Transgender people have been around a very long time, and have indigenous roots in many societies. In many ancient civilisations they were revered. In some they still are. Represented as androgynous beings, gender-fluid, non-determinate, or more commonly, as third-gender.
An excellent overview of modern history is available in the video A Trans History. This is presented by Dr. Lindsey Doe on her Sexplanations You Tube channel.
An interactive map of third-gender cultures can be found here.
Hijra: In South Asia, people who cross-dress, are intersex or are trans women often identify as hjira, sexually ambiguous beings whose spiritual history dates back some 4000 years, with its origins in Hinduism. According to ancient writings, hijra were bearers of luck and fertility, with the power to apply or protect from curses, thus making them popular at weddings and births, as they must partake of a forty-day ritual in the name of the goddess Bahuchara Mata. It includes the full or partial removal of the male genitals. Although Hindus have for centuries given the hijra a special ceremonial position and esteem, changes in the modern world have made their situation difficult and many now face intense discrimination, exiling them to communes on the fringes of society, and forcing many to survive by begging or prostitution. To improve hijra education and employment opportunities, the Supreme Court of India made a landmark decision in April 2014, giving them legal recognition, by creating a ‘third-gender status’.
Two-spirited/Berdache: Berdache, from Persian, is the name for younger partner in a male homosexual relationship. It was also applied by French explorers, traders and missionaries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to Native Americans whom they encountered who did not clearly identify as men or women. The berdache often had high-level artistic skills and were shamans and healers. They had status and prestige. It is believed that there were enough berdache in each tribe to form their own social or cultural category. Although some were female, most were males who undertook a permanent gender-change role. The berdache were accepted as a third gender, and the designation had nothing to do with sexual orientation: they might marry or sleep with either men or women—but, interestingly, not with other berdache. They were known by many names and had various roles, depending upon the tribe. After European settlement, the gender binary bias brought discrimination to the berdache and they became closeted until the mid-twentieth century. The term was replaced during the 1990s with ‘two-spirit’ people, to remove any confusion with sexuality.
Takatāpui: Prior to European settlement the Māori of New Zealand were very accepting and open about sexuality and sexual diversity. Sexual references were common in traditional dance and song, and sex and sex organs were shown on carvings. The Māori have adopted a traditional term, Takatāpui (originally meaning the intimate companion or devoted partner of the same sex), to encompass the whole LGBTQI community. While acknowledging the aspects of one’s cultural and sexual identity, the term is an important link between historic and contemporary Māori culture. The term has derivatives for trans men (takatāpui wahine ki tāne) and trans women (takatāpui tāne ki wahine).
Fa’afafine: In Samoan culture, the fa’afafine have had a recognised identity and role as a third gender for centuries. Translated as ‘in the manner of a woman’, the fa’afafine are born male and exhibit both male and female gender traits. Children may be born with the ‘fa'afafine spirit’, in which marked effeminate behaviour is innate. In other cases, a child may be nominated—perhaps if a family has all sons—because the fa’afafine typically look after their parents. Some believe that the fa’afafine spirit can be nurtured—with predictably disastrous results. As a separate gender, their sexual relations may be with males, females or other fa’afafine.
Leitis: In Tonga, leitis (previously fakaleiti), translates as ‘like a lady’. Although a predominantly Christian nation, Tonga has accepted leitis in society due to a strong kinship system: everybody knows a leiti. Despite homosexuality being illegal in Tonga, sex between a heterosexual man and a leiti is common.
Mahu: The mahu are the Hawaiian equivalent of a man living as a woman or a third gender. In ancient culture they held a respected place and were considered important members in the community. Traditional Hawaiian arts, such as the hula and music, incorporated expressions of sexuality and gender and were (still are) performed by the mahu.
Bakla: In the Philippines, before the Spanish conquistadors, the bakla (one of several names) were leaders and figures of authority. Local rulers would defer to them as religious or shaman figureheads. Bakla are assigned male gender at birth but assume a feminine identity, mannerisms and dress. Gender identity was traditionally a continuum of male to female, so it was easier to ‘cross’ genders. The bakla have a gender identity rather than a sexual identity. The literal translation of the word bakla is something akin to ‘confused’ and ‘cowardly’, as there is a mismatch between body and mind or ‘essence’. Bakla pursue stereotypical occupations: hair stylists, decorators, fashion designers and other ‘artistic’ jobs. They also compete in the highly popular Miss Gay beauty pageant.
