Though the term transgender is often used as a broad and universalizing identity category, the term’s western origin and logic prevent it from accurately representing the gender diversity that exists around the world. To address problematic deployments of transgender, Dutta and Roy suggest that, “rather than use transgender as an umbrella term encompassing all possible gender variant identities, it is perhaps better deployed as an analytic rubric for variant and liminal gendered positions” (334). Following this advice, the DTA uses transgender as an “analytic rubric” (rather than an identity label) to aggregate related materials while simultaneously recognizing that the term is often imprecise with respect to time, place, and individual identities.
We offer the following list of global terms to begin distinguishing among gender-nonconforming practices in various geographic and cultural contexts. Some entries may not fully capture the nuances of particular terms, which are often complex and culturally dependent (similar to the complexity of transgender). Many terms listed have ambiguous or multiple definitions, intersect with other gender identities and sexual orientations, and can depend on personal interpretation, cultural background, and location. Some terms are linked to specific regions or tribes, but they may extend across national borders and may not be limited to the countries listed. A single term may exist in multiple dialects and languages, or may bear different meanings within a single language.
In compiling this list of more than 60 terms, we consulted various sources including PBS’s “A Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures,” which offers especially useful information. We encourage you to contact us with suggestions, corrections, and new information!
Acaults (Myanmar): “A third gender consisting of males assuming the dress and social role of women is known in Burmese slang as acault. Acaults often serve as spirit mediums in the indigenous animistic belief system. While some acault are gay, not all are.” –PBS
Alyha (Mohave tribe, North America): “The creation myth of the Mohave tribe speaks to a time when humans were not sexually or gender-differentiated. The [sic] recognize four genders: men, women, hwame (male-identified females) and alyha (female-identified males).” –PBS
Akava’ine (Cook Islands): “Cook Islands Māori word that can be used to describe transgender or transsexual women. Originally the term referred to women who had an inflated opinion of themselves, drew attention to themselves in ways that disrupted groupness, didn't heed others advice, or who acted in a self-serving or self-promoting way. Today, 'Akava'ine’ is the contemporary identity of transgender females of Cook Islands Māori descent. It generally comes under a wider Polynesian transgender identity, which has its largest presence and sphere of influence in New Zealand, where other Polynesian terms such as the New Zealand Māori: "Whakawahine", and the Samoan: "Fa'afafine", become coaligned.” –World Heritage Encyclopedia
Ankole (Uganda): “Prior to colonization, the Ankole people in what is now Uganda elected a woman to dress as a man and thereby become an oracle to the god Mukasa.” –PBS
Aravani (India): “A subset of the hijra tradition are the aravanis, who are born male but adopt female gender roles early in development. They take their name from the mythical deity Aravan (the brides of Aravan).” –PBS
Aruvani (India): “Often (somewhat misleadingly) called eunuchs in English, they may be born intersex or apparently male, dress in feminine clothes and generally see themselves as neither men nor women.” –Duthel
Ashtime (Maale, Ethiopia): “Historically among the Maale people of southern Ethiopia, the word ashtime referred to eunuchs who lived in the home of the most powerful spiritual or political leader, because…women were forbidden to enter. These ashtime enjoyed privileges in return for maintaining the homestead and performing other woman-associated duties [. . .] the meaning of the term has broadened to include any gender non-conforming male, including unmarried or disabled men who cannot carry out traditional male roles.” –PBS
Bakla (Philippines): “A Tagalog term that encompasses an array of sexual and gender identities, but especially indicated a male-born person who assumes the dress, mannerisms, and social roles of a woman. While bakla have existed as a recognized third gender for centuries, more conservative influences in recent decades has marginalized them.” –PBS
Bangala (Democratic Republic of the Congo): “In the centuries before European colonists arrived, the Bangala people's animist beliefs were carried byshamans would dress in women's clothing in order the [sic] gain the ability to solve crimes such as murder.” –PBS
Berdache (North America): “A substantial number of tribes recognized a gender role, generally referred to as berdache, which was predominantly defined by the acquisition of the socioeconomic role of the opposite…sex [. . .] Berdache were usually [birth-assigned] men (or, less often, [birth-assigned women) who assumed culturally-defined traits of the opposite gender.” –Gilden Note: The use of berdache in academic literature has largely been discontinued and replaced with the term two spirit, which is viewed as less derogatory.
