Gender roles — only two?


By Mary Merkenich

Are there really only two genders — female and male? Fred Nile and other fanatical conservative groupings would certainly like us to believe so.

This is not merely an academic question, but an important social concern. Many young people who do not fit the female and male stereotypes experience horrendous bullying, which leads some to suicide. Life for transsexuals and those who are categorised as having Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (a condition in which the male foetus does not respond to androgens and fails to develop masculine characteristics) is not much better.

Within the women's liberation movement, there has been some debate about the appropriateness of transsexuals or transgender women being part of the movement. Some feminists argue against transgender women's participation purely on the basis of biology, yet as feminists we should be very concerned about any position which employs a biological determinist argument.

There are societies within which up to four genders are recognised and accepted. A study of those societies in which there are more than two genders undermines any "biology is destiny" argument.

The issue has ramifications for transgender people. Would the elimination of restrictive and often dehumanising stereotypes obviate the need for what is essentially mutilation — sex-change operations? Some feminists, such as Germaine Greer, regard sex-change surgery as "profoundly conservative in that it reinforces sharply contrasting gender roles by shaping individuals to fit them".


One society which shows that the two-gender restriction is not necessarily normal or natural is the Navajo of North America.

Among the Navajo there are four genders: female, male and the nadleehe (meaning the "changed"). The nadleehe are the "femalemen" and the "malewomen".

A traditional Nadleehe in Navajo society is a person who was born as a man but who is regarded 100% as a woman. He is regarded as a woman not because of his sexual preference, but because of the work he performs. The same situation occurs for female nadleehes, who live and work as men.

A legend of the Navajo holds that when the gods created the world, no humans or animals existed. The world was red and empty. So the gods formed primeval man out of a white corn cob and primeval women out of a yellow corn cob. Both were spirit beings who came into being simultaneously, without any hierarchy between the sexes.

These prehistoric spirits crawled out of the first, red world into the second, blue world above. There the primeval man packed a medicine bundle for a religious ceremony, at which he wanted to allocate the contents of the bundle to the sexes.

However, in his haste to climb into the third, yellow world, the contents of the bundle were thrown together. Consequently a gender mix was formed which created two additional genders: the malewomen and the femalemen.

Together, the spirit beings moved into the fourth, white world and from there into the fifth, colourful world, the world as we know it, in which the Navajos lived with their four genders.

Social sex role

A Navajo Indian, Wesley Thomas, who is a femaleman, was interviewed by Bascha Mika for the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung. He told the journalist that he had never thought about the genders until he noticed that in some societies there were only two.

He added that, beside biological sex, humans have a social sex role. The latter is a cultural construct. Thomas cannot understand why there cannot be more than two genders.

Thomas grew up in a traditional extended family on a reservation in New Mexico. Apart from his natural mother, Thomas had eight additional mothers.

His family included 106 members. His grandmother discovered that he was different to the other boys. The grandmother suggested to the rest of the family that Thomas should be raised as a nadleehe.

The extended family in the Navajos must decide who takes on the third or the fourth gender role. Mostly this occurs when the child is very young. Thomas was treated like a girl from the age of four. He was permitted to wear female clothing and learn the work that females carried out.

The Navajo have retained a matrifocal culture and women are the heads of the family. There is a strict sexual division of labour in all important tasks: women cook, weave and care for the children; men look after the crops and the livestock, supply the wood and build the eight-sided houses. Thomas complains that the second sex is terribly lazy. "One has to do everything oneself, the entire responsibility stays with us". The "us" is the first and the fourth genders, women and femalemen.

Thomas is about 40 years old and lives partly on the reservation and partly in Seattle. An ethnologist at the University of Washington, he researches "gender variance in the North American Indians", because the phenomena of more than two genders is not restricted to the Navajos.

High esteem

In his tribe, Thomas enjoys a special status. Nadleehes are believed to have two spirits united in one. They are regarded as especially inspired.

They are enlisted for religious activities and consulted as mediators and advisers. They are considered to be very wise. Each family which has a Nadleehe feels itself to be honoured.

Those Native Americans who have been totally "Americanised", who have lost their roots and who cannot remember Navajo customs or the language, don't have any idea about the gender blending or the sex-role swapping.

Since the beginning of last century, the influence of the West on Native American society has meant that the knowledge about the myths and the reality of the four genders has been lost. Today there are very few Nadleehes; they are looked after by their families and protected from the outside world.

Thomas knows of only three other male and not a single female Nadleehe on the reservation on which he lives with 200,000 Navajos. Even when there were lots more mixed genders, there were more male Nadleehes than female ones.

Thomas believes that most people see no alternative to the culturally restricted two genders, even when they themselves do not feel comfortable in their assigned roles.

For this reason, Thomas has travelled throughout the US and Europe to disseminate the news about alternative genders. In his lectures and readings he advocates ambivalence and a life of gender ambiguity.


Thomas says that not even transsexuals sabotage the polarity of the genders and the connected hierarchy. Transsexuals want to outwit their bodies and strive for gender clarity, if need be through an operation. A Nadleehe doesn't require this, he says.

Her or his body, which belongs to one sex, and her or his spirit, which comes from the other, are not enemies. A male Nadleehe breaks through — without questioning his identity as a woman — old concepts of femininity and feminine roles; and vice versa for female Nadleehes.

Thomas declares that he feels himself to be a person, a shy missionary, who harmoniously unites maleness with femaleness. He can never remember having problems with his role. It was always so natural.

Thomas lives with men in serious relationships. These are not equal partnerships because as a Nadleehe he dominates.

Thomas is angered when he is labelled homosexual; he regards this as typically Western. Sex does not count for very much in Navajo society; in their value system sexuality is ranked at number eight.

Priority in Navajo social interaction is given to what one does — one's work. This is how one is defined.

Nadleehes are not defined by their sexual preference, but by the fact that they carry out different work than that assigned to their biological sex. Those who are gay or lesbian associate with people of the same sex and the same socially constructed gender.

Thomas's male partners are not homosexual, but heterosexual. If Thomas were to love a woman, his family would class him as a homosexual and regard him negatively, because the Navajos are not particularly tolerant concerning sexuality. Traditionally, there is no homosexuality. Those Navajos who were lesbian or gay left the reservations to live in the big cities.

In Greer's The Whole Woman, she describes another example of a group of men who are accepted as fulfilling another socially constructed gender role. These are the hijras of Varanasi, India: men with their hair dressed and their faces painted like women. These men have their genitalia painfully removed, sometimes by other hijras.

The hijras do not make the slightest attempt to pass as women and their behaviour is loud and aggressive. They receive offerings in return for dancing at weddings and child namings because they are considered agents of the mother goddess.

The hijras do not provide a positive alternative to the West's gender prescriptions. Nevertheless, they do, as the nadleehes do, break the myth that male and female roles are always based strictly on biology.