Pride Special: Gender Diversity and Nonbinary Identities in First Nations in Asia and Oceania

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Happy Pride Month! In June, we commemorate the fight of all LGBTQIA+ people who lived before us. They paved the way for us, and they conquered many of the rights we enjoy today as Queer people. 

Some people in Western society tend to consider gender diversity as something “new”. However, this is not the case. The existence of gender-nonconforming individuals has been documented throughout history. First Nations (native communities) often had a conception of gender that differs from the Western gender binary. 

During Pride Month, we want to talk about some First Nation cultures in which gender diversity was frequent and well-respected. We have already introduced you to some First Nations from the American continent. We have discussed their view of gender as a spectrum. In this article, we will talk about gender diversity and nonbinary identities in First Nations in Asia and Oceania.

South Asian Cultures

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In many South Asian cultures, including those in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the figure of the hijra exists. In these different cultures, hijras are AMAB (assigned male at birth) who adopt feminine gender expression. Some of them can be AFAB (assigned female at birth) or intersex individuals. Most hijras identify as a third gender which is different from men and women. 

In Hindu mythology, hijras represent the half-male, half-female image of the deity Shiva. This depiction symbolizes a being that is ageless and sexless. In different dialects, there are many different words that are used to describe hijras. Some of them include Aravani, Aruvani, Chhakka, Kojja, Ombodhu, and Jagappa.

Before Britain’s colonization of South Asian countries, the existence of a third gender was recognized and respected. Hindu mythology depicts gender-diverse and nonheterosexual deities. Sometimes they change their gender or they embody both biological sexes. 

Hijras were well-respected for many centuries, and they often owned land, palaces, and temples. They could take on any role, such as caregivers to children or advisors to emperors. In ancient times, voluntary castration was very common among hijras. They renounced their fertility in exchange for magical powers. They are thought to possess several spiritual powers, such as divination or the ability to bless or curse a person.

The British Empire colonized India in the 17th century. After this, the British government launched a campaign against sexually and gender-diverse people. Since then, hijras have lived in marginalization. They are discriminated against and they are often homeless.

The Bugis Culture

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The Bugis community is the biggest out of the three ethnic groups of  South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nowadays, most Bugis are Muslim and have been since the 17th century. Before that, this community adhered to Animism. This is a belief that considers that life exists in all beings, including animals, plants, objects, places, and natural phenomena. Many pre-Islamic notions are still present in this community. For instance, gender, rather than subscribing to the colonialist concept of a binary, was viewed as more of a spectrum that allowed space for fluidity. In fact, these people consider gender to be a spectrum. There are five recognized genders within this community. They are oroané, makkunrai, calalai, calabai, and bissu.

A cisgender person is a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth. Simply put, oroané are comparable to what Western society would call cisgender men. Makkunrai are similar to what is known as cisgender women. Calalai, however, are AFAB people that take on the roles of heterosexual males. They present themselves as men and have jobs considered to be masculine. Calabai are AMAB individuals but embody femininity through their clothes and practices. However, they do not think of themselves as women. Society recognizes them as men who embody femininity, and they tend to be involved in specific social rites. 

One of these rites is marriage. Families approach calabai to help with the organization, decoration, and catering of the wedding. The calabai also make the bridal gown and the outfits of the wedding party, and they do the makeup for all people involved in the wedding. Finally, bissu are androgynous or intersex individuals. They play a central role in Bugis’ religion and beliefs, as they are revered shamans, sorcerers, religious leaders, and mediums.

In pre-Islamic times, bissu were a central pillar of the Bugis culture. They were intermediaries between the people and the deities that they worshiped. At the same time, they kept political and social rites alive, such as the coronations of kings and queens. Bissu represent all aspects of gender, and they form a whole. It is believed that some people are born with an inclination to become a bissu. These people are considered to have ambiguous genitalia – even if it’s not visible. In order to become a bissu, they must also learn the language of the community, several songs, and incantations. They must remain celibate and wear special clothes.

