Adina Morguelan Ascher, PhD, LCSWProfessional Psychotherapy Services 
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Exploring an Institutionalized Third Gender Category

Posted on September 24, 2013 at 3:15 PM

Outlining the Social/Cultural/Religious Role(s) of an Institutionalized Third Gender Category:  The Native American Berdache/Two-Spirit and the Indian Hijra/Hijara Traditions

by Adina Morguelan

Queering the Academic Space             

Both queer and gender theory have strong connections to feminist theory.  The pioneering work done by early feminists seeking to rediscover the lost wisdom of women, and rewrite cultural myths and stories to include the contributions of women in instances where these had been disregarded and lost, has paved the way for scholars to engage in a similar process with the hidden legacy of sexual and gender variant individuals.  Queering the academic space refers to this process of recovery, rediscovery, and re-envisioning what was lost, missing, misconstrued, pathologized, and misunderstood by past generations of scholars.  Looking to the past, and to other cultural milieus, for alternatives to the Western understanding of sexual and gender variation has helped to recast contemporary debates about the nature of sex and gender (e.g., the relationship between gender and sexual orientation), and to loosen the insistence on a rigid gender binary common to the West’s conception of sexuality and gender.  It is in this spirit that I have embarked on the present project comparing the Indian Hijra/Hijara tradition with the Native American Berdache/Two-Spirit tradition. 

Recovering Our Lost Historical Legacy 

Examples of institutionalized third gender categories have existed in a variety of cultures and throughout history.  The Indian Hijra/Hijara and the Native American Berdache/Two-Spirit traditions are two such examples.  Herdt (1993) points to other examples found in Byzantium, the Balkans, Polynesia, and New Guinea.  Scholarly researches on these alternative cultural frameworks for understanding sexuality and gender have traditionally been conducted from a positivist scientific perspective which has tended to objectify the individuals and cultures being studied.  In recent times, greater attention has been paid to respecting the contextual nature of such third gender phenomenon and the research paradigm has shifted to embrace an emic perspective.  Many modern Western gender variant individuals and researchers have looked to reports of alternative sexual and gender paradigms amongst these varied cultural context to validate their personal and research experiences and have begun to question the rigid sexual and gender binary that shapes our perceptions of gender variation in the West.  By comparing our own culture to others so different from our own, we have been able to understand the vast capacity in the human being to accommodate much more flexibility around sexual and gender roles than we typically assume possible in the modern Western world.  This is good news to those individuals invested in helping our society to expand its understanding of human diversity and to learn to accept those individuals who embody difference.     

Comparative Analysis

I have conducted the comparison between the Indian Hijra/Hijara tradition and the Native American Berdache/Two-Spirit tradition along seven categories that emerged organically as I reviewed the research literature.  These include: 1) distribution – location in time and space, 2) origin of role/definition of category, 3) recruitment/inclusion criteria, 4) appearance/dress, 5) extent of institutionalization, 6) role of sex/sexuality, and 7) sacred/spiritual role.  Special attention was paid to assuring that these comparison categories are as unbiased and neutral as possible.  Following the comparison by category, I have highlighted some important points of similarity and difference between the two traditions. 

Distribution – Location in Time and Space 

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  The phenomenon of the Berdache or Two-Spirit (terminology will be addressed below) institution was found in many (not all) American Indian societies prior to Euro-American contact (Feinberg, 1996; Forgey, 1975; Nanda, 2000).  Conservative estimates by scholars place the distribution of the phenomenon at somewhere around 110 to 150 societies (Nanda, 2000; Sell, 2001; Stryker, 2004).  Common amongst the central plains and prairies, the Southwest, and California, Berdache or Two-Spirit individuals were found for example among the Navajo, Mojave, Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne, Dakota, Cree, Arapaho, Crow, Omaha, and Pawnee (Forgey, 1975; Nanda, 2000).  Due to contact with Western colonizers and their views about sex and gender, and persecution by colonial authorities, the institution of the Berdache disappeared almost completely by the 1930s (Feinberg, 1996; Nanda, 2000).  For example, Herdt (1991) cites the “conflictual match between the cultural ontologies of the Indians and those of the whites” (p. 488).  And, Blackwood (1984) clarifies, “The dominant ideology of Western culture…began to replace traditional Native American gender systems…variations in sexual behavior that had previously been acceptable were now repudiated” (p. 404). 

