Gender identity

Gender roles vary between different cultures and are not a universal ‘given’.

Ideas of what it means to be a man or woman vary, but many cultures also envisage the possibility of a third gender and the possibility of changing gender.

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A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the world by Richard B. Parkinson is published by the British Museum Press.
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A goddess associated with gender ambiguity

This ancient plaque is now popularly known as ‘the Queen of the Night’. It shows a naked woman wearing the horned headdress characteristic of a Mesopotamian deity and could be an aspect of Ishtar, goddess of sexual love and war.

Kurgarrus, followers of the cult of the goddess, were said to have had their gender changed from male to female by Ishtar. What was the significance of this?

It may simply indicate the goddess was able to change everything in the universe. It probably tells us little about the experience of individual lives, but it shows us that gender was considered changeable in this enduring state religion.

Gods beyond gender

The Hindu deity Lakshminarayan represents the male god Vishnu and his female consort Lakshmi and is sometimes shown as a single figure whose body is half male and half female. The deity’s left side is feminine, while the right side is masculine.

Most images of this type come from Nepal, where Hinduism and Buddhism have been practised side by side, often in distinctive and combined forms. This concept is also found in the more frequently depicted figure of Ardhanarisvara, who represents the god Shiva and his female consort Parvati.

Deities are often thought to transcend the boundaries of male and female mortal gender. Sometimes even an obviously male representation of the god Shiva shows subtle elements of androgyny. We know this because of his differently-shaped earrings.

Out in Africa

In African cultures, as in many other societies, gender and gendered roles are culturally reproduced and fixed through ritual, including initiation ceremonies. The N’domo initiation society of the Bamana people from Mali, for example, has male masks, female masks and androgynous masks: the gender is indicated by the number of horns (masks with seven horns represent androgyny). The un-gendered status of un-initiated children relates them to mythical ancestors, who are often represented as androgynous figures or paired couples, such as those carved by the Dogon of Mali.

Evidence shows that same-sex sexual practices and a variety of gender configurations were known in Africa before the arrival of Europeans. These practices and beliefs were largely prohibited by colonial administrators, and have often been forgotten, creating the impression that such things never existed on this continent.

The ‘new’ world

When Europeans encountered the ‘new’ world of the Americas, they met different societies and gender roles. Any evidence of what colonists called ‘sodomy’ could be used to justify extreme violence against the indigenous population: the invading Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) declared—very conveniently— that ‘they are all sodomites’ in 1519.

In indigenous American societies cross-dressing was common, and some important pre-Columbian deities have male and female attributes in both oral accounts and visual representations. In Mexico, for example among the Mexica (Aztecs) and Huastecs, Tlazolteotl, the goddess of filth and sexual excess was in some incarnations represented as a woman warrior with both female and male characteristics.

A Native American ‘winter count’

Native American winter count

'Winter count', north America, 1902 

‘Winter counts’ are kept as records of the histories of many tribes of the North American Plains. On this winter count, the year 1891 includes an image representing the suicide of a winkte (translated from the Dakota language as ‘wants to be a woman’). This is a category of males whose occupations and social roles were those of women.

From other winter counts and indigenous comments we learn that the winter of one earlier year was called ‘Grass Killed himself’ after a winkte who ‘had troubles with his folks and hanged himself’.

Among some Native American tribes such individuals were considered ‘special’ in that they bridged gender differences. Among the Dakota Sioux Indians there were at any given time up to 10 (recorded) individuals belonging to this class of people.

With the arrival of Anglo-Americans and the institution of reservations in the late nineteenth century the practice of cross-dressing by such individuals was repressed.

Today a revival of this tradition is flourishing again among younger generations of Native Americans who see these figures as their forebears.

A Pakistani quilt

A 'transvestite' quilt, Pakistan, 1980s

A 'transvestite' quilt, Pakistan, 1980s 

This cotton quilt was bought in Karachi (Sindh, Pakistan) by the textile expert John Gillow, and it was acquired by the British Museum in 1985. Although he was told at the time that it was made by, or for, itinerant transvestites (hijras), he was not certain that this was true.

But even if the person he bought it from was inventing a story, this in itself links the quilt with the hijras, who are men who sometimes have undergone genital modifications and who usually live together in communities as women, earning money through dancing and singing at weddings, and sometimes by prostitution. They are often devotees of a mother goddess. The hijras are one of the few exceptions to the strict gender roles that are considered acceptable in Indian society.

Without the anecdotal account from its acquisition, this quilt would remain simply a textile. And even with the anecdote, the history of its maker’s life remains a blank. For all the LGBT people we can name in history, we must consider how many thousands of others are un-recorded and un-remembered.

Gender and transformation in Japan

Traditional Japanese theatre has a convention of transforming sexual identities in performance. In the seventeenth century, women were banned from appearing on the Kabuki stage, and men performed female roles. Near a city’s Kabuki theatres, there were teahouses where actors could meet their patrons, and young actors of female roles would sometimes provide sexual services to paying clients.

This woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu from the 1770s shows a tea-house where a young Kabuki actor is in bed with a patron.

A deck of cards shows photographs of drag queens from across Japan, taken by Otsuka Takashi. Otsuka is a leading figure in Japan's modern gay culture, a bar-owner, and activist. Each card shows a different individual, creating a sense of a large community.