The Third Gender

What the Burrnesha, Fa’afafine and Two-Spirited can teach us about non-binary gender acceptance

While there are clear examples of gender fluidity and/or transgender identity among many cultures, there exist few examples where members of these subcultures are able exist openly with the acceptance and encouragement of other members of their community.

The Burrnesha (The Balkans)

Some, like the burrnesha (aka. sworn virgins) of Albania — women living as men — have their identities thrust upon them. Born into a patrilineal society, Kanun law dictated that property and land be handed down to the eldest males, and when nature did not produce sons (or violent feuds killed off all the male members of a family), daughters needed to step into that role. It was no small commitment: Women were required to take a vow of celibacy and from that day forward dress and behave like the men of their community for the rest of their lives.

Qamile Stema (photo credit: Luis Dafos)

Interestingly, the evolving culture of acceptance around this identity also created the possibility for women to make the choice to live as men voluntarily. In spite of the sacrifice of sexuality through celibacy, this form of gender transition was obviously greatly appealing to those who did not identify with the gender assigned them at birth, and also afforded them not just acceptance, but respect.

Given the historical context of forced marriages in a patriocentric society, it is not unreasonable to attribute a certain percentage of these voluntary conversions to a simple desire for more freedom:

“Imagine […] marrying at the age of 15, 16, 17 years old, conceivably to a husband who might be 40, 50, 60. On your wedding night, your father might slip a bullet into your suitcase, for your husband’s use in case you’re not a virgin […] You will never talk back. You will make no decision, even when it comes to the children to whom you give birth. You will not smoke or drink or shoot a gun. From sunup to sundown, your life will be full of hard labor. According to the Kanun: “A woman is known as a sack made to endure as long as she lives in her husband’s house.””

But not all women sought escape. Some burrnesha, like Haki [pictured below], were simply born ‘feeling male.’ Assuming his male identity had nothing to do with necessity (he was third of 13 children) and everything to do with his feelings of ‘maleness.’

Haki (photo credit: Jill Peters

The word burrnesha literally means “he-she”, and their identities are distinct from being simply male. While they live and work as men, their celibacy prevents them developing or even acknowledging any sexual identity. They are neither gay nor straight.

The subject of their sexuality is not one that is typically discussed, and prodding from outsiders on the subject generally yields anger or irritation. As Haki states:

“It breaks my heart that anyone would ask such questions […] God has given me what I am, and I’ve made do. Being lesbian—this isn’t even what being a burrnesha is about. Don’t confuse who I am with being a lesbian, or I’ll kick you in the shins.”

And so, while there is no denying that there is cultural acceptance of burrnesha as a third gender, there is clearly also great sacrifice on the part of those who assume it, whether by choice or not. Acceptance seems to have been born less out of tolerance and more out of necessity. By restricting any expression of sexuality, Kanun tribal law is wielded a means of control to perpetuate misogyny and homophobia. Third gender or not, there are still clearly defined roles of what is female and male, and the imposition of celibacy is a clear way to avoid any divergence from the norm.

The Fa’afafine (Samoa & Samoan Diaspora)

The evolution of the role of fa’afafine (literally translated: ‘in the manner of a woman’) in Samoan culture is quite similar to that of the burrnesha, while this time it is boys who were raised as girls to suit the needs of their families and the community. Quite simply, in families where there were not enough girls and too many boys, some boys were raised to be women.

‘The Third Gender’ (photo credit: Katie Orlinsky) shows a fa’afafine with children.

This decision was not necessarily based on a child exhibiting any non-heteronormative or effeminate traits. Their parents would merely begin assigning them ‘women’s work’ and dressing them as girls. No attempt was made to hide their birth sex, and in fact, when they grew to adulthood and married (which was not restricted, unlike the burrnesha), they were expected to marry women.

Modern-day fa’afafine almost unilaterally claim their identity by choice. If a male child exhibits feminine traits, parents generally take a hands-off approach and late nature and development take their course, while being available to teach them women’s work at their request. Many easily adapt to performing double-duty:

“I think there’s a little bit difference between fa’afafine here in Samoa and overseas, because here the fa’afafine can help the mother [by] doing the same job… and they can do the men’s job as well. I think that’s why the fa’afafine here are so popular, because they are hard working people.”
Hazy Pau Talauati (photo credit:

These roles are not strictly work-oriented and utilitarian. There is a focus on all things feminine (including beauty pageants) and nurturing, including child-rearing. In terms of sexuality, modern fa’afafine tend to be involved for the most part with cis-gendered men (and occasionally women), but rarely other fa’afafine.