Sadly, nowadays Indonesia harasses and persecutes nonbinary and nonheterosexual people. Now, the bissu act as maids of honor at weddings or work as farmers. Today, few people are willing to take the role of bissu because of the general hostility they receive from mainstream society. This hostile behavior is due to the influence of different politicians and the police. Some news outlets also cite extremist Islamic groups as a source of discrimination against bissu. However, it’s important not to point fingers at a whole religion. Aquamarine’s founder and Content Marketing Lead Virginia Castiglione states:In my own witchcraft practice, I have seen the Deity Allah as among the very first to step up, if not the first, when I ask who recognizes a trans person by their name (and not their deadname). He also offers to honor sacred naming rituals with the correct name to those who wish it, though the Islamic Church is not likely to offer those officially”.

The Chuckchi Culture

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The Chuckchi people live in Eastern Siberia. They are a nomadic, shamanic people who, as well as their neighbors the Koryak and the Kamchadal, embrace a non-binary conception of gender. The Chuckchi people believe in Animism and all attempts to convert them to Christianity have been unsuccessful. Despite pressure from the outside to assimilate, these people still preserve many of their ancient traditions.

In this community, shamans are called ne’uchika. They are AMAB individuals who adopt female roles and appearance. However, they are not subject to any limitations imposed on women. They can go with men on the hunt, and they could stay home to take care of their families. 

There are also accounts of AFAB individuals named qa’chikicheca, who take on male characteristics to fulfill the role of shaman.

The Samoan Culture

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In the Samoan community, which is a First Nation from New Zealand, gender diversity has always been accepted. In this culture, there are four genders. In addition to men and women, there are fa’afafine and fa’afatama. Fa’afafine are AMAB with a feminine gender expression, while fa’afatama are AFAB who take on a more masculine gender expression. Samoan parents recognize this early in childhood, so fa’afafine and fa’afatama are raised as individuals who belong to a “third” or “fourth” gender.

Fa’afafine and fa’afatama are usually sexually diverse. They can engage sexually with and be in relationships with men, women, or other fa’afafines and fa’afatama, and they can get married to the person they want. 

Fa’afafine and fa’afatama are renowned for their hard work and dedication to their family, and they usually take care of their parents. They also devote themselves to the care of their nephews and nieces. They are also present in many spheres of Samoan society. Fa’afafine and fa’afatama are welcome in all spheres of society, as they can be artists, educators, business people, and religious leaders. One of their many duties includes educating people about sex.

One of the lasting Samoan traditions, the dance of the taupou, is preserved by fa’afafines and fa’afatamas. The taupou is a ceremonial host chosen by the village high chief. The reason why they are chosen is mainly due to their gender-fluid nature. This nature allows the fa’afafine or fa’afatama to dance gracefully and to use sexual comedy to address taboo subjects.

All in all, gender diversity was very common in First Nation cultures. In today’s article, we have covered cultures from Asia and Oceania. There are historical accounts of gender nonconformity in First Nations all over the world. The gender binary man-woman is far from being innate to human nature. In fact, it is a colonial construct brought to First Nations through colonization and imperialism.

During Pride Month, it is important to recognize that people who exist outside of the Western gender binary have always existed. As we have stated, in many cases these individuals were in fact considered special and/or sacred. It’s high time our societies start respecting and celebrating the existence of the LGBTQIA+ community. We are here, and we have always been. We are valid, we are strong, and each of us is valuable and important. Whether you are one of us or an ally, we hope you have enjoyed our brief article about gender diversity in First Nations.

Do you know about gender diversity in other communities? Tell us in the comments! 



Verene Snopek
Verene Snopek

is a Content Writer at Aquamarine Content. She is a Cancer Sun, Gemini Moon, and Libra Rising. A Jane of all trades, she is a certified clinical psychologist specializing in CBT and DBT. This cat lover also works as a professor of History, Literature, and Ethics in a Teacher Training College. She is interested in past lives and energy healing and has been learning about Astrology and Tarot reading for over a year. Her favorite crystal is Amethyst and her favorite Tarot card is The Lovers

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