In today’s world, the term genderqueer and non-binary has become a term for those frustrated with the binary gender system. As more people began to identify as non-binary, the discrimination against non-binary people increase as well. In 2015, Everyday Feminism has reported that 31% of non-binary were harassed by the police. This number, while already significant, may be understated as it is likely that there are more unreported cases.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term binary means relating to two things. Binary people are those who identify themselves as either male or female.
However, gender is not limited to two possibilities. Non-binary people are those who do not exclusively identify themselves as “male” or “female”. They could identify as none, both, or another gender entirely.
This essay will discuss on whether non-binary genders should be considered real by discussing two main issues:
• The views of different cultures on non-binary or third genders
• Legal recognition of non-binary genders
Issue #1: Views of Different Cultures on Non-Binary Genders
Our society and culture greatly influence a person’s life and who they become, including gender identity, because different cultural views on non-binary genders impacts one’s believe system. Historically, non-binary people have been accepted in various cultures, in some cases even considered sacred, showing that it is important to acknowledge non-binary people as it is a sign of disrespect towards the cultures.
However, several religions, such as Christianity and Islam, do not believe in non-binary genders. Acknowledging non-binary genders would disrespect their teachings and those who practice it.
Hijras, a third gender in Indian society, have existed for thousands of years. They have their own culture and role in society that is not male or female. Historically, hijras were celebrated and highly respected. However, in 1897 British colonizers were disgusted and classified hijras as criminals.
According to a consensus done in 2014, which was fairly recent, there were more than 490,000 hijras living in India. Despite this, hijras are still widely discriminated. Doctors often refuse to treat them, they are often harassed by the police, and denied access to employment. Furthermore, hijras are often uneducated, due to banishment from Indian society. The lack of education and employment results in high poverty rates among the hijras.
In the United States, the Native Americans believe in a third gender called the two-spirit people. They were called ‘two-spirited’ as it was believed that the spirit of both male and female. They are recognized by over 150 tribes. Native Americans associated the two-spirits with intelligence, artistic skills, and compassion. Aside from the Native Americans, the Native Hawaiians have their own third gender called mahus, a gender falling somewhere between male and female and have their own role and responsibilities in society.
As Christianity spread, two-spirited people and mahus were often forced, by government officials, and missionaries, to adapt to binary gender roles. Those who refused, either went into hiding or committed suicide. However, in recent years the two-spirited and mahus have experienced a resurgence and non-binary genders are becoming more common in the US.
Kathoeys, also known as ‘ladyboys’ are a third gender commonly seen in various media in Thailand and across the world and are also a huge part of Thailand’s growing sex tourism industry.
Although kathoeys are not legally recognized, they are generally more accepted than non-binary genders in other countries. Several schools have made facilities to accommodate their kathoey students. One example is the Kampang school in northern Thailand that build toilets for kathoeys after a poll revealed that 10% of their 2,500 students are kathoey. This shows how prominent kathoeys are in Thai society as 10% is a significant amount. However, this was taken in 2008, nearly 10 years ago, and the numbers may have increased since then. It is also only from one school and does not represent the entire situation in Thailand.
The Bugis tribe of South Sulawesi allows five genders. Aside from the traditional male and female genders, they also include calalai who are anatomically female embracing a masculine role in society. On the other hand, calabai are anatomically male taking on a feminine role in society. Both the calalai and calabai fall under a grey area that is neither male and female despite taking more traditional female or male roles. The bissu are a blend of all genders, with their own role in society, such as leading spiritual ceremonies.
Waria is a common third gender in Indonesia. The term waria, a combination of the Indonesian words “wanita”, which means woman, and “pria”, which means man, is an umbrella term that includes transgenders, crossdressers, people who don’t identify as either male or female, and many more. The community is around 32,000 people strong, although founder of Indonesia’s first LGBT organization Dede Oetomo suggests that the number may be much higher and are found all over the country. This data shows how large the population of warias is in Indonesia and how significant they are. Since the latest data was from 2013, the amount may have significantly changed since then. Furthermore, it is difficult to reach the remote parts of Indonesia, making it difficult to obtain the true number, which may be even higher.
Warias are generally not accepted in most religious communities. While the majority of warias are Muslim, they are often not accepted into the community and are prohibited from entering mosques. In 2011, VICE released an article about a group of warias in Jogjakarta using a saloon as a school and mosque. The school was created as a safe place for warias and regularly holds Islamic studies classes.
I believe that non-binary genders should be regarded as real genders as it is seen as sacred in numerous cultures, such as two-spirit people, and discounting their existence would be seen as a sign of disrespect towards the culture and their people. However, I do understand that several religions such as Christianity and Islam do not accept non-binary genders and as a Christian, I do understand that it is difficult to admit something that goes against the teachings of a religion. Nonetheless, I do believe that religion should not be an excuse for discrimination towards non-binary people. It is also worth nothing that a large amount of warias and hijras are Muslim. They are able to keep their faith despite their identities and being shunned by the religious community. I believe that religious communities should include non-binary people, as they still have the desire to follow the teachings of the religion.?
