Non-Binary around the world

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The definition from Stonewall UK describes non-binary as an ‘umbrella term for people whose gender identity doesn’t sit comfortably with ‘man’ or ‘women’.

There are two really important ways in which gender can be discussed…

  • Gender Identity explains the ways in which people self-identify. That’s how we choose ourselves to identify our gender, and what we feel personally fits us. For example, non-binary, cisgendered.
  • Gender expression is the way in which you decide to express and live as your gender identity. Anyone can express their gender identity in any way they chose! For example, non-binary people, although their identity is outside of the binary, they can express that in a masculine, feminine, or androgynous way.

The important thing to remember is that however someone expresses their gender identity, it doesn’t negate their identity – that identity is still 100% valid.

A common misconception is that gender variance is a relatively new thing – but this is far from true! This Non-Binary Around the World display has been created by Aber SU to show that the non-binary can be found in a variety of cultures, and many have been rooted in strong traditions throughout history.


HijrasSouth Asia

  • Hijras are one of the oldest and best known examples of gender variance. They have been associated with sacred powers, and they would deliver blessings at weddings and births, but were also feared for their powerful curses.
  • The focus of their efforts for rights and recognition typically centres in India.
  • The colonial government made the simple act of being a hijra a criminal offence. – Hijras responded by forming their own tight knit communities and developing their own language.
  • Unfortunately, hijra is still used as an insult today, and many hijras find themselves resorting to begging for survival or sexual work to get by. But, in 2014, the Supreme Court in Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh voted in recognising hijras as a legally designated third gender, which is a small but positive step along the road to equality.



  • While many of the third-gendered people around the world are not commonly known, the kathoeys (or ‘Ladyboys’) are often mentioned in popular culture.
  • Kathoey is a word used in Thailand to describe a male-to-female transgender person, person of third gender, or an effeminate homosexual male.
  • Transgender women in Thailand mostly use terms other than kathoey when referring to themselves, such as phuying.
  • Kathoeys are so common in Thai society that a poll at one school revealed that 10% of its students identified as kathoey.




BugisSulwesi, Indonesia

  • The bugis of Sulawesi recognise four genders and an important fifth ‘metagender’.
  • Calalai are anatomical females who behave as men traditionally do, but they do not desire to be men.
  • Calabai are anatomical males who behave as women traditionally do. They do not accept the restriction that society places on women.
  • The ‘metagender’ of Sulawesi is known as the bissu. Bissu are seen as a combination of all genders. They have a distinctive way of dressing that is neither ‘male’ nor ‘female’, and they also have specific roles within society. They are seen as beings who bestow blessings upon others who are not as attuned to the spirit world.



Warias Indonesia

  • Many people are surprised that there is a third gender called warias in Indonesia, a largely Muslim nation with many conservative values. Warias can be males who believe that they were born with the souls of women, cross-dressers, people who truly believe they are a third gender, and more.
  • The word comes from a combination of wantia, which means ‘woman’, and pria, which means ‘man’.
  • Warias face widespread discrimination in Indonesian society. For example, they can’t pray at mosques, even though many warias are Muslims.
  • Despite the discrimination, every year there is a large ‘Miss Waria Indonesia’ pageant and festival with a beauty competition, educational events, music and more. The event had been subject to protests and negative criticism, but has slowly become more accepted. One of Thailand’s former presidents actually attended in 2016, which was an important symbol for the community.



Mahus Hawaii

  • In Hawaii, there has long been a tradition of a third gender of people named the mahu who fall somewhere between ‘male’ and ‘female’. Muhas had their own roles in society and were respected as healers, teachers and caretakers. Through the generations, they passed down knowledge on hula, song, chants, and other Hawaiian wisdom.
  • One reflection of the Muha people is evident in Hawaiian music, which often displays love stories that don’t conform to traditional gender norms.
  • When Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii, they were shocked by Hawaiian society, including the mahus, and tried to condemn their traditional practices. As a result, Hawaiian society became less tolerant of the mahus.
  • However, in recent years, Hawaii has experienced a resurgence in mahu traditions and become more widely accepted again.



Two SpiritNorth America

  • The Navajo tribe recognised four genders that roughly correlate with cisgender and transgender men and women, using the term nadleehi for those who ‘transform’ into femininity and dilbaa for those who ‘transform’ into masculinity.
  • The Mohave tribe used the term alyha and hwame to describe similar identities.
  • Two-spirit people in North America have always been seen as being doubly blessed, having both the spirit of a man and a woman. Native American traditionalists have always seen a person’s basic character as a reflection of their spirit – thus, the two-spirit people are seen as more spiritually gifted than the typical masculine male or feminine female.
  • Two-spirit people were often spiritual leaders and teachers within their communities.




  • The Zapotec in Oaxaca have always been more accepting of non-straight and non-binary identities. In fact, they recognise a third gender, known as muxes.
  • Muxes are men who chose feminine appearances. A critical role of muxes is to take care of their parents when they get older, because sons and daughters are most likely to get married and have families of their own.
  • Every year in Oaxaca, there is a flashy festival called Vela de las Intepidas (‘The Vigil of the Intrepid’), where thousands of muxes meet for a parade and other ceremonies. Even some catholic priests get involved, which truly demonstrates how accepted muxes are.



Il FemminielloNaples



  • Even within Europe, gender variant people have always existed, and have been documented in paintings from as early as the 18th century.
  • Il Femminiello were individuals assigned male at birth who dressed and behaved like women in Naples, Italy. They were considered a blessing and good fortune upon the families they were born into.
  • Elagabalus was crowned emperor of the Roman Empire in the third century, but insisted that subjects use the term empress and dressed as a woman. According to historical accounts, Elagabus may have even summoned the empire's finest doctors in order to pursue a sexual confirmation surgery.
  • In today’s Italy, Cinquegraria, who was crowned Miss Trans Italy in 2014, is reportedly the first Trans woman in the nation to marry a man without first obtaining sexual-confirmation surgery.



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