Biza’ah (Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico): Among the Zapotec in Teotitlán del Valle there is third gender category called biza’ah which is similar to the Oaxacan muxe, yet less common and distinct to the area. The biza’ah are male-bodied persons known for their unique manners of speech, movement, and work. The biza’ah sometimes engage in the stereotypically feminine activities of their community such as the making of ceremonial candles. –Lynn
Burrnesha (Albania): “[Birth-assigned] women who a take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing in order to be viewed as men in the highly patriarchal society. The tradition exists to a smaller extent in Kosovo, Serbia, and Montenegro. The tradition is dying out: There are believe [sic] to be fewer than 50 sworn virgins left in the Balkans.” –PBS
Calabai/Calalai/Bissu (Sulawesi, Indonesia): “The Bugi people of southern Sulawesi recognize three sexes (male, female, intersex) and five genders: men, women, calabai, calalai, and bissu. Calabai are [birth-assigned] males who embody a feminine gender identity. Calalai are [birth-assigned] females who embody a male gender identity. Bissu are considered a "transcendent gender," either encompassing all genders or none at all. The bissu serve ritual roles in Bugi culture and are sometimes equated with priests.” –PBS
Chuckchi (Siberia): “The Chuckchi (and neighboring indigenous peoples including the Koryak, and the Kamchadal) are a nomadic, shamanic people who embrace a third gender. Generally shamans are [birth-assigned] male with some adoption of female roles and appearance, who married men but also were not subject to the social limitations placed on women. Third gender Chuckchi could accompany men on the hunt, as well as take care of family.” –PBS
Dee (Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines): Feminine-identified women who are sexually attracted to toms. “What separates dee from normative Thai women is not their gender identities or styles of dress or comportment, [. . .] but their sexual orientation: the fact that they are attracted to, desirous of, and erotically involved with women rather than men [. . .] dee tend to form erotic relationships exclusively with masculine-identified tom [. . .]” –Turner, 2013
Dhurani (India): A lesser known term in standard Bengali used self-descriptively by some feminine male-assigned persons. –Dutta & Roy
Dilbaa (Navajo tribe, North America): “Dilbaa refers to a female-born person with a more masculine spirit. [They] are considered to encompass both genders in one person.” –PBS
Fa’afafine (Samoan culture, New Zealand): “Fa'afafine are [birth-assigned] males who have a strong feminine gender orientation, which the Samoan parents recognize quite early in childhood, and then raise them as female children or rather third gender children. Fa'afafine traditionally assume roles of family care, although they are present in many spheres of Samoan society.” Birth-assigned females with a strong masculine gender orientation are referred to as fa’afatama. –PBS and Naple Note: Beliefs vary regarding whether fa’afafine identification can be reared or if it is innate. While records exist of young boys raised as girls against their will, some sources claim that contemporary fa’afafines are more likely to self-identify and not be forced.
Fakaleiti (Tonga): “[T]he Tongan fakaleiti are [birth-assigned] males who adopt feminine dress, mannerisms, and social roles. They do not necessarily consider themselves to be transgender or gay, which are considered strictly Euro-American constructs that do not apply.” –PBS
Femminiello (Italy): “[Femminiello] refers to [birth-assigned] males who dress as women and assume female gender roles in Neopolitan society. Their station in society is (or was up through the 19th century) privileged, and the rituals (including marriage to one another) was based on Greek mythology related to Hermaphroditus and Teresias (who was transformed into a woman for seven years).” –PBS
Guevedoche (Dominican Republic): “In an exceptional case, genetics seems to have created a third sex in Dominican Republic. A heritable pseudo-hermaphroditic trait was discovered by ethnographers in the 1970s, who followed the children over generations. With undifferentiated genitalia, they generally were raised as girls, but began developing male traits at puberty. Instead of changing their gender identities to male, most chose to live as a third gender called guevedoche (roughly meaning "testicles at 12") or machi-embra (man-woman). The society has accommodated the guevedoche and constructed a third gender with distinct roles for them.” –PBS
Hijra (India, Pakistan): “In South Asian cultures including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, hijras are physiological males who adopt feminine gender identity, women's clothing and other feminine gender roles. In the past the term referred to eunuchs or those born intersex or with indeterminate genitalia. Most hijra do not consider themselves to be men or women or transgender, but a distinct third gender. A tradition of castration still exists but is no longer requisite to be recognized as a hijra [. . .] In India per Hindu mythology, hijras represent the half-male, half-female image of Shiva — an image symbolic of a being that is ageless and sexless.” –PBS Note: Various terms describing hijra exist in different dialects throughout India. These terms include: Aravani, Aruvani, Chhakka, Kojja, Ombodhu, and Jagappa.
