A Third Sex Around the World
1 - Introduction | The Animal Kingdom
2 - The Americas
3 - The South Seas
4 - East Asia - Part 1
5 - East Asia - Part 2
6 - Central and West Asia
7 - Central and West Africa
8 - South and East Africa
9 - North Africa and the Middle East
10 - Southern Europe
11 - Northern Europe - Part 1
12 - Northern Europe - Part 2
( 1 ) Introduction
In 1463, a man was convicted by the Court of Holland for homosexuality (sodomy) and burned at the stake. A year later, his partner was whipped down the streets of The Hague and had his hair burnt off his head. In Christian Europe, the execution of homosexual men slowly increased from the fifteenth century until ending in the early 1800s. Nearly a thousand sodomy trials were conducted in Holland (now the Netherlands) from 1730 to 1811 and between 1730 and 1732 alone, seventy-five “sodomites” were sentenced to death. Convicted homosexuals were systematically garroted (strangled with a cord) either privately within the cellars of city halls or publicly on scaffolds in front of large audiences. Deaths by hanging, burning at the stake, breaking on a wheel and drowning in a barrel of water were also some of the recorded methods used. Determined to exterminate sodomy “from top to bottom,” the Court of Holland conducted one of the harshest campaigns against homosexuality in early modern Europe.
Curiously, however, the harsh penalties against sodomy in Holland and other parts of Europe did little to extinguish the “crime.” On the contrary, detailed police and court records kept during this period reveal underground inns, taverns, bookshops, alleyways, parks, and other secret meeting places where sodomites persistently gathered. As authorities investigated and raided one “sodomite network” after another, more would inevitably crop up in their place so that by the end of the nineteenth century, exacerbated European officials doubted if they could ever truly put an end to sodomy and its subculture.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, explorers from Great Britain discovered a previously unknown tropical paradise in the Pacific South Seas. Amid emerald islands set in pristine, turquoise waters, British sailors found natives untouched by any other culture or civilization. The sailors were shocked by the sexual openness of the South Pacific islanders who unabashedly engaged in homosexual and transgender conduct. In one account from an eighteenth-century voyage to Hawaii, a British seaman related how he was approached not only by the native women but also the men; in another account, Bounty shipmate James Morrison observed that the mahu (male-to-female transgenders) of Tahiti were “like the eunuchs in India.” He described how they lived and dressed as women, sang and danced along with them and excelled in all their tasks. Upon hearing that the mahu were hermaphrodites, Bounty commander Captain Bligh asked one of the Polynesian “eunuchs” to remove his loincloth. Bligh’s report noted that the native’s “yard” [penis] was not absent or deformed but very soft and small, having been customarily tied up against the groin. He also observed how the native women treated and respected the mahu as one of their own.
Unfortunately, the initial fascination of British explorers with a Polynesian third sex quickly turned into contempt. In his 1770 observations of Maori tribes in New Zealand, Captain James Cook wrote that the natives were “given to the detestable Vice of Sodomy.” Early nineteenth-century missionaries from Britain complained that New Cythera (Tahiti) was nothing more than a “filthy Sodom of the South Seas,” fraught with rampant fornication and “often boys with boys.” Disgusted, they accused the Polynesian children of doing little else than frolic on the mountains together in wickedness. Determined to purge the islands of such pagan practices, Christian missionaries convinced the Polynesian natives to abandon their traditional lifestyles by the end of the nineteenth century.
The two histories cited above provide interesting examples of how different societies respond and adapt toward gender diversity. The Netherlands, once one of the most cruel and aggressive countries in its attack on homosexuality, has since become one of the most accepting—in 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the modern world to legalize homosexual marriage. Polynesia, on the other hand, originally held no stigma for homosexual or transgender conduct but has since become largely intolerant—most Polynesians now strongly criticize gender-variant behavior, and homosexuality is illegal on many of the islands. In both examples, the third sex was and still remains present; there were gender-variant people in Polynesia and Holland during the 1700s and there are gender-variant people now. What changed, however, was the way in which such people came to be viewed and treated. Intolerance turned into acceptance and acceptance turned into intolerance, but the persistence of a third sex remained constant in both instances.
Perhaps the real question, then, isn’t whether or not a third sex exists throughout the world but why world cultures react so differently to it. Religious zealotry seems to play a major role. In the two examples cited above, Dutch society moved from Protestant fundamentalism in the 1700s to mostly secularism in the twentieth century, whereas Polynesia abandoned its traditional island practices and beliefs to adopt Victorian-era Christian mores. Nearly all of the world’s indigenous cultures, including India’s, accommodated gender diversity to some degree but from the third century A.D. onward, dominant Christian and later Islamic authorities began enforcing strictly dimorphic (male/female) social standards with little room for a third sex. Nevertheless, there are examples wherein the latter religions have also accommodated gender diversity—the medieval Islamic caliphates, for instance, or modern states currently reassessing their own sex and gender laws that are predominantly Judeo-Christian in background. On the other hand, atheistic governments such as China demonstrate that gender prejudices are by no means limited to religious societies. Clearly, other factors are involved including natural fears over human differences (sex and gender phobias); moral and religious attitudes; government systems and leadership; national prosperity or destitution; population and urban growth; advancements in education and science, and so on. All of these factors can contribute to whether or not any given society celebrates, tolerates, frowns upon, or condemns gender diversity among its populace.
