Third genders, two spirits, and a media without a clue.
Author's Note: Earlier this month the UK Daily Mail reported on continued excavation at an archaeological site near Prague where researchers described an individual with an alternative gender identity. The following post originally appeared at Neuron Culture hosted by Wired after the original report last year.
In 1993 the reputable German weekly Der Spiegel printed a rumor that Otzi, the 5,300-year-old frozen mummy discovered in the Otztal Alps two years earlier, contained evidence of the world's earliest known homosexual act. "In Otzi's Hintern," wrote the editors, referring to the Iceman's hinterland, "Spermien gefunden worden." (If you require a translation, chances are you didn't want to know anyway.) The rumor quickly spread on computer bulletin boards as the recently unveiled World Wide Web inaugurated a new age in the free flow of misinformation. The origin of the rumor, as Cecil Adams discovered, turns out to have been an April Fool's prank published in the Austrian gay magazine Lambda Nachrichten. The joke about our ancient uncle being penetrated deep in the Alps was then picked up by other periodicals, but with a straight face.
Twenty years later it appears that little has changed. On April 6, 2011 Czech archaeologist Katerina Semradova spoke with the Iranian news service PressTV about their ongoing excavation of a burial in Prague that contained evidence suggesting a "third gender" identity. Dated to approximately 4,700 years ago, the archaeologists found what they said was a man from the Corded Ware culture who had been buried in a way that was highly uncharacteristic for the time. Typically, males from this Chalcolithic society were interred laying on their right side facing east while women were placed on their left side facing west. Accompanying the bodies would be gender specific grave goods that the deceased individual would presumably need in the afterlife (weapons or tools in the case of males and jewelry or domestic jugs for women).
"We found one very specific grave of a man lying in the position of a woman, without gender specific grave goods, neither jewelry nor weapons," said Semradova. "[I]t could be a member of a so-called third gender, which were people either with different sexual orientation or transsexuals or just people who identified themselves differently from the rest of the society."
Identifying the biological sex of a 5,000-year-old skeleton can be difficult enough, let alone interpreting a persons gender identity from a long forgotten culture. Nevertheless, their archaeological hypothesis is a sound one. The trouble however, as both John Hawks and Kristina Killgrove pointed out, is that the statement was merely part of an outreach campaign and didn't have a scientific paper to accompany it. Nevertheless, the story quickly went viral with news agencies ranging from Ukraine to Vietnam to Saudi Arabia all announcing the discovery nearly simultaneously. The problem lay not with the scientists, who were describing preliminary findings that previewed some tantalizing results, but a media culture that emphasizes sensationalism over accuracy and being first over being right.
By all accounts it seems that the UK Telegraph had the dubious honor of being first in this case, and in so doing committed two wrongs in just as many words: "Gay Caveman." First off, a person living during the Chalcolithic (a period previously referred to as the "Bronze Age") was not a caveman. This highly inaccurate term is usually used for Neandertals or Cro-Magnon humans, both of whom lived about 35,000 years ago. Secondly, an alternative sexual orientation does not make a person gay. Full stop. The first error is conflating one date with another that was seven times earlier, like claiming the Australopithecus Lucy lived alongside the giant mammal Megacerops. But the second error is conflating entire categories, like saying that everyone in Asia is Chinese. Someone making the first error we might excuse as merely being ignorant of specific time periods and details they don't normally encounter, but the second error is just plain ignorant.
Something that was seriously lacking from almost every report on this story, a notable exception being Rosemary Joyce's blog post on the topic, was providing their readers with the proper context of what was meant by third gender. This is a term that can best be understood as an umbrella concept that incorporates multiple sexual identities that don't fit into either male or female social norms. It's a term that is mostly used when describing non-Western societies and the closest equivalent in our own culture would be the reappropriated word "queer" as it's used within the LGBT community (outside that community it's often used as an epithet, very much like a certain N-word).
Of course, non-Western societies have their own terms for third gender. Native Americans use "two-spirit" to describe a person who simultaneously embodies a mixture of traditionally masculine and feminine identities, or two spirits residing in a single house. According to anthropologist Will Roscoe in his book Changing Ones, more than 155 North American societies have been documented as having two-spirit people (or "berdaches" as they were commonly called in anthropology). Some were men who took on traditional female gender roles, some were women who identified as men to become hunters, warriors or chiefs, and some were members of either sex who weren't easily categorized. To the Crow they were bote, the Navajo knew them as nadleehi, while the Lakota called them winkte. Some had sexual relationships with women, some with men, some with both, and some eschewed sexuality altogether.
"However, when the sexual preferences of berdaches have been reported a definite pattern emerges," says Roscoe. "Male and female berdaches were sexually active with members of their own sex and this behavior was part of the cultural expectations for their role." The gender roles that we've come to know as homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender were all represented in these societies, but in ways that were culturally specific and likely to have been quite unfamiliar based on our definitions.
Outside of North America the story of gender diversity is just as rich. In southern Mexico, the descendants of Zapotec societies have a gender identity they refer to as muxe, or a man who dresses and behaves as a woman. As the recent CNN program "Men, Women, Muxe" highlighted, these individuals are highly respected in society, particularly in the Oaxacan city of Juchitan. Some are sexually attracted to men while others just feel more comfortable dressing as women (what we might refer to as transvestism). In the latter case these muxe marry and have children as any man would, though I expect the choice of bridal gown requires some negotiation.
Third genders are reflected in practically every region of the globe. In Polynesia are the mahu, in both classical and modern India the hijras and jogappas, in the early Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina were the mukhannathun, while those in the modern societies of Pakistan, Indonesia, Samoa, and the Dominican Republic are known as khusra, tomboi, fa'afafine, and guevedoche respectively. All systems contain aspects that are both familiar and unique. In the latter example, guevedoche translates to "penis at twelve" and these intersex individuals are born with undescended testes along with an absent or clitorislike penis. Many of these biological males are therefore raised as girls until, at puberty, their voice deepens, their testes descend, and their phallus grows, at which point they transition into life as a man. Within their society this is nothing particularly unusual and there's no stigma attached, it's just guevedoche. Given such a diversity of roles, it seems that three genders aren't nearly enough to represent the numerous forms that sexual identity can take in our species. Gay cavemen, indeed.
However, despite the initial similarities between the gay cavemen scandals of 1991 and 2011 there is a very important difference. Us. In the last twenty years the global community has undergone a radical shift in our understanding and acceptance of alternative sexual identities. In ten countries (including where I sit in Canada, though not where I'm from in the United States) gay marriage has the same legal recognition as straight marriage. Sadly, the national dialogue of my home country remains painfully reminiscent of the pre-1967 era when interracial marriage was a crime and bringing Sidney Poitier home for dinner was risqué enough to attract an audience. But the situation is improving. The popular allure of the gay caveman story is just one indication of this ongoing change. Given time I'm confident that our society will one day see our myriad differences as our strength. Because whether we call it third gender or two-spirit, our diversity is one thing that truly unites us as a species.