Hwame (Mohave tribe, North America): “The creation myth of the Mohave tribe speaks to a time when humans were not sexually or gender-differentiated. The recognize four genders: men, women, hwame (male-identified females) and alyha (female-identified males).” –PBS
Jagappa (India): “Often (somewhat misleadingly) called eunuchs in English, they may be born intersex or apparently male, dress in feminine clothes and generally see themselves as neither men nor women.” –Duthel
Kathoey (Thailand): “Thailand's third gender kathoeys are known as being born male but ‘having a female heart,’ according to a common Thai saying. They are often referred to as ‘sago,’ or a second type of woman. The kathoey culture is extremely broad, encompassing drag queens and other cross-dressers (straight and gay), to effeminate gay males, on one end, and post-operative transsexuals on the other [. . .] Thai tradition holds that true kathoeys are neither male nor female but inhabit the space between genders.” –PBS
Khawaja sira (Pakistan, India): A term with multiple explanations, khawaja sira may describe eunuchs in Southeast Asia, and may also refer to third gender or hijra individuals. It appears to most commonly refer to feminine-identified males.
Khusra (Pakistan, India): The term khusra translates to “eunuch” and is most commonly used to describe feminine-identified males in Pakistan and Northern India. Some sources claim the term is derogatory, while others state it is used commonly within third gender communities.
Kteuy (Cambodia): In other parts of the world, this term is used to refer to gay males. In Cambodia, kteuy is now used to describe male-bodied individuals with gender identities and/or sexual orientations that don’t align with Cambodian social expectations. It is often viewed as a derogatory term by gender variant individuals in Cambodia, who refer to themselves using sak klay or sak veng.
Köçek (Ottoman Empire): “From the 17th through the 19th centuries, the köçek were a cultural phenomenon in which young men dressed in women's attire and formed traveling dance troupes who performed sexually suggestive dances. Although they were not necessarily gay, they were traditionally available to the highest male bidder. Today Köçek culture in Turkey remains, but only as a fokloric dance tradition.” –PBS
Kojja (Telugu dialect, India): See Aravani, Aruvani, Hijra, and/or Jagappa.
Kothi (West Bengal, India): “[. . .] one of several South Asian terms for feminine male-assigned persons who may or not present or identify as (trans) women; while kothi do not form separate clans like hijras.” Kodi kothis are individuals who present androgynously or slightly more masculine through their clothing. Bhelki, bheli, and bhorokti kothis refer to individuals who wear more feminine attire. –Dutta & Roy, 2014
Lhamana (Zuni tribe, North America): “The two-spirit Zuni tradition is known as lhamana, in which a person lives as both genders simultaneously. They play a key role in society as mediators, priests, and artists, and perform both traditional women's work (pottery and crafts) as well as traditional men's work (hunting).” –PBS
Mahu (French Polynesia): Though mahu of French Polynesia are culturally distinct from Hawaiian mahu, there are few extensive definitions available. The term appears to describe male-bodied individuals who assume social roles of women. Mahu groom and dress themselves as women and engage in the same crafts and employment. They are not usually castrated.