Hijra/Hijara.  Unlike the traditional Berdache or Two-Spirit role, the institution of the Hijra/Hijara (again more to come on terminology later) continues to remain in existence in contemporary times.  Approximately 50,000 Hijras are found today across India, most live in the north, but groups are found all over (Nanda, 2000).  Hijras typically “live in large communities in North India and Pakistan” (Bakshi, 2004).  They are known to come from all castes and from Hindu, Muslim, and Christians families (Nanda, 2000; Pettis, 2004; Shah, 1961). 

Origin of Role/Definition of Category 

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  The term “Berdache” stems from Arabic origins and actually means male prostitute (Forgey, 1975; Nanda, 2000).  According to Thayer (1980), Berdache “is sometimes translated as ‘half man, half woman’” (p. 287).  Berdache “refers to people who partly or completely take on aspects of the other sex and who are classified neither as women nor men, but as genders of their own” (Nanda, 2000, p. 12).  For the purposes of defining the category of Berdache, emphasis is on gender variant roles rather than on transition from one gender to another (Nanda, 2000).  “The Berdache was a figure that straddled two worlds – the world of men and the world of women…in both a symbolic and a social sense, a mediating figure” (Thayer, 1980, p. 289).  Feinberg (1996) reminds us that “‘Berdache’ was a derogatory term European colonizers used…Native people ask that the term ‘Two-Spirit’ be used to replace the offensive colonial word” (p. 21).  The term “Two-Spirit” was coined in 1990 by “urban American Indian gays and lesbians…conveying the spiritual nature of gender variance” (Nanda, 2000, p. 13).  As indicated by Sell (2001), “Two-Spirit” can be seen as an emic alternative.  In the context of this paper, I will use both the historical term Berdache, as well as the modern alternative of Two-Spirit.  I believe that these terms actually refer to two slightly different phenomena, the latter term Two-Spirit having been coined long after contact with Westerners had impacted perceptions of sex and gender in the Native American milieu.  In my view, the term Two-Spirit references a more modern representation of homosexuality in America, although closely related to the historical concept of the Berdache. 

Hijra/Hijara.  Nanda (2000) asserts that multiple sexes and genders are acknowledged in Indian culture.  Hindu origin myths feature androgynous ancestors (e.g. Ardhanari – the Lord who is half woman, and Arjuna – who takes on the disguise of a eunuch in the Mahabharata) and the descent of the Hijras are said to be related to these (Bakshi, 2004; Feinberg, 1996; Lal, 1999; Nanda, 2000; Shah, 1961).  “Hijra” is typically defined as neither man nor woman, and represents a cultural category consisting of individuals born as males who undergo a ritual surgical transformation to become an alternative third sex/gender category (Bakshi, 2004; Nanda, 1997, 2000; Shah, 1961).  The terms Hijra, Hijara, and Hijada are used interchangeable in the literature.  According to Shah (1961), a Hijra is “a man who is born impotent and has had his genitals cut off” (p. 1325).  Hijras consider themselves to be ascetics; they renounce sexual desire, abandon family and kinship ties, and depend on alms (religiously inspired charity) (Nanda, 2000).  Nanda (2000) maintains, “Hijras are deficient [impotent] men who receive a call from their goddess…to undergo a sex and gender change, wear their hair long, and dress in women’s clothes” (p. 33). 

