“The two-gender system is neither innate nor universal” (Towle and Morgan 2006)

A good starting point for a discussion about gender is to first clarify the difference between biological sex and gender. In the world of biology ““male” means making small gametes, and “female” means making large gametes” (Roughgarden 2013 p. 23).

This means that the male of the species is the one who produces sperm, while the female is the one who produces eggs, because eggs are significantly larger than sperm. Other than that, biologically, there is no other defining characteristic that can be universally applied to differentiate between the two sexes (Roughgarden 2013).

Gender, on the other hand, is the set of characteristics, for example bravery or kindness, that a given culture deems appropriate for men and women.

“Gender reflects both the individual reaching out to cultural norms and society imposing its expectations on the individual”

Roughgarden 2013 p. 27

In other words, gender is not an innate quality, but rather something that is learned and acquired through socialization.

In the 1980s, anthropologists became aware that their supposedly unbiased analysis of non-Western cultures was suffused with ethnocentric assumptions and coloured by colonial privilege, in what came to be known as the period of “crisis of representation.”

This realisation coincided with the rise of gay and lesbian rights movements and led anthropologists to look at the concept of gender with fresh eyes – “they began to scrutinize the social construction of Western gender dichotomies and sexual forms of expression” (Towle and Morgan 2006 p. 668).

What emerged was that whereas in the West biological sex (in the form of genitalia) and gender are inextricably linked, in other cultures this connection was not quite as rigid.

It also became evident that in many cultures, perceptions of people who were gender non-binary differed from those of the West.

In this essay I will discuss two case studies of non-binary gender constructs, using ethnographies of the Bugis, the largest ethnic group in Sulawesi (Indonesia), who conceptualise five different gender categories, and the fa’afafine in Samoa, who have three. This is not to say that these are the only examples of societies with non-binary gender constructs – a comprehensive review of the literature would have to include, for example, the māhūs in Polynesia, the two-spirit people in Native American tribes and the hijra and jogappas in India.

In addition, I will also address gender constructs in Latin America, where gender is perceived as binary, but classification is not based on sexual organs, but rather on what one does with those organs. In this case I will be using two ethnographies of travesti, one in Rio de Janeiro and the other in Salvador, two cities in Brazil.

Through these three case studies, I will seek to illustrate how gender is constructed using different factors, the impact of westernisation on these gender constructs, and the way people who do not fit in the “two gender” system are treated by other people in their society.

The Bugis in Sulawesi

In her ethnographic study of the Bugis in Sulawesi (Indonesia), Sharyn Graham (2004) found that although the biological sex one is born with is an important consideration in the conceptualisation of gender, it is neither the only one nor the most important.

In fact, a myriad of other factors come in to play – ranging from occupation, roles, sense of self and behaviour, to sexuality, mode of dress and religious or spiritual beliefs. The result is that while the Bugis understand that the body is either biologically male or female, in total they conceptualise five genders – man, woman, calabai’, calalai’ and bissu.

“Santi was wearing a purple mini-skirt and a tight white T-shirt. Her face was heavily made-up in white powder startled by bright red lipstick. Her painted-on eyebrows were highly arched. … in South Sulawesi such accoutrements do not reflect conventional Bugis notions of femininity. Rather, they signal another identity. Santi is male-bodied yet s/he does not identify as a man, nor does s/he aspire to be a woman. Rather, Santi identifies, and is identified, as calabai’” (Graham 2004 p. 107).

Graham 2004 p. 107

“Rani always folds her sarong over (like a man) rather than tuck it in (like a woman), but s/he just as often wears trousers. Her hair is cropped short. S/he smokes cigarettes, often goes out alone at night, and uses many coarse words (kata kasar). Rani is female-bodied and yet … Rani is not considered, nor does s/he consider herself, a woman. Rather s/he identifies as calalai’”

Graham 2004 p. 107

Bissu, on the other hand, refers to people who exhibit a mix of male and female attributes. Graham (2004 p. 107) tell us that “bissu, like Mariani, are neither considered women nor men, but a powerful combination of both” (Graham 2004 p. 107).

The Bugis are predominantly Muslim, so their outlook reflects their belief in “fate (kodrat), destiny (nasib), and God’s will” (Graham 2004 p. 111) in all aspects of their life, including their understanding of gender.

Leena, a devout Muslim, tells the ethnographer that “I’m calalai’ because of God’s plan [which God] has for all of us, and that plan is for me to be calalai’. It’s my kodrat and you have to follow it.”

Andi Tenri, who lives in rural South Sulawesi, also describes his gender as “part of God’s plan, you know, for me to be calabai’. It’s my kodrat. At one point or another, your kodrat must appear (muncul) (i.e. the real you must come out)’ (Graham 2004 p. 111).

Graham also found that some non-binary gender Indonesians also use ideas such as being born with a “particular spirit (jiwa), soul (roh), or something unknown referred to as faktor x” when constructing their gender identity (Graham 2004 p. 112).

