Modern Western culture is slowly acknowledging gender fluidity, but “third genders” and other classifications have existed throughout history.
Jessie Guy-Ryan in Atlas Obscura:
This week, an Oregon judge ruled to allow Jamie Shupe, a 52-year-old former Army mechanic, to list themselves as non-binary—that is, neither male nor female on their driver’s license. The ruling is likely the first time that an individual has been allowed to legally identify as non-binary in the United States, and represents part of a growing effort around the world to extend legal recognition to those whose identities fall outside the masculine/feminine gender binary.
Some might assume that the shift towards viewing gender as fluid or encompassing identities beyond the binary is a novel cultural change; in fact, several non-Western cultures—both historically and today—have non-binary understandings of gender. In Indonesia, one ethnic group shows us that the idea that gender identity is expressed in more ways than two is actually hundreds of years old.
The Bugis are the largest ethnic group in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and are unique in their conception of five distinct gender identities. Aside from the cisgender masculinity and femininity that Westerners are broadly familiar with, the Bugis interpretation of gender includes calabai (feminine men), calalai (masculine women) and bissu, which anthropologist Sharyn Graham describes as a “meta-gender” considered to be “a combination of all genders.”