Mahu (Hawaii, French Polynesia): “The mahu could be [birth-assigned] males or females inhabiting a gender role somewhere between or encompassing both the masculine and feminine. Their social role is sacred as educators and promulgators of ancient traditions and rituals. The arrival of Europeans and the colonization of Hawaii nearly eliminated the native culture, and today mahu face discrimination in a culture dominated by white European ideology about gender.” –PBS
Mak Nyah (Malaysia): A term used to describe male-to-female transgender women in Malaysia. The term derives from mak (mother) and was coined around 1987 by male-to-female transgender women in an effort to differentiate themselves from gay men, crossdressers, drag queens, and other sexual minorities. This relatively new identity label also attempts to reclaim trans identity in a positive way in a society that often deploys the derogatory names bapok, darai, pondan, and bantut (‘men who are effeminate’) against mak nyah. –Slamah
Mamluk (Egypt): “During the Mamluk Sultanate in what is now Egypt from the 1200s to the 1700s, young girls who we [sic] perceived to have masculine traits were celebrated and raised as boys and afforded all of the legal and societal advantages.” –PBS
Mashoga (Kenya, Tanzania): “Mashoga is a Swahili term that connotes a range of identities on the gender continuum. While loosely used to indicate gay men, a large proportion of mashoga are [birth-assigned] men who adopt the female gender early in life. They characteristically wear both men and women's clothing, but in a manner distinct to mashoga alone. They often assume female gender roles and serve a crucial role in wedding ceremonies.” –PBS
Metis (Nepal): “The term meti is an indigenous term for a third gender in Nepal with a long and checkered history in the Himalayan region. They a [sic] born as males, but assume feminine dress and carriage. For the last 30 years, most Metis make their living as prostitutes. They do not consider themselves gay, but rather as a third gender that is interested in straight men." –PBS
Mino (Benin): “The Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) had an all-female regiment of female warriors called the mino (our mothers). They were unmarried and childless women who were thought to have masculine or aggressive traits.” –PBS
Mukhannathūn (early Islamic Arabian society): This term describes an identifiable group of men that adopted various aspects of feminine behavior and dress such as the henna in early Arabian society, especially Medina. It is theorized from multiple early Arabic texts that the mukhannathūn had access to women’s quarters and would sometimes act as a matchmaker in their communities. Some historical accounts suggest that the the mukhannathun were often professional musicians who donned women’s fashions and were revered for their wit, charm, and talent. –Rowson
Muxe (Oaxaca, Mexico): “Among the Zapotec of the Oaxacan peninsula, the muxe are generally males who either dress as women or dress as males with make-up. They may adopt “feminine” social roles such as working in embroidery, but many also have white-collar careers in Mexico. In recent decades, the term has also come to apply to gay men.” –PBS
Nadleehi (Navajo tribe, North America): “The Navajo term nadleehi refers to that culture's traditional third gender, in which a…male-born person embodies both the masculine and feminine spirit.” –PBS
Narnban (Pakistan): The term narnban does not appear to have a widely disseminated definition, but is parenthetically defined as a Pakistani term for “eunuch” in several sources.
Ninauposkitzipxpe (Blackfoot tribe, North America): “The ninauposkitzipxpe were honored as a third gender in the North Peigan tribe of the Blackfoot Confederacy in northern Montana and Southern Alberta, Canada. Roughly translated, it means "manly-hearted woman," and defined a [birth-assigned] female who did not necessarily dress in a masculine mode, but was unrestricted by the social constraints placed on other women in the Blackfoot society.” –PBS
Ombodhu (Tamil dialect, India): See Aravani, Aruvani, Hijra, and/or Jagappa.
Quariwarmi (Inca, Peru): “In pre-colonial Andean culture, the Incas worshipped the chuqui chinchay, a dual-gendered god. Third-gender ritual attendants or shamans performed sacred rituals to honor this god. The quariwarmi shamans wore androgynous clothing as ‘a visible sign of a third space that negotiated between the masculine and the feminine, the present and the past, the living and the dead.’” –PBS
Rupantarkami (India): A term often mistakenly conflated with the term transsexual, and used to describe, “someone who desires to change roop, or form” –Dutta & Roy
Sak veng/srey sros (Cambodia): Srey sros (“charming girls”) and sak veng (“long hairs”) both refer to male-bodied individuals who identify as women. In Cambodia, sak veng may undergo surgery and/or use hormones to feminize their physical sex so it better aligns with their gender identity. Sak klay ("short hairs") refers to to male-bodied individuals who dress and identify as men and are sexually attracted to cisgender males.
Sekrata (Madagascar): “Among the Sakalavas little boys thought to have a feminine appearance were raised as girls. The Antandroy and Hova called their gender crossers sekrata who, like women, wore their hair long and in decorative knots, inserted silver coins in pierced ears, and wore many bracelets on their arms, wrists and ankles. They considered themselves "real" women, totally forgetting they were born males, and through long practice spoke with a woman's voice. Their society thought their efforts to be female natural and believed that they had supernatural protection which punished anyone who attempted to do them harm.” –PBS
Sistergirl / Brotherboy (Australia): These terms are used to describe the indigenous transgender people of Australia among the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. A sistergirl (sometimes written sistagirl) is an individual assigned male at birth who has a female spirit and a brotherboy is an individual assigned female at birth who has a male spirit. Sistergirls will often adopt a female gender role in their community and brotherboys the male. The Tiwi Islands is home to a vibrant population of sistergirls (traditionally named Yimpininni) in which around 50 sistergirls inhabit an island of approximately 2,500 persons. –Cole
Skoptsy (Russia): “The Skoptsy were a Christian religious sect with extreme views on sex and gender. The community, discovered in 1771 in Western Russia, believed that Adam and Eve had had halves of the forbidden fruit grafted onto their bodies in the form of testicles and breasts. Therefore, they routinely castrated male children and amputated the breasts of women to return themselves the the state prior to original sin. Sex, vanity, beauty, and lust were considered the root of evil [. . .] By the 1950s they had almost disappeared.” –PBS
Third Gender (South Asia): This term is used throughout South Asia to describe individuals whose gender expressions or identities are neither male nor female. Many countries also use culturally specific terms that refer to such individuals. Third gender rights have been recognized by Supreme Courts in countries such as India, Nepal, Iran, and Pakistan, though individuals continue to face social prejudice.
