A Third Sex Around the World
( 6 ) Central and West Asia
The vast region of Central and West Asia has a long history of accommodating homosexual and transgender people, especially within the ancient civilizations of India, Persia, and along the Silk Road of the Central Asian plateaus. As previously described, Vedic India acknowledged the existence of a third-sex category (tritiya-prakriti) and accommodated gender-variant people as dancers, actors, house servants, barbers, masseurs, prostitutes, flower-sellers, priests and so on. Early Vedic teachings stressed responsible family life and asceticism but also tolerated different types of sexualities within general society. In ancient times, Vedic practices and beliefs were more widespread and extended westward to Persia, along the Arabia Sea coastline, southward to the various islands of the Indian Ocean, eastward into Indochina and Indonesia, and northward up to the Central Asian steppes.
In addition to Vedic Hinduism, several other religions originated in India such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism—each with their own unique yet often similar understanding of gender variance. Buddhism in particular became very influential throughout much of India and Asia. Lord Buddha appeared in northeastern India (now Nepal) during the sixth century B.C. and is accepted by Hindus as a partial incarnation of Vishnu or God. He was the son of a Hindu king but renounced all worldliness to practice asceticism. After attaining enlightenment, Buddha preached his realizations throughout much of northern India. His teachings of renunciation, proper action, compassion and the ultimate dissolution of the self were encoded by his followers and gradually spread throughout Asia. As an offshoot of Hinduism, many Buddhist terms and concepts are taken directly from Vedic teachings such as karma, dharma, nirvana, etc. In the same way, early Buddhist texts like the Vinaya utilize familiar Sanskrit terms to describe the third sex. Chief among these is the word pandaka, a variation of the Sanskrit term panda or “impotent.” The different types of pandaka mentioned in the Vinaya are identical to those found in Vedic texts and include familiar terms such as napumsaka and paksha-pandaka. The definitions of these words are also identical and describe various types of men that are impotent with women such as homosexuals, transgenders and the intersexed. Another word used in Buddhist Pali texts, ubhatobyanjanaka, refers to people with both male and female natures. Early Buddhism thus inherited its knowledge of a third sex from Vedic teachings and similarly tolerated gender-variant people in society.
The Jain religion is also closely related to Hinduism and was established in northwestern India just prior to Buddhism. Its teachings are based on a line of spiritual preceptors or tirthankaras, beginning from 900 B.C. and ending with the prophet Mahavirya, a contemporary of Lord Buddha. Jainism is very similar to ascetic Hinduism and its teachings stress compassion, celibacy, vegetarianism and fasting. Jains do not acknowledge a supreme being but worship various deities and saints. Like Hindus, they have historically recognized a third sex and accommodated gender-variant people in society. Jain teachings mention nine natures that trigger passion (nokashayas), three of which include purushaved (the desire of women for men), striyaved (the desire of men for women) and napumsakaved (the desire of “eunuchs” for one another).
Another religion originating in northwestern India is Sikhism, which began in the sixteenth century with spiritual preceptor Guru Nanak. Sikhism honors a supreme being and is similar in many ways to both Hinduism and Islam. Sikh holy books are silent on homosexuality but stress marriage and family life for all of its adherents, even to the extent of forbidding monasticism. There is consequently little space for homosexuals and transgenders in traditional Sikhism, although some adherents point out that Guru Nanak strongly emphasized human equality and rejected the idea of creating outcastes.
Religions foreign to India include Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Bahaism. Christianity was introduced in the first century A.D. by St. Thomas, an original disciple of Jesus. The new religion established a following along the western coast of Kerala but never became widely popular in India. Several Jewish communities also established themselves in India at approximately the same time. Known as the “lost” Jews of India’s southwestern Konkan Coast, these small communities were first officially recognized as Jewish during the twelfth century. Unlike other regions of the world, followers of Judaism were never persecuted in India. In 1498, Vasco da Gama landed in Goa, north of Kerala, and claimed the area for Portugal and the Roman Church. The Portuguese established several lucrative trading ports during the sixteenth century and Inquisitions were launched in an attempt to forcibly convert Hindus to Catholicism. Homosexuals were also persecuted during this time and thousands of Indians fled to neighboring Karnataka to escape the persecution. Several other European countries established ports along India’s coastlines in the seventeenth century—such as the French at Pondicherry and the Dutch, Danes and Brits—but none were able to convert many Indians to Christianity. Nevertheless, the British colonization of India from 1757 to 1947 had an enormous impact on the country in terms of instilling strong, Victorian-era sexual mores on the Hindu population.
