We previously saw how the internet’s binary code affects the way we see and express gender online. But, as you probably already know, controversy over gender identity is not confined to the web. A simple Google search of the keyword ‘non-binary’ will pull out more than enough articles proving just how strong the divide is.
While the rest of us argue over discriminatory laws and an overall non-inclusive society, other cultures have been introduced to and have, in turn, accepted non-binary gender identities for centuries! For them, the concept of someone not identifying strictly as male or female was just not that hard to grasp.
Here are 10 cultures that have shown throughout history that non-binary gender is far from new.
In traditional Samoan culture, boys born into male bodies who identify as female are known as ‘Fa’afafines’. They are fully accepted into the Samoan culture. Fa’afafines’ roles in society move fluidly between the traditional male and female. While they’re assigned male at birth, Samoa also recognises ‘Fa’afatamas’—an equally fluid gender for those assigned female at birth.
“Gender roles, even sexual desire, are shaped to suit society. That means gender identity is often hugely shaped by culture. Being a woman in Samoa is quite different from being a woman in Western society,” explained a woman in a National Geographic video on sexual identity in Samoan culture.
In Samoan culture, gender identity is as simple as it gets—if you say and feel you are neither male or female, or that you fluctuate between both genders, this will simply be accepted by society. This is a social norm that the rest of the world could really learn from.
For many native North American cultures, transgender individuals are known as “two-spirit.” Identifying with masculinity as well as femininity, two-spirit people are often said to contain both male and female ‘spirits’. They’re often revered in their communities, seen as a channel between the physical and spiritual.
For Zuni, a native American tribe, the term for a two-spirited person is ‘lhamana’. We’wha—the most famous lhamana was born in male body—wore a mixture of men’s and women’s clothing.
We’wha spent time performing ‘women’s tasks’ such as cooking, gathering food, and serving as a mediator in the Zuni tribe in what is now New Mexico. Anthropologists, authors, and even US President Grover Cleveland were “utterly charmed” by We’wha’s intelligence and understanding of the world.
We’wha was not even close to the only “two-spirit” native North American. Many other tribes have their own terms for a tribe member living in one body but who has the spirit of more than one person.
In the small town of Juchitán de Zaragoza in southern Oaxaca State, Mexico, live the ‘muxes’—people born in a male’s body but who identify as neither female nor male. Muxes are part of ancient culture and are well-known in the town.
Traditionally, muxes would be admired for their talent in embroidery, hairstyling, cooking, and craft work. However, Naomy Mendez Romero, who shared photographs and her story with The New York Times, is an industrial engineer—challenging limits on muxes by entering a career path more often viewed as male.
The bathroom controversy has disrupted life for muxes only slightly, causing a taunting from men in the community. “Me, use a boy’s bathroom? No.” Romero said, shrugging off the idea of switching stalls after years as a woman.
In Madagascar, the Sakalava people recognised a third gender called ‘Sekrata’. Boys in Sakalava communities who exhibit traditionally feminine behaviour or personalities are raised by parents as girls from a very young age.
Instead of labelling these boys as ‘gay’, they are seen as having a male body and identifying as a female. Sexual preference is not a factor for the Sakalava and raising a child in this third gender is natural and widely accepted in the community’s social fabric.
Balkan ‘sworn virgins’ are women who take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing in order to live as men in patriarchal Northern Albanian society, Kosovo and Montenegro. To a lesser extent, the practice exists, or has previously existed, in other parts of the western Balkans, including Bosnia, Dalmatia (Croatia), Serbia and Macedonia.
By taking on this identity, sworn virgins are elevated to the status of a man, entitled to the rights and privileges of the patriarchy. National Geographic’s documentary TV series Taboo (aired in 2002) estimated at that time that there were fewer than 102 Albanian sworn virgins left.
The centuries-old third gender, associated with sacred powers, usually refers to those assigned male at birth but don’t identify as such. In 2014, India legally recognised hijras as a third gender after they were criminalised by the British in 1871.
Hijras have their own ancient language—Hijras Farsi and served monarchs in South Asian regions for centuries. Today, they are primarily outsiders in their communities, excluded from many economic opportunities.
In spite of marginalisation from the rest of the world, whom they refer to as “dunya daar” the Hijras preserve their own language and culture where gender knows no boundaries.
Officially recognised as a third gender in Nepal in 2007, metis have a long history in the Himalayan region. Assigned male at birth, they assume a traditional feminine appearance. Nepal set a global precedent with a third gender category on official documents.
One of the dozen or more common gender identities in Thailand, ‘toms’ are women who adopt masculine mannerisms and style, while using male speech terms. Toms are often attracted to ‘dees’—women who follow traditional Thai gender norms.
Used by Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, brotherboys describes people with a gender experience inconsistent with their assigned sex, with a male spirit and male roles in the community. Sistergirls are the exact opposite.