Muxe: The Muxe of southern Mexico are part of the Zapotec culture, with origins in the pre-Columbian era. The muxe have a gender duality and are revered as carers of parents and for their artistic and intellectual skills. The muxe have been living openly since the 1950s. Unlike third-gender groups in many other societies, the muxe are free to follow any career. Most muxe (vestidas) dress in women's clothing; some (pintadas) dress in men’s clothing and wear makeup. Since the 1970s, three-day festivals have been held in honour of the muxe, Vela de las Intrépidas (Vigil of the Intrepids).
Kathoey: This is a Thai word for trans women, often translated as ‘lady boy’. There are an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 kathoey, many of them well-known, including actors and models. Although not recognised as a third-gender group, kathoey are visible in the larger cities and tourist destinations. Their visibility, however, belies the discrimination against them, largely confining them to the entertainment or sex industries. Despite Thailand being the most popular overseas destination for gender-affirming surgery, Thai nationals are not legally permitted to change gender. Same-sex marriages are not allowed. The Thai Gender Equality Act came into effect in September 2015, making discrimination in relation to employment, denial of goods and services, hate speech and crime, illegal. With this, it is anticipated that greater employment opportunities will become available for the LGBTQ Thai community.
Sistergirls, Brotherboys or Yimpininni: Located on the Tiwi Islands in remote northern Australia, the Yimpininni is the largest population of indigenous transgender, homosexual and bisexual people in Australia, with estimates that as many as five per cent of the population identify as such. Originally used as terms for trans people, Sistergirls is now an umbrella term for anyone identifying as queer. The population has existed since before European settlement, yet still faces marginalisation.
Femminielli: This translates as ‘little female men’ and refers to the trans women from the Spanish Quarter of Naples, Italy, who have been an important part of the city’s culture since the 1500s. The term is not derogatory, and the femminielli are thought to be special and to bring good luck. Femminielli pride is increasing, as the population of southern Italy fear that globalisation dilutes their traditional culture.
Burrnesha/Sworn Virgins: Apart from the Native American berdache or two-spirited people, few third-gender groups include women taking on a male identity. Girls living in some of the highly patriarchal and remote villages of the Balkans (northern Albania, Bosnia, southern Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia) were permitted to dress as men, live as men and enjoy all the rights and privileges of men. In order to do so they must swear a witnessed and irrevocable oath to remain celibate and live as a man for their entire lives. The reasons for becoming a sworn virgin vary and may not have anything to do with gender dysphoria. It is done mostly for social reasons: to avoid an arranged marriage, to keep a family’s property when there is no male heir, to become a provider. Though dating back to mediaeval times, the practice of women becoming sworn virgins is dwindling as property laws change and as the legal and social status of women improves.
Bacha Posh: In Afghanistan, a highly patriarchal society, women's rights are severely restricted to the point where they must have male supervision to leave the house and to perform the most mundane tasks. In families where there are few or no men, sometimes a daughter is appointed to play the role of a male, with greater freedom and an education. She must perform masculine tasks, assist and escort the females of the family, and bring the family a higher social status. The practice of having a girl assume a male role, dress and demeanour is known as bacha posh, the literal translation meaning ‘dressed up as a boy’. At puberty, the girls usually revert to living as females, before being married off. Although some girls may request to become bacha posh, the decision is totally up to their parents.
Tomboi: In the Minangkabau (a matrilineal Muslim ethnic group) in West Sumatra, Indonesia, a woman who might be labelled as a ‘butch lesbian’ in Western society is instead referred to as a tombois. They think of themselves as men first, and seek relationships with the ‘opposite’ gender.
The above is by no means a complete list of third-gender groups. There are many more including: the akava’ine (Cook Islands); vaka sa lewa lewa (Fiji); rae rae (Tahiti—previously mahu); khanith (Oman); basaja (Sulawesi); the mukhannathun (Islam); ashtime (Maale culture of southern Ethiopia), mollies (England), sḫt or sekhet (Middle Kingdom Egypt). There are likely to be many more.
What is common to these third-gender groups is that they faced much greater discrimination after being colonised by Europeans, by the arrival of missionaries, and the adoption of Western culture, which all brought a strict binary division of gender. Such rigidity makes it difficult for those who feel they belong to neither gender to fit in. It also intensifies the crucial need to transition for those who don’t fit their birth gender.