Gender, Social Justice

The history of nonbinary genders is longer than you think

While the term nonbinary is relatively new, it’s important to know how rich the history of gender non-conforming people truly is.

When Joan of Arc dressed for church, they wore men’s clothing. When they took the sacraments, they had their hair short and wore pants. When they fought for their God, they wore armor.

Many people resistant to cultural change will blame the newness of the terms used to define it. The newness of a label is often used to allude to the idea that it is an invention – something that is not true, but rather made up. This is the criticism that many people are applying to nonbinary genders.

However,  something that has been around since the fifteenth century cannot be rejected by its newness.

As people assigned female or male at birth celebrate their androgyny, the patriarchy is fighting back, declaring gender identity a new construct that is fabricated by those who strive for a difference. It’s important to acknowledge that the newness of the term “nonbinary” is not an indictment on its existence, but rather a celebration of its acknowledgment. 

History is no stranger to tales of people who are assigned female at birth dressing in men’s clothing to adopt more powerful positions in society. For many people, the Disney adaptation of the myth of Hua Mulan might be the first time they consider nonbinary identities. While the term “nonbinary” is never used in the family-friendly flick, in the title song, “Reflection,” Mulan proclaims “I will never pass for a perfect bride or a perfect daughter…That if I were truly to be myself, I would break my family’s heart.”

A 20-year-old movie certainly doesn’t indicate the newness of betraying gender roles, nor does the 1700-year-old source material.

Even earlier, in 1400 B.C.E., Hatshepsut ruled as Pharaoh in Ancient Egypt. Often regarded as one of the few female pharaohs to take the throne, the statues that survive her celebrate the strength of her rule. She is depicted in a few different ways, from a woman wearing men’s clothing to a feminine face upon a man’s body. Hatshepsut defied the strict gender roles of ancient Egypt, and the statues that still stand are evidence of their defiance.

These examples are anecdotal, and often follow a common theme, of a person assigned female at birth defying the gender roles assigned to their sex to achieve something greater. However, even these examples hardly hold a candle to the rich history outlining people of a “Third Gender.”

This third gender, sometimes defined as neither a man or a woman, is present in several ancient cultures – including Mesopotamia, the progenitor of written history. During that time, people of the third gender, or Hijra, were in service to the gods they celebrated. In various cultures throughout history, from  Hijra priests to eunuchs and virgins in the temple of Artemis, holiness has transcended gender.

Gender has been used as an oppressive instrument for centuries. It’s been used to highlight the difference between people, rather than highlight the inherent strength in us all. Strength of character is not something that is defined by maleness or femaleness. Strength is an attribute of the human condition to thrive when tested and fight for what we believe in.

That human condition is what drives people to discover what gender means to them. They are able to transcend the baggage of strict gender roles to achieve greatness.

The history of defying gender roles is as ancient as humanity itself – which leads one to question why people are so threatened by the nonbinary identification overall. Why is it that the rich history of gender fluidity needs to be constantly torn down by patriarchs of binary culture, and rejected because of its newly found public acceptance?

Perhaps, Joan of Arc and Hatshepsut knew something that other (cisgender) people did not. To transcend gender is to harness the power of the gods themselves.