This ethnic group has seen gender as a spectrum for centuries now, with three additional genders in addition to male and female. Bugis genders include ‘calabai’ (feminine men), ‘calalai’ (masculine women) and intersex ‘bissu’ priests.
While far from being completely all-inclusive, this list goes to show that non-binary concepts of gender are not a recent phenomenon. It’s important to illustrate that binary gender is not ‘normal’, but rather, one perception out of many. In fact, in comparison, the concept of a gender and sexual binary is fairly recent, and not the other way around. Colonisation largely is to blame for that idea.
When Apple’s new credit card went online, it immediately caused a gender controversy. Women were being approved for much lower credit lines than men. The defence Apple gave was that their algorithm for deciding credit lines is gender-blind. Many pointed out that this was the exact problem with the algorithm. Without being coded to recognise gender, the algorithm was able to discriminate based on other factors, such as shopping location, which is often associated with gender.
The Apple credit card controversy is just one in a long line of troubling instances where gender and code come into conflict—we speak of Alexa and Siri, not Alex and Simon. Much of this conflict might come down to the very simple fact that all code is binary and made up of a combination of 1s and 0s. Gender, on the other hand, is not binary, and many gender-queer or gender-nonconforming people have begun to speak out about the difficulties they have expressing gender online. But does the conflict come down to binary code itself?
The expression of gender is not a problem related solely to coding languages. It is a linguistic problem we face with spoken languages, too. Code has many of the linguistic elements that other languages do, and can be examined linguistically. Language learners are often told that humans are prisoners of language. We are only able to express what a language allows us to, this sentiment suggests. I do not think this is remotely the case. There are contingents within language communities who find workarounds for linguistic tough-spots, and thought processes often take us beyond the limits of the grammar of the languages we know.
Take the issues of gender and spoken languages. Some, like Mandarin and Finnish, have evolved to exclude gender completely while some, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Arabic, are heavily gendered languages that rely on a gender binary even when discussing inanimate objects or abstract concepts. There are movements, though, that are pushing for more flexibility in these languages. A gender-neutral French textbook was published in 2017, and there is a decades-long movement to open up Arabic to more affirming expressions of sexualities and genders. The same sort of movement needs to happen in the computing industry, even though there might be as much backlash as there was over the French and Arabic movements.
Recently, Meredith Broussard, a professor of data journalism at NYU, wrote about the difficulty of expressing gender through binary code and some of the changes that the computing industry needs to make to accommodate non-conforming individuals. She says that “in the 1950s, when modern computer systems were first designed, gender was generally considered fixed.” However, even though our notions and experience of gender have changed radically since then, the fixed-gender binary informs the way applications are written.
The concern Broussard has is the limited options users have for expressing gender in editable fields. While some companies like Facebook, which requires users to identify a gender when they join, allow for some fifty gender options, the problem remains with how that data is stored. When one’s gender data is stored, packaged, and sold to third parties (that’s a whole other issue), it is expressed simply “as male, female, or null.” It all comes down, Broussard says, to “whose values are encoded in the system.”
Can coders, many of whom are at the forefront of challenging gender norms, write more inclusive code? Or is the problem even with code itself—language itself? To find out if gender is really that difficult to code for, Screen Shot talked to Kyle Gorman, a computational linguist at the CUNY Graduate Center. Computational linguistics focus on how computers can be used to address the common structures of language and how to build speech and language technology.
Gorman agrees with Broussard’s complaints about the computing field. He says, “In the computing world there is a cult of simplicity, and the complication of code is a design challenge.” That challenge is further complicated because of the aversion to complexity embedded within the field. However, Gorman does not see binary code itself as the primary problem. Instead, he blames “the laziness and normativeness of our society.” There are two solutions Gorman provides as answers to our computational gender woes. First, we can regulate laziness out of the system. The EU has had some success with its policies on gender that could be used as a model. Second, the computational field can model other linguistic movements such as the solution to the gendered Latino and Latina designation that has seen a successful grassroots movement to use the simplified and gender-neutral Latinx. Technology, in Gorman’s opinion, is not doomed to repeat the historical linguistic exclusion of language.
If gender and language are both social constructs, then we can change language to more accurately express gender. And we must, since language, whether spoken or coded, is the way we make sense of the world and it of us. Broussard challenges the aesthetic standards—the cult of simplicity Gorman references—the computing world has set when she criticises the field’s inclusivity. “Elegant code,” she says, relies on giving users “as few opportunities as possible to screw up the program with bad data entry.” This is a problem if you want to design a program with as many options for users to express their identity. She goes so far as to call this “data violence” against trans and non-conforming individuals. “Language itself,” says Gorman, “is a technology, because it allows me to get thoughts from my head into your head.”
If those designing computing technologies are going to open up users’ ability to express their gender, then they need to do away with the notion of the primacy of simple, elegant code and give the user, whose identity is increasingly tied to that code, as much agency as possible for expressing it.