An argument commonly used to justify radical ideologies about gender and sexuality is the existence of so-called “third” genders in various cultures throughout history. For example, gender “workbooks” that are often promoted in schools, counseling offices, and online, aimed at children and their parents, suggest that “third” genders prove that transgender identities have historical precedent and are therefore not just products of a modern fad.
Among the most cited examples are the Native American “Two-spirit,” Thailand’s “Kathoey” (regularly translated as “Ladyboy”), Ancient Middle East’s “Sal-zikrum,” the “Fa’afafine” of Samoa, the “Hijra” of India, and the “Muxe” of Southern Mexico. This long list of those who didn’t conform to male and female norms of their cultures may seem to be a compelling argument. However, a quick look at so-called “third” gender people reveals that they are not based on the same presuppositions as modern transgender ideology.
At the heart of contemporary gender ideology is a rejection of the so-called “gender binary,” that only two genders exist, as well as any essential link between biological sex and gender. The contention is that biological sex is itself “assigned” and therefore not determinative of one’s gender identity, which is, after all, nothing more than a social construct.
In most cases, labeling non-conforming individuals as “third genders” is an anachronism forced upon people who presumed the reality of biological sex, gender roles, and the so-called “gender binary.” For example, the word Fa’afafine, literally translated, means “in the manner of a woman.” The name refers to Samoan men who act like, live as, and associate with women. Historically, a Fa’afafine is a boy chosen by his family at a young age to help the mother with household tasks, often because there was no daughter born to the family. In other words, the Fa’afafine are not those “born into the wrong body” who express “their true selves.” Nor is the choice based on the boy being a homosexual or even noticeably feminine. Rather, the choice is made for them by a father in a culture committed to distinct gender roles.
It’s also notable that, in this context, those who are identified as Fa’afafine are not considered to be female, nor are they considered a wife or a mother. They are recognized as men who act like women. This is not a culture that denies sexual difference.
The Native American “two-spirit” is a neologism created in 1990 to refer to so-called “third” genders in those cultures. However, “two-spirit” is not monolithic. Each Native American tribe had different ways of describing gender-bending individuals, and most refer to a member of one sex who acts stereotypically like the opposite sex. For example, the Lakota “Winkte,” which has been categorized under “two-spirit,” refers to a man who is “like a woman.” Such identification relies on the fact of binary gender roles. It is not a “third” gender.
Of course, modern transgender ideology also relies on the gender binary that it rejects. Rigid masculine or feminine stereotypes determine whether someone’s “true identity” is at odds with their bodies. A boy is considered a girl if he likes pink or plays house or even occasionally enjoys stereotypical “feminine” habits or games. In the same way, a girl who likes trucks or playing in the dirt isn’t just a tomboy but an actual boy. Amidst all the talk about fluidity and gender spectrums, and sexual identity being a social construct, transgender ideology relies on the grossest, rigid stereotypes.
Thus, transgender ideology not only contradicts itself, it also perpetuates the very problem it claims to solve. In the second half of the last century, a cacophony of voices denounced rigid stereotypes as harmful and restrictive, especially for children. The social contagion of those who struggle with the identities today do so because of narrow stereotypes that are treated as absolute and definitive. Girls are no longer allowed to behave “like boys.” Rather, they must be boys. And if a boy wants to be a girl, that means embracing the most frilly, suggestive, stereotypes thinkable. All of this ignores the perfectly normal and natural variety found among men and women, long before novel sexual ideologies became new articles of faith for America’s cultural priests.
(It’s also worth mentioning that pointing to other cultures to justify a modern ideology commits the “noble savage” mistake. Just because some other culture did it does not make it right. Imagine suggesting that because ancient cultures practiced cannibalism or slavery, then we should too.)
To be made in the image of God is to be male or female. The solution for today’s poor thinking is not to default to some shallow stereotype, any more than it is to embrace some harmful practice of some ancient culture. Rather, it is to affirm, at the deepest level, informed by Scripture and biology, the reality and beauty of complementary sexual difference.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Jared Eckert. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.