Islam was the most effective foreign religion to impact India. From the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries, invading Muslims from West Asia established Islamic sultanates that often clashed with sovereign Indian states to the south. In most cases the two religions coexisted peacefully, but during times of war, defeated Hindus were often either forcibly converted to Islam or slain. In other instances, Hindus voluntarily converted for economic reasons or to escape India’s stifling caste system. Muslims introduced the widespread practice of slavery and male castration into North India and accommodated crossdressing, homosexuality and male prostitution among the eunuch class. When the British took control of the country in the nineteenth century, sodomy and crossdressing were criminalized and eunuchs persecuted. From 1860 forward, homosexuality was punished throughout the British Indian Empire with up to life in prison. India’s independence was achieved in 1947 after a nonviolent struggle spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi, but large Muslim populations in the northwest and east forced India to partition off two sizeable tracts of land now known as Pakistan and Bangladesh. The predominantly Buddhist island of Ceylon was granted independence a year later and adopted the name Sri Lanka in 1972. Hindu Nepal and Buddhist Bhutan remained independent kingdoms but were strongly influenced by India. In Nepal, homosexual and crossdressing men have a long history and are known as meti.
India and its bordering nations maintained conservative attitudes after British rule and were largely intolerant if not openly hostile toward homosexual and transgender citizens. All were extremely reluctant to abolish the inherited sodomy laws and in fact none had by the early twenty-first century. India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan all prescribed jail terms of up to life in prison while Sri Lanka punished homosexuality with up to ten years. Other island nations in the Indian Ocean were similarly strict—the Maldives prescribed life imprisonment, Mauritius five years and the Seychelles were nonspecific. Pakistan, strongly influenced by Islamic fundamentalism, was correspondingly the most hostile country in the region and prescribed the death penalty for homosexual conduct. Throughout much of the Indian subcontinent, sodomy laws served more as a public statement against homosexuality than anything else. The laws were in fact rarely enforced and large underground homosexual and transgender communities existed throughout the entire region. In Pakistan, for instance, male prostitutes and transgenders known as zenana maintained a strong presence in urban areas despite the country’s harsh laws against homosexuality. In the 1990s, small but modern gay communities and organizations began appearing in major cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Karachi and Kathmandu. In 2004, plausible calls were made for the first time in India to repeal its outdated and untraditional anti-sodomy code (Section 377). It was briefly overruled in 2009 but reaffirmed by India's Supreme Court in 2013.
To the west, ancient Persia goes back thousands of years and is well known for its historical accommodation of homosexuality, crossdressing and male prostitution. In the seventh century B.C., tribes of Aryan descent established the first of several great Persian empires. Extending from the western border of India all the way to Asia Minor and Greece in the east, Persia’s Achaemenid Empire thrived for three centuries but was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. One of the earliest and best-known examples of a third-gender Persian is Bagoas, the favorite male concubine of Emperor Darius III. After the emperor’s death, Bagoas was presented to Alexander the Great as a gift and the two fell deeply in love. Bagoas is described by ancient historians as “exceptional in beauty and in the very flower of boyhood, with whom Darius was intimate and with whom Alexander would later be intimate.”
As a custom of the ancient world, Persians typically employed homosexual and transgender servants in domestic affairs where they also often served as sexual partners. In the seventh century B.C., male castration was introduced into Persia from conquered Assyria and Media to the west, but the practice was more related to imported slaves rather than freeborn Persian citizens. Another import from Assyria was the practice of ritual castration—a tradition found in certain Middle Eastern goddess cults wherein male-to-female transgenders castrated themselves and adopted female personas in the name of their venerated goddesses.
Ancient Persians were polytheistic and worshiped a wide range of deities that were similar to the Vedic pantheon of India. During the Achaemenid Period, Zoroastrianism was adopted as the chief religion by both the ruling monarchy and a majority of its citizens. Zoroastrianism was founded by the prophet, Zoroaster, around 1800 B.C. in the steppes of Central Asia and is closely related to Vaishnava Hinduism. It acknowledges a supreme God along with various good and evil deities and also worships both the sacred fire and sun. Many scholars believe that Judaism was either derived from or strongly influenced by the early Zoroastrian teachings of Persia. The original portions of Zoroastrianism’s holy book, the Avesta, do not mention homosexuality. Later sections condemn it as demonic but do not prescribe any punishment, and adherents of Zoroastrianism lived peacefully alongside Persia’s traditional acceptance of gender diversity for over a thousand years. It became the court religion of three Persian empires from 558 B.C. to 651 A.D. and spread along Central Asia’s Silk Road as far east as China. In the seventh century A.D., Islam moved into West Asia and quickly replaced Zoroastrianism as the dominant religion of Persia. A century later, large numbers of Zoroastrians fled to the western Indian state of Maharastra to avoid religious persecution and their communities remain the religion’s largest concentration of followers to this day.