Recruitment/Inclusion Criteria 

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  In the Native American context, early interest by children in “implements and activities of the opposite gender” indicated a gender variant individual (Nanda, 2000, p. 15).  Public rituals were performed to confirm a child’s preference for markers of the opposite gender (Blackwood, 1984; Nanda, 2000).  Some female gender variant roles were found amongst the Native American tribes, though not as many as those for men, though they were more common here than in most other cultures (Herdt, 1991; Nanda, 2009).  Female gender variant roles were found in one quarter to one half the societies where male gender variance occurred (Nanda, 2000; Stryker, 2004). 

Hijra/Hijara.  For the Hijras, becoming a member of the cultural category involves voluntary surgical removal of the genitals (Bakshi, 2004; Nanda, 1997, 2000; Sell, 2001; Shah, 1961).  Hijras also include intersex individuals (born with ambiguous genitalia) but this is rare (Bakshi, 2004; Nanda, 2000).  New Hijras first obtain the sponsorship of a guru who takes care of and initiates her into the community (Nanda, 2000).  There are very few examples of the female gender variant role in this context; it is less visible and less widespread compared with men (Nanda, 2000; Sell, 2001).  Although, “females who do not menstruate can become Hijras” (Nanda, 1997, p. 83). 


Berdache/Two-Spirit.  Berdache or Two-Spirit individuals often wore the clothing appropriate to the gender they were adopting (Nanda, 2000).  Although, they were also known to dress in clothing appropriate to both sexes.  Blackwood (1984) states that they “typically acted, sat, dressed, talked like and did the work of the other sex” (p. 29).  Often amassing great wealth due to their social role, these individuals are frequently shown with elaborate adornments on their clothing made of silver and other precious stones. 

Hijra/Hijara.  Similarly, Hijras typically adopt the female gender role in dress, mannerism (walk, gestures, expressions), and kinship terms (sister, aunty) (Lal, 1999; Nanda, 1997, 2000).  Lal (1999) states, “All the hijras dress in…garments common to women in north India, though a few have been observed in men’s clothes as well” (p. 128).  And Shah (1961) clarifies, a Hijra “is a man but behaves in many ways like a woman…wears the usual dress of…women, imitates their gait, speech, gestures, and manners, and adopts a woman’s name” (p. 1326).  Importantly, and in the same way as the Berdache/Two-Spirit, Pettis (2004) insists, “Hijras don’t attempt to ‘pass’ as the opposite sex” (p. 3).  This constitutes the primary reason that both the Berdache/Two-Spirit and the Hijra/Hijara communities have been referred to as constituting a “third gender” category.   

Extent of Institutionalization

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  Berdache or Two-Spirit people were often central rather than marginal in their societies (Nanda, 2000).  They were “in general, socially approved and ‘tolerated’” (Herdt, 1991, p. 48.  And, as Sell (2001) states, they were “always seen as an intrinsic part of the culture, not deviant but an established third-gender category” (p. 20).  Thayer (1980) explains that Berdache or Two-Spirit people “had a clearly recognized status and clearly defined talents” (p. 290).  They fully adopted the role of, and were acknowledged by the community as, women and accordingly married men.  “Sexual relationships between a man and a male gender variant were accepted in most American Indian societies” and generally not negatively sanctioned (Nanda, 2000, p. 1).  Gender variant individuals were able to become economically specialized and often became wealthy due to taking on roles belonging to both men and women (Nanda, 2000; Stryker, 2004).  “Historically, two-spirit people have been well integrated into their tribes, and have often held revered and honored positions within them” (Stryker, 2004, pp. 2-3).  Frequently regarded with ambivalence, they were both revered and regarded with apprehension: “On the one hand…highly regarded and…highly praised, but…also…feared” (Thayer, 1980, p. 290). 

