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What we can learn from an Indonesian ethnicity that recognizes five genders

Bissu, or transgender priests, are one of five genders recognized by the Bugis. Reuters

What we can learn from an Indonesian ethnicity that recognizes five genders

Bissu, or transgender priests, are one of five genders recognized by the Bugis. Reuters

On June 13, when a judge in Oregon allowed a person to legally choose neither sex and be classified as “nonbinary,” transgender activists rejoiced. It’s thought to be the first ruling of its kind in a country that, until now, has required that people mark “male” or “female” on official identity documents.

The small victory comes in the wake of a controversial new law in North Carolina that prevents transgender people from using public restrooms that do not match the sex on their birth certificates.

The conflict rooted in these recent policies is nothing new; for years, people have been asking questions about whether the “sex” we are born with should dictate things like which public facilities we can use, what to tick on our passport application and who’s eligible to play on particular sports teams.

But what if gender were viewed the same way sex researcher Alfred Kinsey famously depicted sexuality – as something along a sliding scale?

In fact, there’s an ethnic group in South Sulawesi, Indonesia – the Bugis – that views gender this way. For my Ph.D. research, I lived in South Sulawesi in the late 1990s to learn more about the Bugis’ various ways of understanding sex and gender. I eventually detailed these conceptualizations in my book “Gender Diversity in Indonesia.”

Does society dictate our gender?

For many thinkers, such as gender theorist Judith Butler, requiring everyone to choose between the “female” and “male” toilet is absurd because there is no such thing as sex to begin with.

According to this strain of thinking, sex doesn’t mean anything until we become engendered and start performing “sex” through our dress, our walk, our talk. In other words, having a penis means nothing before society starts telling you that if you have one you shouldn’t wear a skirt (well, unless it’s a kilt).

Nonetheless, most talk about sex as if everyone on the planet was born either female or male. Gender theorists like Butler would argue that humans are far too complex and diverse to enable all seven billion of us to be evenly split into one of two camps.

This comes across most clearly in how doctors treat children born with “indeterminate” sex (such as those born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, hypospadias or Klinefelter syndrome). In cases where a child’s sex is indeterminate, doctors used to simply measure the appendage to see if the clitoris was too long – and therefore, must be labeled a penis – or vice versa. Such moves arbitrarily forced a child under the umbrella of one sex or the other, rather than letting the child grow naturally with their body.

Gender on a spectrum

Perhaps a more useful way to think about sex is to see sex as a spectrum.

While all societies are highly and diversely gendered, with specific roles for women and men, there are also certain societies – or, at least, individuals within societies – who have nuanced understandings of the relationship between sex (our physical bodies), gender (what culture makes of those bodies) and sexuality (which kinds of bodies we desire).

Indonesia may be in the press for terror attacks and executions, but it’s actually a very tolerant country. In fact, Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest democracy, and furthermore, unlike North Carolina, it currently has no anti-LGBT policy. Moreover, Indonesians can select “transgender” (waria) on their identity card (although given the recent, unprecedented wave of violence against LGBT people, this may change).

The Bugis are the largest ethnic group in South Sulawesi, numbering around three million people. Most Bugis are Muslim, but there are many pre-Islamic rituals that continue to be honored in Bugis culture, which include distinct views of gender and sexuality.

Their language offers five terms referencing various combinations of sex, gender and sexuality: makkunrai (“female women”), oroani (“male men”), calalai (“female men”), calabai (“male women”) and bissu (“transgender priests”). These definitions are not exact, but suffice.

During the early part of my Ph.D. research, I was talking with a man who, despite having no formal education, was a critical social thinker.

As I was puzzling about how Bugis might conceptualize sex, gender and sexuality, he pointed out to me that I was mistaken in thinking that there were just two discrete sexes, female and male. Rather, he told me that we are all on a spectrum:

Imagine someone is here at this end of a line and that they are, what would you call it, XX, and then you travel along this line until you get to the other end, and that’s XY. But along this line are all sorts of people with all sorts of different makeups and characters.

This spectrum of sex is a good way of thinking about the complexity and diversity of humans. When sex is viewed through this lens, North Carolina’s law prohibiting people from choosing which toilet they can use sounds arbitrary, forcing people to fit into spaces that might conflict with their identities.

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