Persian culture thrived under Islamic rule and an abundance of homoerotic poetry and art emerged during this period, especially from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. A type of Islamic mysticism, known as Sufi, also flourished during this time and focused on divine love and esoteric teachings rather than exoteric ones. Islamic sultanates in Persia and other parts of Asia, including North India, were quite liberal for many centuries and tolerated a wide range of sexual practices. Homosexual and eunuch servants were popular symbols of prestige among Central and West Asian royalty and often served as male concubines. Young dancing boys, known as kocek or baccha, were widely popular throughout the region and well known for their practice of crossdressing and male prostitution. In Islamic Persia, male brothels were legally recognized and paid taxes to the government from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.
Persia grew more conservative from the eighteenth century forward and in the mid-1800s, a new religion was founded known as the Bahai Faith. Based on the teachings of Prophet Bahaullah, Bahaism was largely fashioned from Islam but stressed the spiritual unity of all faiths. Although original Bahai teachings forbid monasticism and do not acknowledge gender diversity, most modern adherents emphasize compassion toward homosexuals and other minority groups. Bahai adherents were persecuted in Islamic Persia but maintained a sizeable following and have since spread worldwide. As with Zoroastrianism, the Bahai Faith’s largest concentration of followers now resides in India.
Persia changed its name to Iran (“land of the Aryans”) in 1935 and became a fundamentalist Islamic state in 1979. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Iran was one of the most repressive countries in the world in regard to its persecution of third-gender citizens and Shari’a laws prescribing the execution of homosexuals were routinely enforced. Nevertheless, homosexual and transgender subcultures continued to exist in the Islamic state but were highly secretive and kept underground.
Ancient Bactria stood to the north between Persia and India in what is now predominantly northern Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was originally Vedic but gradually adopted Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and finally, Islam. Several Bactrian cities such as Bactra and Kambhojapura (now Kabul) served as important trading centers along the Silk Road, controlling all commerce moving in and out of India. The Silk Road was a crucial transport route of the ancient world and extended from China in the east to Damascus in the west. From Damascus, shipments were then routed northward to Anatolia and Europe or southward into Egypt. The Silk Road was an extremely powerful asset of Central Asia and prosperous empires, cities and trading posts flourished along its path for thousands of years. Among the many items of transport were homosexual servants, castrated slaves, crossdressing dancers and male prostitutes that were carried in caravans moving across Asia and beyond.
Several important commercial centers were established at junctions along the Silk Road such as Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara in what is now modern-day Uzbekistan. These prosperous centers were attractive targets for nomad warriors such as the Huns, who occupied the region during the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. Islam was introduced in the seventh century and quickly became the dominant religion. In the early thirteenth century, Genghis Khan (1162-1227) conquered much of the region and established the Mongol Empire. As the largest and most powerful empire of medieval Asia, the Mongol Empire eventually extended from Ukraine in the west to China in the east and lasted for two centuries. Genghis Khan kept a mostly neutral stance toward religion and gender diversity—in general, he did not interfere with regional traditions as long as they posed no threat to his rule. Khan developed an interest in Buddhism at the end of his life but was mostly inclined toward Chinese Taoism. In 1691, Mongolia became a province of China and gained independence as Buddhist kingdom in 1912.
The Silk Road slowly declined from the sixteenth century forward when Europeans circumvented it through widespread maritime shipping. Russia took control of Central Asia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the region was assimilated into the Soviet Union in 1917; with the exception of Afghanistan and Mongolia, which remained self-governing. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Central Asian states were granted independence and quickly assumed conservative, Islamic identities. Kazakhstan, Krygystan and Tajikistan had no sodomy laws by the end of the twentieth century but Turkmenistan punished homosexuality with two years in prison and Uzbekistan with three. In 1996, Afghanistan became a fundamentalist Islamic state ruled by the Taliban wherein homosexuals were routinely hanged in public and historic Buddhist monuments destroyed. The oppressive regime was removed by the United States at the end of 2001 but the death penalty for homosexuals remained in place. Mongolia became a democracy one year before the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the mostly conservative Buddhist nation had no specific sodomy laws, it maintained the right to persecute homosexuals under a nondescript edict prohibiting “the immoral gratification of sexual desires.”
(Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, pp. 213-220)
[Continued in Part 7...]