Hijra/Hijara.  The Hijras also have been looked upon with uncertainty by the larger society.  “Hijras are generally regarded with ambivalence; social attitudes include a combination of mockery, fear, respect, contempt, and even compassion” (Nanda, 2000, p. 36).  The Hijra role is marginalized and normative; respected, ridiculed, and feared (Bakshi, 2004).  The “Hijras have a special place in Indian culture and society…an institutionalized alternative gender role of ritual performers” (Nanda, 1997, p. 82).  Hijras perform at marriages and births (usually of a male baby) (Bakshi, 2004; Nanda, 1997, 2000; Sell, 2001).  They are said to have special powers over fertility in their role as servants to the Goddess Bahuchara Mata (more to come on this below).  “Under British rule in India the Hijras lost some of their traditional legitimacy;” the British discouraged their customs and made their surgery practice illegal (Nanda, 2000, p. 37).  Emasculation surgery is still not legal in India and the Hijras practice it in secret (Nanda, 2000).  Additionally, they have few political rights due to their designation as neither man nor woman (Bakshi, 2004).  According to Lal (1999), “modernity has been inhospitable to the hijras.  They are increasingly losing their traditional means of livelihood” (p. 133). 

Role of Sex/Sexuality

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  For the Native American community, sexuality was not central to defining the gender status of Berdache or Two-Spirit people (Nanda, 2000).  Nanda (2000) states, “While male and female gender variants most frequently had sexual relations with, or married, persons of the same biological sex as themselves, these relationships were not considered homosexual…partners would be of the same sex but different genders” (p. 17).  And, Herdt (1991) concurs, “The partners of the berdache…are not [considered] ‘homosexual’” (p. 496).  “Native American ideology disassociated sexual behavior from concepts of male and female gender roles…Sexuality itself was not embedded in Native American gender ideology” (Blackwood, 1984, p. 35-6).  This is a key concept, and one that makes the institution of the Berdache or Two-Spirit so important for modern Western scholars in attempting to revision contemporary paradigms which conflate sexuality with gender.  For the American Indian community, this coalescence was simply not the case, demonstrating that the current Western view is one possibility among many and not the only way to envision the relationship between sex and gender.  Berdache or Two-Spirit individuals were typically not anatomically abnormal (Nanda, 2000).  Gender variance was defined more by cultural than biological criteria (Nanda, 2000). 

Hijra/Hijara.  The Hijra role is that of a “defective” male, and is associated with sexual impotence, and the inability to procreate (Nanda, 2000).  Hijras renounce sexual desire and activity to become ascetics; sexual impotence with women, and not sexual relations with men are what defines the Hijras (Bakshi, 2004; Nanda, 1997; Sell, 2001).  “Homoeroticism…is not part of – is indeed contrary to – the cultural identification of the Hijras” (Nanda, 1997, p. 84).  Although, in modern times, as their traditional societal roles have been disappearing, Hijras have been known to have sex with men in a receptive role, frequently as prostitutes (Nanda, 1997, 2000).  This change has had negative consequences on the perception of the Hijras in Indian society: “Knowledge of Hijra prostitution undermines their respect in society” (Nanda, 2000, p. 37). 

Sacred/Spiritual Role

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  Berdache or Two-Spirit people were often associated with Shamanism and spiritual powers (Blackwood, 1984; Feinberg, 1996; Nanda, 2000).  According to Nanda (2000), among the American Indians, gender variants were seen as holy persons.  “In the spiritual realm the berdache were…exceptionally powerful shamans” (Herdt, 1991, p. 49.  It was the mixed aspect (part male, part female) of gender variant status that was seen to be the source of supernatural powers (Nanda, 2000).  They were seen as mediators between worlds; between men and women, and between divine and human (Sell, 2001; Thayer, 1980).  As a result of this special in-between status, Berdache or Two-Spirit people frequently acted as go-betweens in marriage (Nanda, 2000; Thayer, 1980).  Supernatural sanction for the Berdache or Two-Spirit role appeared in visions or dreams (Blackwood, 1984; Nanda, 2000; Stryker, 2004; Thayer, 1980).  These individuals became ritual adepts and curers, and fulfilled special ceremonial functions (Forgey, 1975; Nanda, 2000).  Berdache or Two-Spirit peoples “were said to possess supernatural powers for healing…for naming [and] to have the gift of prophecy” (Thayer, 1980, p. 290).  They “had the right to grant infant boys a second name” which “was believed to have magical power to protect the young child from sickness and to bestow…long life” (Thayer, 1980, p. 290).  Berdache or Two-Spirits were regarded with respect and also with fear.  Herdt (1991) states, “The berdache could heal and also bewitch” (p. 499). 