“It’s just natural, it’s just me. Jiwa is also very important, you must have the jiwa calabai.”

Tilly (Graham 2004 p. 111)

“I have known from when I was really little that I would be calabai’. I always wanted to wear women’s clothes and to play girls’ games and do everything like a girl. … I am like I am because I have this roh, and it can’t be changed’.”

Haji Mappaganti (Graham 2004 p. 112)

Furthermore, they are also different from the West in that they prioritise sexuality (who one is sexually attracted to and the role the person plays when having sex) and not biological sex when it comes to gender identity.

“We don’t want to be penetrated. It’s our role to penetrate our partners.”

Dilah, a calalai (Graham 2004 p. 113)

“Calabai’ are entered (dimasuk). Men are never entered!” Eka, a calalai (Graham 2004 p. 113).

Eka, a calalai (Graham 2004 p. 113)

Graham’s findings are significant, since they indicate that simply introducing the concept of a “third gender,” as has been done by some anthropologists (Towle and Morgan 2006), is still not sufficient to capture the complexity and richness of gender conceptualisations globally.

Instead of talking of a finite number of genders, it makes more sense to talk of a spectrum of genders, ranging from man at one end and woman at the other, with various combinations and degrees of maleness and femaleness constituting the gender identities in between.

She also shows that in the Bugis culture, gender identity is not solely linked to biological factors, but rather to the interplay of many aspects of a person’s sense of self, such as sexuality and preferred mode of dress and occupation, which is then explained using concepts such as fate or spirituality. The result is a culture that is much more understanding of “gender multiplicity” than the West (Schmidt 2016)

The Fa’afāfine

Johanna Schmidt (2016), who studied the Fa’afāfine (which translates to “like a woman”) in Western Samoa and New Zealand, also finds that local culture is more understanding of gender differences than the West.

The Fa’afāfine are biologically male, but as their name implies, they are like a woman, although not a woman. So basically, they are not men, and not women (because they cannot bear children), so their gender is conceptualised as something in between.

One of her informants describes it this way – “… if you look at a lot of the fa’afafines…you know, they are women, but they have biologically male bodies – big bones, tall, doing both gender duties over in Samoa, carrying coconuts, and looking after the babies, so over the course of years of time they would have developed male characteristics with their appearance – muscles and weight and bone structure and whatnot. But they are still effeminate and the family accept them” (Schmidt 2016 p. 296).

Schmidt 2016 p. 296

Just as the Bugis used several intersectional factors to define gender, so do the Samoans. In her ethnography Schmidt says that traditionally, issues such as the type of work the biological male prefers to do (the “heavy dirty” work of men or the “light clean” work of women), their choice of friends (girls vs boys in childhood, women vs men in adulthood), their comportment (effeminate) and clothing choices, coalesce together to form the gender identity of the person.

As is the case in all elements of culture, the abovementioned gender categories are not static, but rather are constantly in flux and changing. The is in fact what is happening in Samoa, as western constructs re gender are imported into the country. Samoans are exposed to Hollywood movies, social media and other mass media channels which feature western gender stereotypes. In addition, several Samoans are being influenced by western values because they work outside Samoa.

Schmidt found that one of the most significant changes wrought by the ever-increasing westernisation of ideas in Samoa is in the way the fa’afafines themselves express their gender identity.

She explains that in the past fa’afafines dressed like everyone else, with the sole exception that they symbolically wore their lava lava (a piece of cloth that Samoans tie at the waist) in the same way that women did, i.e. longer than the men wore it.

One of the fa’afafines describes how she adapted her clothing as a child –

“… the ordinary lava-lavas were quite short, and I didn’t like the short lava-lavas, and I used to pick up grandfather’s lava-lava and I used to parade around in it, make it like a sarong, up and down in front of the house”

Schmidt 2016 p. 298

However, over time this changed, and fa’afafines started taking their cues from Hollywood movies and adopting a westernised appearance of beauty and femininity, using heavy makeup, and wearing hyper-feminine sexualised clothing

“Well, before all the Palagis [Europeans] came here and, you know, Fa’afāfines were very accepted. To them [that is, Samoans], they were just a boy who was feminine, until the European influence came in, and then Fa’afafines became too good-looking to be true”

Schmidt 2016 p. 297

This shift in gender identity is even more marked in fa’afafines who were raised in Samoa, but who then migrated to New Zealand, a country where gender is seen as binary. Influenced by the cultural pressure to present as either male or female, some fa’afafines started taking hormones to change their physical appearance, while others started to emphasize their more masculine attributes.

