Third gender: Past, present and future

June 30, 2023


The concept of third gender challenges the conventional notions of a binary gender system that have existed in various cultures worldwide, as in the case of Latin America, extending beyond the traditional male and female categorizations prevalent in the United States.

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes
Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes

University of Michigan expert Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, professor and chair of the Department of American Culture and former director and core faculty member of the Latina/o Studies Program, explains the timeline of nonbinary identities and acceptance. He is also a professor of Romance languages and literatures and of women’s and gender studies.

“By embracing these diverse identities, societies can promote a more inclusive and equitable world,” he said.

How far back does the third gender concept date?

It predates the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. People who lived their lives as third gender already existed here in the late 15th century, before 1492. What is most remarkable is that the third gender still exists, despite religious, medical and government persecution and efforts to eradicate its many manifestations.

What is the concept of third gender and its relationship to nonbinary identities in various cultures, particularly in Latin America?

Third gender is an interesting concept. It challenges our dominant conceptions of a rigid gender system. Many cultures in the world, including many people in Latin America, do not share the binary understanding of gender that many people have in the United States, the idea that there is only male and female, or men and women. The idea of nonbinary is more common in many places now and has always been common in some parts of Latin America. Third gender forms part of that.

How has the third gender been traditionally perceived and accepted in Latin America or American societies? Have there been variations in acceptance across different cultures or time periods?

There is a very wide range of expressions of third gender, and they have not always been accepted. Indigenous populations suffered horrendous persecution during the colonial period. Some indigenous populations still have very strong third genders. One of the best known is that of Zapotec muxes in Juchitán, which is a town in Oaxaca, Mexico, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Children assigned male at birth who start to express feminine behaviors and preference for activities traditionally identified as feminine are allowed to become muxes and live as muxes as adults. Muxes live as women and behave as women and understand that they are not men, and they are socially recognized as muxes.

In what ways has the third gender been integrated into social structures, rituals or belief systems within Latin America compared to the U.S. and Canada?

This varies greatly. I am most interested in how travesti has developed in the last 20 years as a political category in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru. Travestis are persons assigned male at birth who do not live as men. Some, but not all, identify as women. They prefer the term travesti to trans or transgender, which is not a term they use. They feel that transgender corresponds to an experience in the United States or Europe that is different from their experience, as poor, marginalized persons in South America who frequently work in prostitution and who struggle to achieve political and social recognition. Argentina has put in place many laws favoring travestis, for example the legal right to change your name and your sex on government documents.

How can societies, governments, and individuals promote greater understanding, acceptance and inclusivity for individuals identifying as the third gender?

They can recognize that there are many ways to be human and that trans, travesti, translatina and transgender people are not harming anyone and are not a threat. They are people who have human rights. Society is not going to fall apart by recognizing LGBTQIA+ people’s rights. Third gender is a reality, it is part of the human experience.