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We've Always Existed
It’s important for queer youth to see themselves in class
Adrian Mora
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As a nonbinary person, I’m often told I don’t exist. “That’s not a thing.” “I don’t get it.” “What does that even mean?” “How can you be ‘they’ when you’re one person?” When people keep telling you that your identity isn’t real, it can make you feel delusional, crazy, and weird. Even though you know you can’t be any other way.

I often hear older cisgender people say that anyone who rejects the traditional gender binary is part of a fad. (See box on the bottom of the page for definitions of these and other terms.) “The kids these days with their 36 genders! Back in my day, you were male or female and that was that.”

But in reality, many cultures have embraced genderfluid (people whose gender fluctuates between male and female) and nonbinary (people who are neither male nor female) individuals for centuries.

I first sensed I was queer when I was 8. And I realized that I was neither girl nor boy the day before my 14th birthday. The summer before freshman year, I read a book of biographies on queer people throughout history, Queer, There, and Everywhere by Sarah Pager. Some people in the book—Joan of Arc, Frida Kahlo, and Eleanor Roosevelt, to name a few—were people I’d learned about in school, but their queerness was left out of the lessons.

Why don’t more teachers challenge the official story that everyone is straight and gender-conforming? Why wasn’t I taught any LGBT history in school? In hopes of providing what school doesn’t, here is a quick overview of some cultures that aren’t as concerned with keeping everyone in a gender box.

Native American—Two-Spirit

The term Two-Spirit was coined around 30 years ago as an umbrella term for gender noncomforming Native Americans, but different tribes have their own terms. For example, the Navajo, or Diné, use the word nádleehí, which translates to “one who is transformed.” The Lakota, or Teton Sioux, have the word winkte, which translates to “a male who has a compulsion to behave as female.” The Cheyenne use the word hemaneh, which means half man, half woman.

Two-Spirit people are believed to contain both a male and female spirit. Duane Brayboy, writing in Indian Country Today, explains that some Siouan tribes believed that before a child was born, their soul was presented before the Creator, and the child would choose either bow and arrows (male) or a basket (female). If a child assigned male at birth picked the basket, they would wear traditionally female clothing, take care of children, and gather food. Iroquois Two-Spirit people assigned female at birth who picked a bow and arrow became hunters and warriors. When colonizers showed up, the Iroquois put those Two-Spirit warriors on the front lines.

Two-Spirit people were highly respected and valued within their tribes and communities. They had important duties and were considered gifted by their Creator with the ability to see life through the eyes of both genders. This resonates with me: I feel more free to make whatever choices I want as a nonbinary person. I feel more like myself, and that feels like a gift.

Native tribes considered it a tragedy to try to change Two-Spirit people and force them to go against their nature. Unfortunately, many colonizers, especially Christian ones, didn’t share this view. Historian Walter Williams interviewed Crow elders in 1982. They told him that in the 1890s, agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a U.S. government agency, forced the Two-Spirit people known as badés to wear men’s clothing, cut their hair, and do manual labor.

India—Hijra

I learned a lot about hijras from a 2018 New York Times article. Hijras are typically transgender women, and today they are the largest transgender population in India. Before the British criminalized being trans and gay as part of their colonial rule in India in the 19th century, hijras were respected and revered.

There’s a story in Indian mythology about Lord Rama, who was banished from his city, Ayodhya. His disciples followed him into the woods, and he said to them, “Men and women, please wipe your tears and go away.” But a group of individuals—hijras—who were neither men nor women, stayed behind until Lord Rama’s return 14 years later. They were praised for their loyalty and earned a special place in Hindu mythology and religious texts.

Hijras have begun to win back some rights. In 2014, a Supreme Court ruling in India allowed transgender individuals to legally identify as their true gender. In 2018, gay sex in India was discriminalized.

But the colonialist legacy lingers. Most people won’t hire them, so hijras can typically only earn money through sex work, dancing at temples, and begging. Families also pay them for blessings, particularly fertility blessings, because they are thought to have special powers.

Hijras in their 40s or 50s, known as gurus, often mentor chelas—disciples, who are always younger hijras. These gurus fulfill the roles of den mother, godfather, spiritual leader, and pimp. Gurus try to have as many chelas work for them as possible. Not all hijras are part of guru families, but enough are that it is considered a big part of the hijra lifestyle.

I also feel a familial connection with other trans people. When I meet someone trans, I know they won’t judge or question me, which is extremely comforting and helps me trust them more easily than I’d trust a cis person. Queer people sometimes have to find and choose their own family, and we’re good at it.

Native Hawaiian—Māhū

Indigenous people of Hawaii have a word for individuals who identify their gender as between male and female—māhū. Hina Wong-Kalu, a māhū person featured in a 2014 PBS documentary titled Kumu Hina, explains, “A māhū ... straddles the male and female binary.”

Gender fluidity is seen as an asset in Native Hawaiian culture. The ability to embrace both male and female qualities empowers people and lets them be their full selves.

