America and the history of gender binaries

We’ve all pretty much grown up with the idea of the gender binary. You know, the idea that there are simply two genders and whatever gender you are lies within your chromosomes or whatevers in your pants. Then, once you’ve been assigned that gender, you have roles and expectations that you must fulfil. Honestly, this idea that gender can only be in black and white is a little funny to me, considering almost everything in life is in shades of grey. Because In reality gender, like a lot of things, is incredibly complicated and has been since really the beginning of humanity in so many cultures. This idea that gender exists strictly in a binary is largely a product of colonization destroying so many cultures and forcing them to assimilate to the views of their colonizers. So, let’s explore a few very important gender spectrums in different cultures that colonization attempted to wipe out.


Two-Spirit, Native Americans 

Two-Spirit is a common umbrella term for the wide variety of gender identities within indigenous nations in America. Although the term wasn’t formally accepted until 1990, it’s often used by Indigenous people to describe someone who has more than one kind of spirit, like having both a both masculine and feminine spirits. Two-Spirits also replaces the term offensive “berdache” that was used by French colonizers. There are more specific names and interpretations for many Native nations. The Navajo nation uses the terms nadleehi and dilbaa to refer to their culture’s third genders. Two-Spirits were praised and revered in Indigenous nations, often holding positions like holy people, mediators and doctors. The legacy of many gender diverse populations within America were wiped out by religious indoctrination and criminalizing differing sexuality and gender expressions by European colonizers, but the legacy of Two-Spirits lives on today.

Here’s a preview for the PBS documentary Two-Spirits, which explores Navajo spirituality of gender, and Fred Martinez, a nadleehi who was devastatingly murdered at 16 in a hate crime. 

Mahu, Hawaii

Here’s a short video from the PBS documentary KUMU HINA, that gives a great overview of Mahu and their importance to traditional Hawaiian culture. You can watch the full documentary on Netflix too!
Humanity has always lived outside of simple binaries, and this is barely scraping the surface!


This map from PBS shares so many gender diverse cultures that I could honestly get lost in for days. While we have concepts like transgender, non-binary and other gender expressions outside of the “typical” gender binary, its important to note that calling these long held traditions names that we understand would be erasing their history and importance to their culture. But it’s always important to look at how power structures have erased and framed the way we view gender today. Colonization committed vicious atrocities, one of which being imposing binaries that simply don’t account for beautiful culture and experiences of humans throughout the world and punishing those who live outside their desired norm. These examples of gender expressions outside of the binary are beautiful testaments to the rejection of simple gender binaries, and show how we can revere one another for being ourselves. 

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