Despite what western society seems to believe, transgender and non-binary people have existed for centuries in communities all over the world. Looking at the history of transgender and non-binary people in non-western communities not only highlights the fact that gender non-conformance is far from a modern issue, but also underlines the often-erased identities of transgender and non-binary people of colour within western society.
Whilst the western world broadly categorises gender non-conformance as being transgender or non-binary, communities all over the world have distinctive gender non-conforming communities. These communities are often unknown and erased in western society and consist of many different unique gender identities. Mexico’s muxe community is an example of a community that does not perfectly fit the western definition of transgender identity. Acting and dressing in a feminine manner, those who identify as muxe are assigned male at birth and often identify as third gender rather than as trans women.
The kathoey community of Thailand faces a similar issue when viewed through this western gaze. Comprised of intersex people, transgender women and effeminate gay men, the ‘transgender women’ within the kathoey community don’t strictly identify as women but to an extent identify with being assigned male at birth. In Thailand, the kathoey community is more visible and accepted than transgender communities in other parts of the world, something aided by the tolerant Buddhist view of the country.
Culturally, the kathoey community contribute greatly in many ways. Their place in society is marked by beauty contests for kathoey people and many kathoey celebrities such as the actress Treechada Petcharat. Kathoey people also often perform at cabaret nights and provide live entertainment at bars and clubs, something that helps boost Thailand’s economy through tourism. This bright celebration of the kathoey community should serve as an inspiration for the western world, highlighting the merit of embracing the culture and identity of gender non-conforming individuals.
However, despite the more accepting culture of Thailand, they still face discrimination as many gender non-conforming people do across the world. Their lack of legal recognition invalidates their identity leading to discrimination within the world of work. Consequently, many kathoey people turn to sex work where rates of HIV are particularly high within the community. Additionally, the importance of their identity is often diminished as a result of being viewed as a commodity for tourists rather than people with diverse identities.
The history of South Asia’s hijra community is particularly interesting in highlighting the fact that transgender and non-binary people haven’t always faced opposition. The hijra community in South Asia is comprised of eunuchs, intersex and transgender people and are often considered as being ‘third gender’. Their existence was noted in Hindu texts, with descriptions of deities changing gender and having gender fluidity. For instance, one of the forms of Lord Shiva (a principal deity in Hinduism) is a merging with Parvati (another important deity in Hinduism and Lord Shiva’s spouse) to form Ardhanarishvara, a symbol of androgyny and gender non-conformance that many within the hijra community identify with.
Additionally, the hijra community were celebrated for their devotion to the Hindu faith, something noted in an account in the Ramayana. The account details Rama, a significant Hindu deity, who went into exile and was followed by many people out of respect. After being made aware of his followers, he ordered all “men and women” to return home. Identifying as neither, the hijra community were found fourteen years later in the same place. Honoured by the devotion of the hijra community, Rama blessed them and stated that they could give blessings at special occasions such as weddings and births.
This celebration of the hijra community highlights the fact that gender non-conforming individuals have not been targeted for hundreds of years, but rather that they have been honoured and held in great esteem in some instances. Furthermore, it should act as an inspiration for today’s society that doesn’t value transgender and non-binary identities and individuals as it should.
Unfortunately, the hijra community has since been under attack and demonisation after British colonialism. The 19th century British colonists imposed their western ideas of morality, the gender binary and the patriarchy upon South Asia’s diverse and fluid approach to gender and sexuality. Laws such as 1864’s Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalised non-procreative sexualities, not actively targeting the hijra community but criminalising those who deviated from cisgender heteronormative standards. The ‘Criminal Tribes Act’ of 1871 similarly demonised the hijra community, labelling them a threat to society and stripping them of inheritance rights.
This criminalisation of the hijra community under British rule has left a lasting impact on the community. The community is left at an intersection between religious value and the immoral image cultivated during British rule. Consequently, the hijra community struggle to find employment, gaining their income through begging and sex work and living in precarious environments. Their religious value often leads to them being viewed as a commodity for religious blessings, with all their identity being reduced to blessing others without than their own unique identity being celebrated.
The history of the hijra community underscores why transgender and non-binary rights are so vital in society. The hijra community existed when they were highly valued, but they also existed when they were criminalised. Gender non-conforming individuals and identities clearly don’t cease to exist when they are criminalised in society. Instead, this simply leads to minority groups being more vulnerable to attack as can be seen in the modern hijra community and also in the western world.
Trans and non-binary people have existed for centuries in all parts of the world and will continue to exist. They aren’t threats to society or unworthy citizens to be ignored and not always legally acknowledged. These examples of communities such as the hijra community highlight why we must appreciate and value transgender and non-binary people as the worthy individuals they certainly are.