Acceptance of fa’afafine outside of Samoa (most notably within the large Samoan community of New Zealand), is somewhat less universal, due partly to homophobia and transphobia from other other cultures, as well as due to the strong influence of the Christian church within the Samoan community.

In spite of its early roots in cultural engineering, fa’afafine seems to have evolved (for the most part) into a freely chosen self-identified gender designation, with free expression of sexuality. Although there is clearly a strong identification with stereotypical characteristics of femininity, these seem to be self-directed rather than imposed upon them by society.

Given this modern freedom of choice, it is curious that we do not see a similar female-to-male equivalent in Samoan society — but the obvious answer is that this population does exist — they simply don’t have the same level of cultural identity and history that the fa’afafine do.

Crow Two-Spirits, 1928 (source:

Two-Spirit (North American Indigenous Peoples)

Among North America’s indigenous communities, the term two-spirit (also wíŋkte, nádleehé, hwame and other tribe-specific variants) has long been used to describe persons who embody any combination of male and female gender and/or non-binary sexuality. Historically, clothing was typically a combination of traditionally male and female garb (or varied day-to-day), and sexual relations might be with either men or women. It wasn’t until the advent of colonialization that this was regarded as non-heteronormative. Prior to that there was no sub-categorization of homosexuality, and two-spiritedness was regarded as an indication of dual gender alone.

This is not to say that the choice of being two-spirited was solely determined by the individual. As with the fa’afafine and burrnesha, if a child presented early on with signs of non-binary gender identity, this shaped how they would be raised.

“If parents noticed that a son was disinterested in boyish play or manly work, they would set up a ceremony to determine which way the boy would be brought up. They would make an enclosure of brush, and place in the center both a man’s bow and a woman’s basket. The boy was told to go inside the circle of brush and to bring something out, and as he entered the brush would be set on fire. The tribe watched what he took with him as he ran out, and if it was the basketry materials they reconciled themselves to his being [two-spirited].”
Rodney Little Moustache and Ed Harris (photo credit:

If boys were then identified as two-spirited, they were educated in the ways of women, and vice versa. While this clearly demonstrates a culture of acceptance, it is hard to surmise how much those early interventions merely complemented the development of gender identity, or how much they inadvertently shaped it through reinforcement. Ultimately though, with the focus being on acceptance of gender fluidity over reinforcing non-binary gender roles, it seems reasonable to acknowledge much more freedom of the individual to control both their gender expression and sexuality. The fact that this identity seems to be bestowed fairly equally to male-born and female-born persons without bias also makes this example rather unique.

Unfortunately, with the advent of colonialism (and early Jesuit Christian ‘re-education’), modern two-spirited indigenous peoples now face bigotry both from outside and within their communities.

“The outgrowth of this is a lot of first nations […] communities are quite homophobic. There has been a lot of violence exerted against two-spirited members. They have been chased out, threatened, attacked, had their houses burned, their cars trashed.”


Trans* acceptance in colonialized societies continues to be persistently hampered by deeply ingrained (and often religious-based) attitudes about heteronormativity and morality. Non-binary gender identities are regarded as abnormal, especially in terms of their perceived threat towards traditional sexual roles and impact on procreation.

But if the need for adherence to these roles is so strongly based in utility (e.g. the pragmatic desire for the continuation of the human race), the burrnesha and fa’afafine make interesting case studies for transgender identity being manipulated for similar utilitarian purposes. While I certainly do not condone gender reassignment as a ‘solution to a problem,’ these examples do provide concrete examples of how persons of non-binary gender absolutely have performed invaluable roles in societies where they are seen as integral to the survival of those communities.

As far as personal freedoms, the Two-Spirit identity obviously out-ranks the other two, and is as close to the ideal as possible; combining gender and sexual fluidity as well as freedom of choice. It is unfortunate then, that the original ideals and beliefs of these indigenous communities have been tainted by catholicism and colonial interference. Because of this influence, the level of acceptance of non-heteronormative identities including homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender/non-binary identities seems to have fallen to a level on-par with that of the non-indigenous population.

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