Many traditional societies recognized non-binary children
Is being nonbinary a 21st century fad among young people? Apparently not.
We might have heard the dubious claim that being non-binary is a “fad” that 21st century kids follow just to “feel special”. More often than not, this price of “feeling special” is invalidation, condescension and misunderstanding from peers and adults, which means that the drawbacks of publicly identifying as enby outweigh whatever positive “special attention” that non-binary youth might get from peers.
Acknowledging and affirming non-binary children is not new or radical. Non-binary children are recognized by many different people around the world, including Hawaiian, Tahitian, Deg Xitʼan (Ingalik) and Diné (Navajo) communities.
Hawaiians (Kanaka Maoli) and Tahitians
In Hawaiian and Tahitian societies, māhū (“the in-between”) individuals are respected as belonging to a third gender. AMAB children embracing both masculine and feminine spirits are “recognized by peers as distinct, often from early in their lives.”
Ravida, Meldrick. “The Māhū.” University of Hawai'i at Manoa, 11 Feb 2018, https://www.manoanow.org/kaleo/special_issues/the-m-h/article_ba191154-0dd9-11e8-ba11-bbb0d1090a78.html
Ponsford, Matthew. “Vivid portraits shine light on Tahiti's 'third gender'.” CNN, 18 Mar 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/namsa-leuba-photographer/index.html
The Meaning of Māhū (from the documentary “A Place in the Middle”)
In the 1930s, multiple Navajo elders spoke positively of nádleehí , a recognized third gender that has traits of both women and men, in addition to traits unique to their non-binary identity.
“You must respect a nadle. They are … sacred and holy.”
“If there were no nadle, the country would change. They are responsible for all the wealth in the country… they are leaders…”
Families affirmed gender non-conforming children. “As they grew older and assumed the character of nadle, this solicitude and respect increased, not only on the part of their families but from the community as a whole.”
Roscoe, Will. “The One who is Changing; Hastíín Klah and the Navajo Nádleehí Tradition,” Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. St Martin’s Press, 1998, p43.
Two Spirits documentary | Independent Lens | PBS
Deg Xitʼan (Ingalik)
The Ingalik people of Alaska identified AFAB children as belonging to a trans-masculine non-binary gender “when they insisted on dressing as boys and participating in men’s activities.”
Roscoe, Will. “Warrior Women and Women Chiefs: Alternative Identities and Genders for Native women,” Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. St Martin’s Press, 1998, pp 88-89.
The Zapotec people of Oaxaca have a long tradition of recognizing the muxe, AMAB genderfluid individuals who may choose a femme presentation or shift between different gender expressions. Although acceptance of muxe children is not universal, many families love and value children who are muxe. This acceptance has its echoes in precolonial Mexico, where indigenous gods and priests can take on genderfluid manifestations.
Beyond Gender: Indigenous Perspectives, Muxe | Natural History Museum (nhm.org)
The idea that non-binary identities are a "fad" or trend among young people is a harmful and dismissive misconception. Many people in traditional societies around the world have acknowledged the existence of non-binary children who grow up into non-binary adults.
In conclusion, non-binary identities are not a fad, but a valid and real aspect of human identity that should be respected and acknowledged. It is important to provide support and validation to individuals who are exploring their gender identity, regardless of their age.
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