Tida wena (Venezuela): A two-spirit identity among the Warao people, an indigenous Venezuelan culture. Translated to “twisted women,” the term describes individuals who are neither men nor women. They are thought to possess two spirits and often assume the role of shaman.
Tom (Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines): “In contemporary Thai, tom is a term derived from the English word “tomboy” and refers to masculine-identified women who have sexual attraction towards and relationships with feminine identified women, who are called dee (from the English word for “lady”).” –Sinnott, 2008
Travesti (Brazil): “[. . .] a travesti is a person who was born male, has a feminine gender identity, and is primarily sexually attracted to non-feminine men. Travestis' feminine identity includes feminine dress, language, and social and sexual roles. However, in contrast to transsexual women, they often don't see themselves as women, and many describe themselves as gay or homosexual. Travestis may modify their bodies with hormones or silicone, but rarely seek genital surgery.” –PBS
Two Spirit (North America): A term used throughout many Native American tribes and cultures that describes individuals who are neither men nor women, but who are believed to possess both masculine and feminine spirits. Two spirits are often believed to have special gifts and often assume religious or ritualistic roles. Specific terms exist within different tribes to describe two spirits people.
Wakatane (Maori culture, New Zealand): “Wakatane denotes a [birth-assigned] female who pursues traditionally male roles, such as becoming a warrior or engaging in physical labor.” –PBS
Waria (Indonesia): “Waria is a term used for the third gender in Indonesia who are born male but live along a continuum of gender identity in this Islamic nation. The term waria includes individuals who continue to identify as male but who imitate certain feminine mannerisms, and perhaps occasionally wear makeup and women’s clothing. Others identify so closely as female that they are able to pass as female in their daily interactions in society." –PBS
Whakawahine (Maori culture, New Zealand): “In Maori culture, whakawahine are men who prefer the company of women and take up traditionally feminine occupations such as weaving.” –PBS
Winkte (Lakota tribe, North America) “[T]he winkte are born male but assume many traditional women's roles, such as cooking and caring for children, as well as assuming key roles in rituals and serving as the keeper of the tribe's oral traditions.” –PBS
Xanith (Oman): “The xanith of Oman are considered an intermediate gender in this Islamic nation. They are [birth-assigned] males and do not practice emasculation, but do assume the dress, mannerisms, and some social roles of women [. . .] they have masculine names and are referred to in the masculine grammatical gender form. Under Islamic law they have all the rights of a man, for example, the right to testify in court, a right that is denied to women. They also worship in the mosque with men. They are also permitted, unlike women, to hold paying jobs.” –PBS
X-jenda (Japan): The term x-jenda gained popularity in Japan in the 1990’s referring to individuals who feel they do not fit within the categories of man or woman. It includes individuals born intersex, female, or male, and is often abbreviated using FTX, MTX, or XTX to describe individuals’ transitions. Some definitions equate the term to genderqueer or beyond the binary identities.
Zenana/Zenani (Pakistan, India): Effeminate or feminine male-assigned individuals, who may or may not dress in feminine attire.
“A Map of Gender Diverse Cultures.” PBS. 2015.
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Dutta, Aniruddha and Roy, Raina. “Decolonizing Transgender in India: Some Reflections.” Transgender Studies Quarterly 1.3 (2014): 320-337.
Duthel, Heinz. Kathoey Ladyboy: Thailand’s Got Talent. Thailand: Books on Demand, 2013. Google Book Search. Nov. 2014.
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Slamah, Khartini. “The Struggle to be Ourselves, neither Men nor Women: Mak Nyahs in Malaysia.” Sexuality, Gender and Rights: Exploring Theory and Practice in South and Southeast Asia. Eds. G. Misra and R. Chandiramani. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005. 98-112.
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