Third gender  

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This page Third gender is part of the gender series.Illustration: Toulouse-Lautrec wearing Jane Avril's Feathered Hat and Boa (ca. 1892), photo Maurice Guibert.
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This page Third gender is part of the gender series.
Illustration: Toulouse-Lautrec wearing Jane Avril's Feathered Hat and Boa (ca. 1892), photo Maurice Guibert.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Third gender or third sex refer to a gender category, of people who are considered neither completely male, nor completely female. It is a gender identity separate from 'men' and 'women,' of people considered to be the intermediate sex; in-betweens (like the androgynes) or neutrals (like the agendered).

Although contemporary connotations often confuse 'third gender' with hermaphrodites, biological hermaphrodites actually comprise a very small percentage of the third genders. Biologically speaking, a hermaphrodite is a person who has both male and female sex organs. However, gender identity is psychological and societal as well as physical, explaining why the majority of individuals who occupy the third gender are physically either male or female, not both.

While most medieval and contemporary societies consider such people to be neither male nor female, the most traditional cultures in which they existed considered third genders to be both male and female, or partly male and partly female. They were thus known in some indigenous societies as 'two spirited people,' and as such were often revered. Indeed, they were widely believed to be people with spiritual powers, even god-like in many traditional cultures.

Traditional societies in which the third gender role was present had a well defined social space for the third genders, one that was apart from the men's spaces and women's spaces. They had their own gender roles, separate from both men and women. Furthermore, third genders had access to both men's and women's spaces, whereas the access of men and women to the other's social spaces was often restricted. Third genders continued to have a separate space and identity in the Middle Ages although their status went on diminishing.

Although third genders in pre-modern times partook in sexual activities with both men, women and other third genders, documentation from some of the ancient tribes show that most third genders participated in marriages with women and even reproduced.

Throughout the majority of the modernized world, the third genders have been ostracized and marginalized, remaining on the fringes of the society. For most of the Middle Ages, individuals in the West, who were classified as 'third gender' retreated from society limelight because of religious persecution. In these societies, the third gender roles and identities have been redefined in terms of the contemporary Western concepts of sexual orientation as well as transgender identity, and have become associated with LGBT.

Third gender identities, although far more stigmatized than earlier, still thrive in the non-Western world today. Among these are the Hijras of India and Pakistan who have gained legal identity, Fa'afafine of Polynesia, and Sworn virgins of the Balkans, and the term 'third gender' is still used by many of such groups to describe themselves.


Mediterranean culture

In Plato's Symposium, written around the 4th century BC, Aristophanes relates a creation myth involving three original sexes: female, male and androgynous. They are split in half by Zeus, producing four different contemporary sex/gender types which seek to be reunited with their lost other half; their soulmate. In this account, the modern heterosexual man and woman descend from the original androgynous sex. Other creation myths around the world share a belief in three original sexes, such as those from northern Thailand.

Many have interpreted the "eunuchs" of the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean world as a third gender that inhabited a liminal space between women and men, understood in their societies as somehow neither or both. In the Historia Augusta, the eunuch body is described as a tertium genus hominum (a third human gender), and in 77 BC, a eunuch named Genucius was prevented from claiming goods left to him in a will, on the grounds that he had voluntarily mutilated himself (amputatis sui ipsius) and was neither a woman or a man (neque virorum neque mulierum numero). Several scholars have argued that the eunuchs in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were understood in their time to belong to a third gender, rather than the more recent interpretations of a kind of emasculated man, or a metaphor for chastity. The first Christian theologian, Tertullian, wrote that Jesus himself was a eunuch (c. 200 AD). Tertullian also noted the existence of a third sex (tertium sexus) among heathens: "a third race in sex... made of male and female in one." He may have been referring to the Galli, "eunuch" devotees of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who were described as belonging to a third sex by several Roman writers.

Third sex in art and literature

Strange People - Androgyn, Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514)

  • In the 1980s science fiction book trilogy Xenogenesis, by Octavia Butler, the extraterrestrial race has three sexes: male, female, and Ooloi. They also have sexual relationships with humans and interbreed with them.
  • In the world of Carolyn Ives Gilman's 1998 novel Halfway Human, all children are born with indeterminate sex, and develop into male, female, or "bland" in adolescence. Blands are a neuter category lacking sexual characteristics, who are disparaged and treated as servants — the "halfway humans" of the book's title.
  • Literary critic Michael Maiwald identifies a "third-sex ideal" in the one of the first African-American bestsellers, Claude McKay's Home to Harlem (1928).
  • The Third Sex, a 1959 lesbian pulp fiction novel by Artemis Smith.
  • The Third Sex, a 1934 film directed by Richard C. Kahn, based on a novel by Radcliffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness.
  • Anders als du und ich ("Different From You and I"), a 1957 film directed by Veit Harlan, was also known under the titles Bewildered Youth (USA) and The Third Sex.*Mikaël, a 1924 film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer was also released as Chained: The Story of the Third Sex in the USA.
  • In David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus there is a type of being called phaen, a third gender which is attracted neither to men nor women but to "Faceny" (their name for Shaping or Crystalman, the Demiurge). The appropriate pronouns are ae and aer.
  • In Imajica, one of the characters, Pie 'oh' Pah, is called a mystif, and has the characteristics of a third sex that is neither male nor female but could either fertilize or bear children. Pie marries the male character Gentle, but says ze prefers not to be called his wife.
  • Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five identifies seven human sexes (not genders) required for reproduction including gay men, women over 65, and infants who died before their first birthday. The Tralfamadorian race has five sexes.
  • In C. S. Lewis' Space Trilogy, the solar system has seven genders (not sexes) altogether.
  • In Matt Groening's cartoon series Futurama, "smizmar" is used as a term for a third sex, the name for the individuals whom inspire the feeling of love (and thus conception, for that species), regardless of genetic relationship, to Kif Kroker's species, the Amphibiosians. This is explained in the episode "Kif Gets Knocked Up a Notch".
  • Arthur C. Clarke's novel Rendezvous with Rama depicts an alien civilization with three genders.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness posits a world called Gethen, on which humans are androgynes, effectively neuter 12/13 of the time, and for up to two days per month are said to be "in Kemmer," that is, openly available to enter either male or female state as per pheromonal contact with a potential mate.
  • Distress (1995) by Greg Egan is a widely known for its postulation of not just one but five distinct new genders.
  • Middlesex (2002), the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Jeffrey Eugenides

The musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch includes a song called The Origin of Love which appears to be a lyrical adaptation of Aristophanes' creation myth.


See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Third gender" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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