Issue #2: Legal Recognition of Non-Binary Genders
The legal recognition of non-binary genders is an important aspect when deciding if third genders should be considered real. Without it, non-binary genders do not exist in the eyes of the government, leading to problems such as limiting the access of non-binary people to employment, healthcare, housing, and more.
The United States does not legally recognize non-binary genders. There have been two cases of legally changing gender to non-binary after successfully petitioning the court. Jaime Shupe and Sara Keenan were granted non-binary gender status by the court in 2016.
In 2014, a petition was made on the White House appealing for the legalization of non-binary gender in the US. Huffington Post reported that the petition gained over 60,000 signatures. The White House responded saying that although they ‘recognize the importance of gender identification’ they believe that to ‘change when and how gender is listed’ should be done on a case by case basis.
India’s supreme court legalized hijras as a third gender in 2014. Previously, hijras were forced to identify themselves as either ‘male’ or ‘female’. The supreme court has stated that the lack of law regarding third genders cannot continue as it allows for discrimination.
The ruling has made it possible for hijras to gain employment as well as access to educational institutions. The court also states that social welfare schemes and public awareness campaigns to erase the stigma of hijras must be devised.
Australia has allowed the option for their citizens to put ‘X’ as their gender since 2003. The ‘X’ signifies unspecified sex or intersex and is available to intersex and transgender people. On 11 January 2003, Alex MacFarlane became the first Australian with an ‘X’ marked passport. In 2011, a policy allowed people to mark their gender as ‘X’ provided that they had a medical note signed by a doctor.
On June 25 2013, a legislation making gender identity irrelevant, allowing non-binary people to be protected. According to OII Australia, the lack of legal recognition of intersex people means that if non-binary or intersex people are discriminated against, there is no legal recourse. Although this may not represent the entire situation in Australia, this source must be seriously taken into account as OII Australia is an official organization for intersex rights with access to various data about non-binary people.
Non-binary genders are not legally recognized in Indonesia, with legal gender change requiring evidence of a medical treatment for gender change. However, most warias in Indonesia choose not to undergo the sex change. The majority of warias are Muslim and this goes against the against their practices.
Since non-binary genders are not legally recognized, warias do not have any protection laws from discrimination. It is common to see warias rejected from housing, medical, or job opportunities.
I believe that non-binary genders should be legally recognized. From the examples, it is shown that without legally recognition, non-binary people face various difficulties and discriminations. Countries that legalized non-binary genders, such as India, also implemented laws protecting them.
Furthermore, I believe that secular states should legalize non-binary genders. Secular states should legalize these genders as they are supposed to be neutral in religious matters. I believe that other countries, like Indonesia, should also legalize non-binary genders even though most religions would not recognize them. The government should at least give them the freedom to identify as their preferred gender, since they are not recognized by religions, and receive protection from any discrimination.
Legally Recognizing Non-Binary Gender
Legally recognizing non-binary genders may be a solution. This would force us to consider non-binary genders as real since they legally exist. However, violence and discrimination against non-binary people may increase as people who do not think that non-binary genders are real genders would be furious and turn their anger toward non-binary people. This would also be difficult in religious countries such as Indonesia as the major religion do not believe in non-binary genders, despite having a large population of non-binary people.
This solution has shown to work in India. Although discrimination still exist, legalizing hijras and the laws that followed gave hijras protection from discrimination as well as opportunities for employment. Furthermore, this has allowed the Indian society to erase the stigma around hijras.
An alternative solution to this would be allowing ‘X’ marked gender in passports and other official documents. This solution has worked in Australia as non-binary people were not forced to identify as a different gender without drawing as much attention as being legally recognized as non-binary.
Normalizing Non-Binary Genders
Another solution is to normalize non-binary genders by making things that accommodate non-binary people, such as gender-neutral pronouns and gender-neutral bathrooms, commonly.
This is what Yale has done in 2016. They implemented gender-neutral bathrooms and allowed students to change their names and gender on the school’s identification. They also included gender reassignment surgery and hormone suppression therapy in the student health plan. These changes were met with positive reception from students, staff, and alumni.
However, this course of action is very difficult to implement as it involves the cooperation of other people, who may not accept non-binary genders and the solution cannot be forced. Making these adjustments may be considered as unnecessary for countries with small populations of non-binary people.
With the increased population of non-binary genders, it is obvious that non-binary genders must be recognized as real genders. The discrimination against non-binary people is too difficult to ignore and it is important that they are recognized.
The first step must be to legalize non-binary genders. The effect of this solution would significantly benefit non-binary people in the long run, as legalization would lead to protective laws towards them.