The “third gender” question and Nepal’s pioneering approach


In Nepal, gender isn’t confined to just male or female; a third gender exists, one which is neither male or female, and the Supreme Court of Nepal ordered the government to allow for passports to transcend the binary.

This provides an option for transgender or gender-neutral individuals who don’t feel that their identity meets the mold of either man or woman, but rather an ambiguous entity altogether, to be correctly labeled.

Allowing for an identification card which correctly characterizes a person’s identity will help eliminate exclusion and discrimination—and furthermore, this legislation demonstrates respect of the individual and their personal preferences.

This progressive decision raises many questions; most obviously, what is a third gender? Is it equivalent to transgender? Who qualifies as third gender? Or, maybe the real question we should be asking is: why do we need to have a definition? What’s this obsession with categories?

“As a transgender woman, I identify as a woman,” a D.C. activist, Andy Bowen, said in an interview with 429Magazine.

Under this interpretation of transgender, why not cut out the middle man (transgender) and just simply identify as either a man or woman?

Perhaps because it is not that simple for everyone. The “third gender” (although it may very well be a language or cultural misinterpretation) begs the question, are there more than two genders?

Bowen made the point that the transgender identity is not only different for everyone, but that there is no one singular definition. “Trans identity isn’t universal,” she explained. Gender nonconformists have existed since the beginning of time, and so “there have always been people who are non-binary.”

With that said, the question still remains, assuming that gender exists altogether: are there more than two genders? If so, what does that look like?

Quite possibly, the point may be that there isn’t much more to it; a third gender is ambiguous in nature, so maybe it cannot be defined.

But, as a Virgo, I am analytical by nature and simply have to know.

Flipping through my version of the bible: Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, The New Basics I came across a story of an individual who grew up in Kaua’i (a Hawaiian Island) and identified as a mahu.

Mahu has been defined as a third gender, or as a man who assumes “female” roles. “The ancient Hawaiians were not as tightly strung, in their graceful understanding that all human beings possess a complete Tao of male and female qualities within themselves,” wrote Kalikiano Kalei, the author of Hawaiian Sexuality and the ‘Mahu’ Tradition, posted on the Author’s Den website.

“‘Mahu’ is a Hawaiian term that describes a man who has chosen to live as a woman and in the ancient (pre-missionary) culture, such individuals were respected and regarded as important members of the community.” This description could easily be interpreted as the modern day definition of transgender; however, there seems to be a significant difference.

There is a clear inclination for transgender people to have a defined gender identity: either man or woman. Regardless of how society perceives transgender people, trans individuals usually identify fully as the gender that they are.

However, for this mahu child who grew up in Kaua’i, their gender experience was quite unique.

“My mom and dad raised me as mahu,” Kaua’i Iki wrote in his essay, “o Au No Keia: Voices from Hawaii’s Mahu and Transgender Communities,” published in Sex, Gender, and Sexuality. Kaua’i Iki continued, “I still did all of the tasks a boy would do, but I also did the tasks the girls would do. I was taught everything. 

“My family knew I was mahu. They didn’t see anything wrong with it. They didn’t make a big issue of it. It was just natural,” Kaua’i Iki said.

Kaua’i Iki was lucky that his family was supportive of their child’s identity—they understood it and accepted it. Of course, this wasn’t the case for every mahu, nor was everyone accepting of Kaua’i Iki’s identity. “I think the first time my being mahu really became an issue was when I was in intermediate school,” Kaua’i Iki explained, where one counselor wanted Kaua’i Iki to be seen by a psychiatric professional, but Kaua’i Iki’s mother wouldn’t hear it. “For her my being mahu was totally natural.”

On June 10, Nepal’s Supreme court made a decision to broaden the gender category on passports, based on a petition from a transgender individual who felt that their gender wasn’t correctly represented by man or woman. Thus, a third gender was introduced.

“The Supreme Court ruled on the writ petition seeking the new category. The court has ordered the government to implement the decision,” Nepal’s Supreme Court spokesperson, Hemanta Rawal told AFP.

“I think it is important for vital documents to not be binary,” Bowen said. “We [should]get rid of gender markers all together.”

This is not the first time Nepal has opened its doors to LGBT equality. Over six years ago, the government put into place laws which would guarantee rights for the LGBT community.

In early 2013 Nepal created a “third gender” category for gender-nonconformists to identify as when applying for citizenship certification. Citizenship cards are crucial for most basic necessities, such as opening bank accounts, obtaining a passport, and buying or selling property. Having the correct identity on these forms is an obvious need.

“We are very happy with this,” the director of a gay rights organization, the Blue Diamond Society, Sunil Babu Pant told AFP. “This decision has made it easier for those who identify themselves as ‘third gender’. Now they can travel abroad carrying a passport which gives them a recognition.”


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