In any case, it is important to understand that gender diversity is primarily biological and therefore all pervasive. The fact that homosexual, transgender and intersex beings exist in all cultures, countries and species of the world should give us a clue about their biological origin, as should their persistence as a social class in human society despite harsh persecution in many regions. The third sex is not simply a temporary social phenomena, self-identity or exotic expression limited to India, Hinduism or any particular culture—it exists primarily as a biological category found throughout the natural world. Because the third sex is often concealed and not readily apparent to the untrained eye it is sometimes known as the “hidden sex” (gupta-prakriti). This is all the more true in societies that attempt to persecute or cover up third-gender behavior. Nevertheless, as demonstrated in this chapter, an unbiased inspection into both the animal and human kingdoms will reveal a third sex all around the world and throughout time.
The Animal Kingdom
Just as there are many incredible displays of sex and gender variety among Hindu deities, so also nature displays an amazing array of sex and gender diversity within the animal kingdom. The simplistic notion of a Noah’s Ark, with one male and one female specimen sustaining all species, is a far cry from scientific reality. In truth, biological sustenance and reproduction are dependent upon an incredibly complex web of co-dependent factors, including a third sex. Not only is nature more complex than we imagine, it is more complex than we can imagine!
Microbes and simple life forms are, of course, either asexual or hermaphrodite, meaning they reproduce without separate dimorphic divisions of male and female. Many plants can reproduce themselves simply by the severance of a root, twig, or other appendage, and nearly all flowering plants are hermaphrodite with sexual organs (flowers) that have both male and female parts. Worms, slugs and many aquatic species are also hermaphrodite—they possess both eggs and sperm that are mutually exchanged. In the insect world, reproduction occurs mainly through dimorphic male and female methods, yet many of the more developed social species such as bees, ants and termites sustain their colonies through large numbers of asexual or sterile workers. In such insect colonies, the asexual workers and reproductive queens and drones are all co-dependent upon one another for survival.
Scientific studies of homosexual behavior among fruit flies are quite well known; scientists have observed this behavior in nature and can also induce it in individuals through the manipulation of their genes. Homosexual behavior has similarly been observed in insects such as moths, butterflies and beetles, and intersexed examples of butterflies and spiders have been found that are sexually divided in half, with one side male and one side female (gynandromorphism). Among the millions of Monarch Butterflies found mating in central Mexico, 10 percent of the mating pairs are same-sex male couples—with an even higher ratio of 50 percent by the end of the season!
Creatures such as sow bugs, shrimp and oysters completely reverse their sex at some stage in their lives and such transsexuality is a routine occurrence for many species. Tropical coral fish, for instance, are especially well known for their ability to change sex—more than 50 species of parrotfish, groupers, angelfish and others are all transsexual. Their reproductive organs can undergo a complete reversal, enabling females with fully functioning ovaries to become males with fully functioning testes and vice versa. In some families of fish, transsexuality is so common that it’s actually more unusual to find species that do not change sex!
Among amphibians and reptiles, certain species are known to reproduce both sexually and asexually. Female geckos, salamanders and Whiptail Lizards, for example, are parthenogenetic (able to clone themselves) and can reproduce without help from males. Biologists have identified over a thousand of such parthenogenetic species worldwide. Among snakes, both homosexual and bisexual behavior has been observed and studied. Most animals attract and find partners primarily through pheromone or scent signals and when snakes or other animals are homosexually attracted they are simply following these natural signals. In some species such as Garter Snakes, certain males will produce the female pheromone, thus adding to the complexity!
