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LGBTQ People Have Always Existed
Why don’t we learn that history in school?
Adrian Mora
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As a nonbinary person, I’m often told I don’t exist. When people keep telling you that your identity isn’t real, it can make you feel delusional 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. “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 individuals (people whose gender fluctuates between male and female) and nonbinary (people who don’t have a gender) individuals for centuries.

I first sensed I wasn’t straight when I was 8, and I concluded 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 called Queer, There, and Everywhere by Sarah Pager. A lot of people in the book—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.

In an effort to provide what school doesn’t, here is an overview of some cultures that aren’t 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 as Duane Brayboy described in an article for Indian Country Today, 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 means 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. According to Brayboy, “Some Siouan tribes believed that before a child is born its soul stands 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 wore traditional female clothing, took care of children, and gathered food. Two-Spirit people assigned female at birth picked the bow and arrows, and they became hunters and warriors. When colonizers showed up, the Iroquois put these Two-Spirit warriors on the front lines.

Two-Spirit people were highly respected. They held important duties and were considered gifted by their Creator since they could see life “through the eyes of both genders,” according to the Indian Country Today article. 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.

India—Hijra

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 called hijras, who were neither men nor women, stayed behind for 14 years until Lord Rama’s return. They were praised for their loyalty and now hold a special place in Hindu mythology and religious texts.

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 in India in the 19th century, hijras were respected and revered.

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.

image by YC-Art Dept

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 younger chelas or disciples. These gurus fulfill the roles of “den mother, godfather, spiritual leader and pimp,” according to The New York Times. 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 nonbinary and trans people. When I meet someone nonbinary or trans, I know that this person won’t judge or question me, which is extremely comforting and helps me trust them more easily than a cis person. Queer people sometimes have to find and choose our 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 featured in a PBS documentary titled Kumu Hina, explains, “A māhū ... straddles the male and female binary.”

According to an article in the Huffington Post, “gender fluidity is seen as an asset” in Native Hawaiian culture. “The ability to embrace both male and female qualities is thought to empower” māhū people and lets them be their full selves. Another Native Hawaiian belief, according to YES! Magazine, is that “authenticity is at the heart of the human experience.” Wong-Kalu says she can embrace all her qualities and be truly authentic as a māhū. I connect with the idea that people who are not just one gender can embrace all aspects of being human.

But just like 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 according to an article in Cultural Survival Quarterly, “Hawaiian lands and waters were taken for military bases, resorts, urbanization, and plantation agriculture.” The native culture was forced to become an ornamental tourist attraction and māhū people were met with intolerance and ignorance.

Knowledge Is Power

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

Though trans people are more visible now, they 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.

The Trump administration has specifically targeted trans people. It has banned transgender 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. In spite of this, more trans people are living as ourselves these days and are demanding the rights that we deserve.

I think part of the reason why discrimination gets traction is because many people think being trans is some newfangled disorder. Not enough people know that trans people have always existed and that it’s not a disorder at all.

Education is a good weapon against ignorant bias. We should be taught about queer identities and history in school. Why did I learn about Alvin Ailey and Frida Kahlo without hearing they were queer? I’d like to see 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 I am a valid human being. 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.

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(NYC-2019-11-07)