role, gender norm, and transgender in the way we use them in 2024 only emerged in the 1950s and 60s, and wasn’t widely used until the 1990s. In fact, the term “cisgender” was only coined in 1994. So even though these words are now used to describe people as we know them today, people have always existed beyond the binary – sometimes with words for it, sometimes not. Let’s take a look at some nonbinary history, shall we?

Where do historical accounts of human civilization usually begin? You guessed it – Ancient Mesopotamia. The mostly highly honored deity of the time was Inanna – a goddess who, among many other things, was able to transform a person from male to female, or female to male and vice versa. Priests that worshiped Inanna were described as androgynous and blurring the gender binary. Records show that some within this priesthood were born male, took on female appearance and name, sang in female voices, and presided over exclusively female rituals. Starting to sound pretty gender-bendy?

As you start to search through history since then, and as written records start to become more accessible to us “moderns,” it becomes evident that gender-divergent people have been around forever, it is just that we find new ways to describe them and cultures work through an understanding of trans and non-binary individuals through different lenses. Take, for example, the hijra of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Born with male genitalia, or born intersex, the hijra tend to wear feminine dress and names, but often are set apart as a third gender. Before British colonialism, the hijra were venerated as wise and sacred people – able to step into both two worlds of gender at once, and outside of either. In 2014, it was estimated that over 3 million third gender people live in India alone.

Another example of third genders is the muxe identity of the Zapotec culture in Oaxaca, Mexico. This identity pre-dates Spanish colonization, and still exists today. Most of the time, muxe are born male, and present with feminine features and occupations. Despite modern discrimination and the influence of Western gender-binary cultural values, the presence of muxe are considered good luck, and they even have representation in some local politics. Interestingly, some choose to take male partners, of which neither is considered to be gay in their sexuality – which makes total sense, because muxe are not men or women, they are muxe.

Now if we take a look at Western or European cultures, one very interesting figure is the Public Universal Friend, or just “the Friend” who was born in Rhode Island in 1752. In October of 1776, the person born as Jemima Wilkinson came down with a fever, and after a near-death experience, was reborn as the Public Universal Friend, and was tasked by God to preach His word. The P.U.F. refused to use gendered pronouns and asked to be referred to as any variation of “The Friend, the Public Friend, or Universal Friend.” The Friend’s followers created a community called “Public Friends,” and preached abstinence, an end to slavery, and emphasized free will. According to one account, when asked if The Friend was male or female, The Friend replied, “I am that I am.” Some of The Friend’s followers adopted a more androgynous appearance and those in the group were less likely to be married.

We covered a handful of examples from ancient and more modern history, but to find out more, here is a good place to start: https://www.kclsu.org/news/article/6015/Remarkable-Historical-Figures-Who-Were-Transgender/

Or here: https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/lgbtq-heritage-project/trans-and-gender-nonconforming-histories/trans-pioneers/

Or a little about the history of drag here: https://www.strutherslibrarytheatre.org/blog/the-art-and-history-of-drag