In birds and mammals, methods of reproduction are consistently dimorphic but social interaction and behaviors such as courting, mating and nesting become increasingly diverse. It is among these species, therefore, that the greatest amount of homosexual, bisexual and transgender behavior is found. Homosexuality among avian species is quite common and has been observed in nearly all bird families including waterfowl, sea birds, penguins, parrots, songbirds, finches, swallows, sparrows, crows, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, game birds, birds of prey, flightless birds and so on. Birds are similar to humans in the sense that they typically mate and nest in pairs. Thus, homosexual birds also court each other, pair off, mate and build nests together. Quite a few also become involved in raising chicks—penguins, swans, flamingos, parrots, songbirds, gulls and others have all been observed taking eggs or finding hatchlings to rear as their own. Some birds also engage in same-sex group behavior. In Mallard Ducks, for instance, where homosexuality and bisexuality are quite common, “gay” drakes socialize primarily among themselves and form what biologists refer to as “clubs.” Other birds are transgender—certain female Hooded Warblers can be found bearing the markings and singing voices of males while in other species, such as Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, certain males will mimic the courting behavior of female birds to attract other males. Such types of transgender birds (with mixed gender markings and behavior) are commonly observed by ornithologists and referred to as “marginal” males or females. Intersex conditions are also found among avian species and over forty cases of gynandromorphism, wherein birds have split male and female plumage, have been reported in species such as pheasants, falcons, and finch. In some types of birds, significant portions of the population never mate or reproduce; for instance, twenty-five percent of Long-tailed Hermit Hummingbirds remain single and nonreproductive throughout their lives, and as much as one third of Common Murres (a seabird) and Kestrels (a type of falcon) do the same.
Among mammal species, homosexual, bisexual and transgender behavior is even more common and has been documented among small rodents and insectivores (mice, rats, bats, squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, hedgehogs, etc.); marsupials (wallabies, kangaroo, koalas, dunnarts, etc.); carnivores (lions, cheetahs, wolves, foxes, bears, hyenas, mongooses, martens, raccoons, etc.); hoofed mammals (deer, elk, caribou, moose, giraffes, antelopes, gazelles, pronghorns, wild sheep, goats, buffalo, bison, musk-oxen, zebra, horses, pigs, llamas, elephants, rhinoceros, etc.), marine mammals (river and salt-water dolphins, porpoises, Orcas, whales, seals, sea lions, walruses, manatees, dugongs, etc.) and primates (Bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, Orangutans, gibbons, langurs, Proboscis Monkeys, macaques, baboons, Squirrel Monkeys, capuchins, tamarins, langurs, bushbabies, etc.).
Homosexuality in mammals is quite complex and has been well studied both in captivity and in the wild. Bonobos (Pygmy Chimpanzees), for example, have been found to exhibit a wide variety of different homosexual behaviors and emotions, and in small mammals such as mice and rats, scientists can induce homosexual behavior through the manipulation of their hormones during gestation. Bisexuality is very common among mammals and has been observed in many species outside of their normal breeding season such as Walruses, Bottlenose Dolphins, Bison, Bighorn Sheep, Giraffes, etc. Transgender behavior can also be observed among mammals—in Bighorn Sheep, some rams identify as female and herd themselves with the ewes. While Bighorn rams typically engage in homosexual behavior all year long, the transgender rams will only allow themselves to be mounted during the mating season when the “other” ewes are in estrus!
Many varieties of intersex conditions are found in mammals such as primates, bears, whales, dolphins, marsupials, rodents, insectivores and others, and quite a few mammal species have large numbers of individuals that are nonreproductive and never breed. For instance, more than fifty percent of American Bison and Right Whales, 75 percent of Blackbucks and Giraffes, and 80-95 percent of New Zealand Sea Lions and Northern Elephant Seals never mate or reproduce with the opposite sex throughout their entire lives.
Ratios of heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual animals vary from species to species and in many cases the homosexual populations of animals exceed those found in humans. Human populations are roughly estimated to be 80 percent heterosexual, 15 percent bisexual and 5 percent homosexual (80-15-5), but among animals these ratios can differ considerably. Female Silver Gulls, for example, have been found to have a ratio of 79-11-10, respectively, while male Black-headed Gulls have a ratio of 63-15-22 and Galahs (a type of cockatoo), 44-11-44.
There are so many examples of gender-variant creatures in the animal kingdom that it is impossible to do them justice here. Why such creatures exist or what purpose they serve may be debatable or even beyond our understanding, but clearly the natural world, when put under the microscope, is amazingly diverse. Biological life is so exuberant it seems to diversify at every possible opportunity and in every conceivable way, thus reflecting the very nature of Godhead itself.
Those who attempt to limit nature, limit God. In scientific journals from the nineteenth century, early zoologists typically imposed their own homophobia on the animal kingdom. While praising the mating of heterosexual creatures as “beautiful representations of God’s glory,” they simultaneously condemned the homosexual behavior they witnessed among animals as “unnatural” and “so monstrous as to be unworthy of record.” Initially, many zoologists tried to explain away homosexuality in the animal kingdom, hypothesizing that the creatures were simply deprived of opposite sex partners, mimicking heterosexual behavior, reacting to artificial environments, defective in some way, confused, or so on. All such rationalizations, however, have since been disproved and unbiased research into the animal kingdom has disclosed to modern biologists what indigenous cultures of the world have known all along—that nature is awe-inspiring and inconceivably variegated in terms of sex and gender.
(Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, pp. 181-188)
[Continued in Part 2...]