“The whole role of fa’afafine, for a lot of people it’s not wanting to be a woman. They’re quite happy with the mind set of just sort of existing, and it’s not until they come [to New Zealand] that people are sort of saying, ‘Well, do you want to be a girl or a boy?’ And it’s not other Pacific people saying that, it’s other outside influences, whereby, you know, you’re getting stuck into that box”

Schmidt 2016 p. 298

Furthermore, seeing as in the heteronormative and binary Western culture “gender is linked to the notion that, ‘ideally’, an individual sexually desires their opposite gender” (Schmidt 2016 p. 298), fa’afafines are now changing their sexual behaviour to conform with western ideals of femininity “with assertions that they are only attracted to, and receive sexual attention from, straight masculine men” (Schmidt 2016 p. 298).

The Travesti

I will now turn to Latin America, focusing on the travesti, biological males who want to act and feel like women, while retaining certain male characteristics, including their genitals.

Don Kulick conducted an 11-month anthropological study with travestis in Salvador, a town in Brazil. He explains that in Latin America society also operates with a two-gender system, but that the classification is not based on biological sex or genitals, but on sexual behaviour, or more specifically on whether one penetrates or is penetrated.

“If one only penetrates, one is a man, but if one gets penetrated, one is not a man, which, in this case, means that one is either a viado (a faggot) or a mulher (a woman)”

Kulick 1997 pp. 579 to 580

Interestingly, what we end up with in this scenario is two genders – “men” and “not men.” (Kulick 1997). The “men” category includes those who are never penetrated. The “not men” category includes women (who are penetrated) and travesti (who both penetrate and are penetrated). Note that in this scenario travesti are not identifying as a third gender, or even as women, but rather they are sharing the “not men” gender with women (Kulick 1997).

This point is emphasized by Lina, a travesti in Rio, who tells the ethnographer that “[…] we are not women, we look like women. I have never wanted to be a woman … ‘To look like’, ‘to be’ is a different thing. […]” (Vartabedian 2016 p. 78).

Having a gender classification which is associated with sexuality instead of biological sex implies that whilst women are always female and referred to as “she” (because they do not have a penis and hence cannot penetrate), a biological male can identify as both female (“she”) or male (“he”), depending on their sexual behaviour.

In fact, in the eyes of travesti, a biological male can change genders during their lifetime, depending on whether they are, or are not, being penetrated –

“travestis narrating their life stories frequently use masculine pronouns and adjectival endings when talking about themselves as children but switch to feminine forms when discussing their present-day lives.”

(Kulick 1997 p. 579).

In fact, one is not born a travesti, one becomes one, and the very first step in assuming this gender identity is to start taking hormones, which leads to the men developing breasts and curves, while reducing body hair. Vartabedian describes this step as a “rite of passage” where “travestis experience a re-birth: they are now facing society as intelligible travestis” (Vartabedian 2016 p. 85).

The linking of sexual behaviour to gender is so pervasive that Latin American men do not consider themselves homosexual if they are the ones who do the penetrating when having sex with another biological male, who they see as akin to women in the “not men” category (Kulick 1997).

However, Brazilian society is not quite as flexible when it comes to the classification of travesti, who are stigmatized and labelled as “deviant”, often suffering brutal physical attacks by the police and members of the public (Vartabedian 2016).

Vartabedian concluded that “through their beautification practices, travestis are transforming not only their bodies, but also their own identities, in the process creating new social subjects” (Vartabedian 2016 p. 90).

At each stage of their transformation, as they “mould” their bodies through the injection of industrial, liquid silicon into their buttocks, cheeks, and other parts of the body, and when they have breast implants and nose jobs, they face increased discrimination and marginalisation, but this does not deter them –

“Fuck society, then, I owe nothing to society, I turn my back on society. As a travesti I feel much better … I am brave enough to assume my identity as a travesti, to rebel and face society in a skirt”

Vartabedian 2016 p. 91


In conclusion, this essay has shown that the construction of gender identities is culture-specific, and that “Western binary gender systems are neither universal nor innate” (Towle and Morgan 2006 p. 667).

Furthermore, is has illustrated the fact that the way non-binary people express their gender also differs between societies, and that unfortunately, a binary understanding of gender is often accompanied with intolerance, leading to the marginalisation and victimisation of those who do not fit within the narrow dictates of these classifications. 


Graham S. (2004) “It’s Like One of Those Puzzles: Conceptualising Gender Among Bugis”, Journal of Gender Studies, 13:2, 107-116
Kulick D. (1997) “The Gender of Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes.” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 99, No. 3, pp. 574-585
Roughgarden, J. (2013) Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People.
Berkeley: University of California Press
Schmidt J. (2016) “Being ‘Like a Woman’: Fa’afāfine and Samoan Masculinity”, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 17:3-4,
Towle E.B., Morgan L. (2006) “Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the “Third Gender” Concept in Stryker, S, Whittle, S. (eds) The Transgender Studies Reader. Routledge: New York, pp. 666 – 684.
Vartabedian, J. (2016) “Beauty that Matters: Brazilian “Travesti” Sex Workers Feeling Beautiful.” Sociologus, Vol. 66, No. 1

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