The enormous extent to which the binary gender system has been enforced – which claims everyone can only be male or female – has left many people unaware of the existence of anything (or anyone) else. A lot of this has to do with a phenomenon that sociologists understand as the ‘medicalisation’ of sex. Differences in gendered behaviour (whether that be a man doing ‘women’s things’ or vice versa), sexual attraction, or clothing choice became understood as sicknesses, best left to the expertise of a doctor -when before you would’ve called for a priest, or even more likely, not actually been all that bothered. Anthropologists in the 19th century gave fantastical reports of ‘exotic’, ‘alien’ cultures. These social models regarding gender and sexuality were unintelligible to people bound by the western model: that you could be a man (who was attracted to women), or a woman (who was attracted to men). And that’s that. Such ancient and enduring social systems which involve a third gender (or more!) and other ways for understanding sexuality that aren’t readily analogous to ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or ‘bisexual’ can be found all over the world, but it isn’t even these that I’m referring to in the title of this article. One doesn’t need to travel far to find hugely mainstream historical precedent for the concept of a third gender. How about one of the most important and influential civilisations in the western world? Ancient Greece.
I want to talk about a particular text, written by Plato. Student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle, it’s fair to regard him as a founding father of philosophy. The text is a collection of speeches by different important Greek thinkers, written to reflect each man delivering his speech to the others at a drinking party. This is Plato’s Symposium.
One of the speeches was given by Aristophanes, who was a comic playwright. He asks why is it that when in love, many people report feeling ‘whole’, as if previously incomplete? The explanation, he says, is due to how mankind used to be.
Humans were, according to Aristophanes, originally beings with two heads, four arms and legs, and two hearts, who were very powerful. Each head (and corresponding genitals) could be male or female – so there were three possible sexes! Male, where both were men, female, where both were women, and ‘androgynous’, where you had one male and one female. These powerful double-people decided to storm Mount Olympus, so to stop them Zeus smote them, tearing everyone in half. Each person then desperately tried to find their original pairing – which positions the male and female double-people as gay men and lesbian women, with the third gender representing what we would now label heterosexuality. This comic illustrates perfectly.
This importantly demonstrates how a two gender system hasn’t always had the total monopoly one might assume it has. Whilst this doesn’t say anything about the thoughts had about gender by the everyday ancient Greek, it simply shows there was recognition of a third gender through stories, and there wasn’t any strangeness or moral failure or sickness associated with it. The same culture gave us Hermaphroditus, the neither-male-nor-female divine child, and root of the word hermaphrodite, often historically used to describe intersex people.
Whilst the identity labels are new (the word ‘homosexual’ only being created in the late 1860s for example), all evidence shows that the rich human variation of gender identity and sexuality have been around for as long as people have thought about themselves and who they are.