Another Native Hawaiian belief is that authenticity is at the heart of human experience. Wong-Kalu says she can embrace all her qualities and be truly authentic as a māhū.

image by YC-Art Dept

In a different article, Wong-Kalu said this about being māhū: “For me to expand my own personal journey and the challenges in my life, I’ve had to embrace the side of me that is the more aggressive, the more Western-associated masculine when I need to. But that’s the beauty of being māhū, that’s the blessing. We have all aspects to embrace.”

I connect with the idea that people who are not just one gender can embrace all aspects of being human.

But just like the Indians and Native Americans, Native Hawaiians had homophobia and transphobia thrust upon them by Western, Christian colonizers. The United States invaded Hawaii in 1893 and took it as a territory in 1900. The Hawaiian language was banned in 1896, and Hawaiian lands and waters were taken for military bases, resorts, cities, and plantation agriculture. The native culture was forced to become an ornamental tourist attraction.

Māhū individuals were originally respected, but after being colonized, they were met with intolerance and ignorance. Wong-Kalu says colonization has made it harder to be māhū.

Our own culture is used against us,” Wong-Kalu told Al Jazeera America. “Māhū are denigrated and disrespected because of the imposition of foreign ideology.”

Knowledge Is Power

Other gender fluid and gender nonconforming people include the acault people of Myanmar, the guevedoche people of the Dominican Republic, and the quariwarmi people of Peru. (See this map for the worldwide view). It is likely that there has never been a time when all human beings perfectly and happily conformed to binary gender roles.

Why does it seem like being transgender is suddenly “a thing”? Maybe because gender has always been so violently policed.

Though trans people are more visible than before, we still face horrible injustices. According to a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality, trans people are three to four times more likely to experience unemployment than the general population (it’s worse for trans people of color). Thirty percent said they had been mistreated at their jobs or fired due to their gender identity in the last year. A similar share of trans people have been homeless at some point in their lives, and 40 percent have attempted suicide.

Some go into sex work, and get arrested. When trans women are sentenced to prison, they usually end up in men’s prisons, where they’re often raped.

So far this year, 19 trans women, almost all of them black, in the U.S. have been murdered.

Two trans women have died recently because of mistreatment in I.C.E. custody as well. Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, who fled discrimination and violence in Honduras, was beaten while in custody and likely died of dehydration in May 2018. Johana Medina Leon, who left El Salvador, died in June 2016 after she was reportedly refused medical treatment in custody.

Still, more trans people are living as ourselves these days and are demanding the rights that we deserve. But the Trump administration has specifically targeted us. It has banned trans people from serving in the military and drafted a bill to define gender as one’s assigned sex at birth. Trump tried to implement a policy that allows healthcare providers to refuse trans patients care and told prison officials they can ignore earlier rules designed to protect trans inmates. These are only some of the current administration’s assaults on queer and trans equality.

The discrimination gets traction partly because our history has been suppressed. Not enough people know that we’ve always existed.

Education is a good weapon against ignorant bias, so why can’t they teach us about queer identities and history in school? Why did I learn about Alvin Ailey, James Baldwin, and Frida Kahlo without hearing they were queer? Why isn’t the LGBTQ rights movement taught alongside the civil rights and women’s rights movements?

California, New Jersey, Illinois, and Colorado now require LGBTQ history to be taught in schools, which is definitely a step in the right direction. If my history is treated as important and real, I’ll know I’m not alone and that who I am is valid. If my history is taught, I won’t have to explain who I am so much, and queer people in general would be safer and better understood.



How to Talk About Gender

The terms that people use to discuss gender identity and sexual orientation can be confusing. Here’s a simple guide:


  • Androgynous: Having both masculine and feminine qualities.

  • Asexual: A person who is not sexually attracted to anyone. A type of sexual orientation.

  • Biological Sex: Describes a person’s biological combination of hormones, organs, genitals, and chromosomes. Examples are Female, Male, and Intersex (people who have aspects of both male and female sex organs).

  • Bisexual: A person who is physically and emotionally attracted to people of two or more genders. A type of sexual orientation.

  • Cisgender: A person whose gender identity is aligned with the social expectations for the physical body they were born with (example: a male-bodied person who feels and acts “like a man.”)

  • Gender Expression: The way a person presents (shows) and communicates their gender identity through actions, dress, behaviors and speech. Examples are Feminine, Androgynous, and Masculine.

  • Gender Identity: How a person, in their head, thinks about themselves. This is based on a society’s expectation about how people should look, think, and act as someone of a specific gender. Examples are Woman, Genderqueer, Transgender, and Man.

  • Questioning: A person who is exploring their sexual and/or gender identity. This can be a sexual orientation.

  • Sexual Orientation: A person’s romantic, emotional, physical, or sexual attraction to another person. Examples are Heterosexual, Bisexual, and Homosexual.

  • Transgender: A person whose gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth. This is a gender identity.



LGBTQ and in Care?

National Resources
Lambda Legal has an extensive list of national resources, including hotlines and informational websites, and also lists resources by state bit.ly/LGBTQhelp

NYC Resources
ACS has beefed up its services for LGBTQ youth. bit.ly/FosterQueer

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(FCYU-2019-10-16)

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