Hijra/Hijara.  The Hijra/Hijara community is devoted to Bahuchara Mata (the Mother Goddess) (Bakshi, 2004; Feinberg, 1996; Lal, 1999; Nanda, 1997, 2000; Pettis, 2004; Shah, 1961).  According to Bakshi (2004), the Hijras “congregate annually at the Bahuchara Mata shrine” (p. 213).  Their lives are devoted to the service of the Goddess and consequently they are seen to be bearers of fertility blessings.  The castration procedure that the Hijras undergo to become part of the community is believed to lead to the attainment of divine and physical powers (Bakshi, 2004; Lal, 1999).  Pettis (2004) explains, “The emasculation ordeal is thought to confer special powers to the hijras” (p. 2).  The Hijras perform (singing, drumming, chanting) at marriages and births (usually of a male baby) to bestow blessings to increase fertility and prosperity (Bakshi, 2004; Lal, 1999; Nanda, 1997, 2000; Pettis, 2004; Sell, 2001; Shah, 1961).  “The Hijras…are individually impotent but nevertheless are able to confer blessings for fertility on others.  As creative ascetics, Hijras are considered auspicious and powerful, and this underlies their ritual performances at marriages and childbirth” (Nanda, 2000, p. 31).  The Hijras, “while themselves incapable of carrying or seeding children…appear to have some inexorable power over the reproductive process” (Lal, 1999, p. 123).  Like in the Berdache or Two-Spirit tradition, the Hijras are “also feared for their power to curse” (Nanda, 1997, p. 82).  They are “looked upon as sacred and their curse is very much feared” (Shah, 1961, p. 1328).  They can bless newly married couples with fertility, but they can also curse the same with lack of sons.  At the birth of a son, the Hijras will examine the male infant’s genitals to confirm his sex; intersex (hermaphroditic) infants are said to belong to the Hijra society (Nanda, 1997, 2000). 

Similarities and Differences

Many interesting and important similarities exist between the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara traditions in terms of how each custom envisions and configures a third gender role.  Both Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara roles are characterized as neither male, nor female, but in-between or outside of the typical gender categories.  The third gender role of Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara was most common among individuals born as men, who became women, although some exceptions exist in both cases.  Also, in both cases, public ceremonies mark the transition from one gender to another.  In both the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara traditions, individuals dress in the clothing appropriate to the opposite gender than that into which they were born.  In both cases, they also take on the characteristics associated with the opposite gender.  Both the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara communities were/are largely accepted and integrated into society, and also conferred special status.  In both cases, these individuals were/are revered and feared, integrated and marginal; in general, regarded with ambivalence.  Also, in both cases, contact with modern Western values has resulted in the loss of their traditional place in society.  In the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara traditions, sexuality is not conflated with gender identity.  However, in the Hijra/Hijara role, sexual impotence, and abstinence is an important defining characteristic; whereas for the Berdache/Two-Spirit role, sex (and marriage) between partners of the opposite genders was commonplace. Again, this point is crucial for modern Western scholars pointing to the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara examples in order to challenge the concept of a rigid sex and gender binary.  These traditions illustrate more fluid and flexible containers for conceptualizing sexuality and gender.  Both the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara traditions are linked with special spiritual and ritual powers.  These powers are associated in both cases with fertility (marriage, birth).  Also, in both cases, individuals in these traditions claim sanctions from a divine power (although they differ in which divine power – Berdache/Two-Spirit sanctions come from the dream world, whereas Hijra/Hijara sanctions come from Bahuchara Mata) and are seen as powerful, carrying with them the potential to bless and also to curse.  In both cases, these special powers are gleaned by enduring a ritual transformation. 

