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An Open Letter, Part 2: Expansive Gender Identities Across History and Culture

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Geneseo chapter.

Content Warning: This article discusses transphobia and arguments used by transphobic people to invalidate the existence of folks with trans and gender expansive identities. If you are affected by this type of content, please feel free to click away. Additionally, The Trevor Project is an organization aimed toward LGBTQ+ folks aged 25 and under and has support hotlines in the form of calling, texting or online chatting. Please look through their resources and consider their hotlines if you are LGBTQ+ and need support.

Claire McCulloch/Her Campus


Welcome back from my brief “finals week and holiday season” hiatus to this series of open letters proving transphobic arguments wrong with facts and evidence! This week’s letter is about the historical and cultural significance of expansive gender identities. From Indigenous North American tribes to Pacific Island countries, gender expansiveness is not a new concept nor a purely Western concept. I will discuss a few cultures and countries that feature more than two genders with respect to each culture and identity. As a white American person, I’m learning most of this information through research, and will be providing all of my research and resources within the article.

I recommend reading the Open Letter, Part 0.5: An Introduction to Trans+ Identities and Language if you haven’t already, as I define many vocabulary terms that are used when discussing trans+ identities and concepts of gender and sex that I will be using here. And, if you missed last week’s open letter about the difference between sex and gender, I definitely recommend reading it after you finish this article! 



Many Indigenous North American tribes in 1990 created the term “two-spirit” as an umbrella term to refer to the various gender identities that exist in various Indigenous and Native American cultures. Two-spirit people are described to have both male and female spirits within them, and they are “blessed by their Creator to see life through the eyes of both genders” (Indian Country Today). Two-spirit individuals often hold special roles and responsibilities within their tribes and cultures, and many were “balance keepers” or practice tribal medicine.

Two-spirit is not interchangeable with terms like “gay” or “transgender,” but rather encompass many or all of these terms that Western culture holds within the LGBTQ+ acronym. A two-spirit person can be any or all of these terms, but being a gay native is not the same as being two-spirit.



In Samoa (not to be confused with American Samoa), there is a third gender called fa’afafine. Fa’afafine are biological males who act “in the manner of a woman,” according to the translation of the term. This gender has long been part of the Samoan culture and largely survived colonization, but currently face a certain amount of marginalization. Fa’afafine are accepted as feminine and often perform feminine roles in their families and villages, but may also take on more masculine roles and responsibilities (Te Ara Encyclopedia). Fa’afafine beauty pageants are fairly popular, with the Samoa Fa’afafine Association (SFA) hosting the largest in Samoa each year to raise funds for their community services for fa’afafine (BBC).



In India, people who identify as neither a man nor a woman are often referred to as Hijra or transgender (UAB Institute for Human Rights). In ancient India, they were well-respected and even played important roles in Hindu religious texts. They also held religious authority and important court positions. Despite the history of Hijra acceptance in ancient India, the colonial rule of Britain in India imposed Western ideals onto India, including the marginalization of Hijras and other LGBTQ+ Indians (UAB Institute for Human Rights). The social exile that occurred from this has resulted in institutional socioeconomic and medical difficulties for Hijras in modern day India.

Looking up, however, is possible. In 2016, India passed the Right for Transgendered Persons bill that protects transgender people and Hijras from many forms of harassment and discrimination. Additionally, Hijras were officially identified as a third gender by a Supreme Court ruling, meaning that their gender markers can reflect their Hijra identity on official government documentation (The Tech). There are many flaws with the recent moves forward, but these small steps are progress to a more tolerant and accepting India.


Next week’s letter focuses on the medical history of trans and gender expansive folks, including gender identity disorder, gender dysphoria, access to hormones and gender affirming surgeries. This is to address the concerns many people with anti-trans rhetoric express about the medical care trans folk receive, and additionally the ethics of providing trans positive healthcare to young children and teenagers.


Read More of the Open Letter Series

An Open Letter, Part 0.5: An Introduction to Trans+ Identities and Language

An Open Letter, Part 1: Gender is Not the Same as Sex 

An Open Letter, Part 2: Expansive Gender Identities Across History and Culture (this article)

An Open Letter, Part 3: Myths about Trans+ Medical Care (now published)

An Open Letter Part 4: Transphobia’s Impact on Trans+ People (now published)

Margaux (they/them) is a senior Women and Gender Studies major at SUNY Geneseo. Outside of Her Campus, they work at Geneseo's Office of Diversity and Equity, is on the executive board of Pride Alliance, and is an active Safe Zone trainer. They love to write about diversity, mental health, and environmentalism, with the occasional goofy topic or two (or five). Margaux hopes to someday be the coolest gender studies professor you will ever have.
Rebecca was the Campus Correspondent for Her Campus at Geneseo. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in English (Creative Writing) and Communication. Rebecca was also the Copy Editor for the student newspaper The Lamron, Co-Managing Editor of Gandy Dancer, a Career Peer Mentor in the Department of Career Development, a Reader for The Masters Review, and a member of OGX dance club on campus. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Becca_Willie04!