Some Potential Pitfalls

Cross-Cultural Competency 

In an important article by Towle and Morgan (2006), the authors set out to examine critically “how ‘third gender’ concepts are used in popular American writing by and about transgender people” (p. 666).  This article is interesting and important because it highlights some of the potential dangers in appropriation and decontextualization of third gender phenomena, with the possible results being reductionism and exclusionism.  They state, “Understanding of other cultures is not enhanced by broad, decontextualized transcultural surveys or by accounts that encourage readers to take cultural features out of context” (Towle and Morgan, 2006, p. 668).  Similarly, in an article on cultural ontology and cultural comparison, Herdt (1991) states, “There is a tendency to nominalize cultural constructs as entities beyond the boundaries of a particular culture…The comparative study of sexuality across cultures…is saddled historically with the conundrum of situating entities, objects (roles, institutions), and meanings between universal processes and particular situations” (p. 484).  There is a tension inherent in doing the work of comparison across cultures, and across time periods, between respecting the particularities of a certain cultural circumstance, and making generalizations about what these particular conditions might say about the human capacity for flexibility and accommodation of difference.  The good news is that humans are not bound simply by the prevailing mores of our present times and places, but the danger is that our modern Western lens might obscure the unique manifestations of a culture that is not our own.  Commenting on this tension, Herdt (1991) states, “both universal and particularistic factors are necessary to interpret most cross-cultural studies, with the general proviso that one’s research interest determines which elements, in what combination, are significant for understanding” (p. 485).  When scholars look to alternative gender identity traditions such as the Berdache/Two-Spirit or Hijra/Hijara communities, what we see and how we see it is constrained by our own cultural traditions.  Towle and Morgan assert, “The ‘third gender’ is a uniquely Western concept produced by a society just beginning to grapple with the theoretical, social, political, and personal consequences of nondichotomous gender variability” (2006, p. 669).  This way of framing or understanding the Berdache/Two-Spirit or Hijra/Hijara traditions may not reflect how individuals within these communities think (or thought) about themselves.  But, there still may be useful fruits to be gleaned from the development of such theories, especially in so far as what these theories reflect back about us.  Herdt warns, “We must not romanticize these Others” (1991, p. 504).  I agree with this sentiment.  If cultural comparison is conducted from a self-reflective and self-aware place of sensitivity and openness, I believe that it can yield important new discoveries, and simultaneously remain responsible. 


In this paper, I have attempted to demonstrate the significance of looking toward other cultural contexts and milieus for examples of gender and sexual identity roles that challenge our modern Western paradigm.  I have looked to the Berdache/Two-Spirit and the Hijra/Hijara traditions as examples of conceptualizations of gender and sexuality that do not conflate sex with gender, and allow for more freedom and flexibility in gender expression than other cultures, particularly the modern West.  I have conducted the comparison between the Indian Hijra/Hijara and the Native American Berdache/Two-Spirit traditions along seven categories, including: 1) distribution – location in time and space, 2) origin of role/definition of category, 3) recruitment/inclusion criteria, 4) appearance/dress, 5) extent of institutionalization, 6) role of sex/sexuality, and 7) sacred/spiritual role.  I have reviewed the similarities and differences between these traditions and also examined some critical analysis of the prevailing understanding in the literature of the third gender category. I hope to have shown that much can be gleaned from such comparative studies, but that it is also important to conduct such scholarship from a responsible and self-reflective stance. Being aware of one’s personal lens is an important step towards contributing to a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of cross-cultural phenomenon than much of the research that has come before. 


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Categories: Sexuality and Gender