Hidden in History: Female Homoeroticism and Women of a "Third Nature" in the South Asian Past
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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.1 (2001) 3-39



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Hidden in History:
Female Homoeroticism and Women of a "Third Nature" in the South Asian Past

Walter Penrose
City University of New York Graduate Center


In modern Western society the polarization of sex and gender into what theorists term a "binary system" has largely eradicated legitimate third or fourth gender roles. 1 Those who do not behave in ways considered appropriate for their biological sex are now regarded as transgendered, for they have crossed over the socially constructed boundaries of gender-appropriate behavior. In the West, advances in surgery have even made possible the sexual assignment of hermaphrodites to one of the two acceptable genders while they are still young children--often with devastating psychological [End Page 3] consequences. In other regions of the world, however, sex and gender are not linked in the same way. In South Asia, for example, a gender-variant category, hijra, remains intact despite the efforts of British colonials to eradicate what they called "a breach of public decency" (Nanda 1990; Preston 1987). This "third gender" consists of hermaphrodites, women who do not menstruate, as well as passively homosexual and castrated men--all who proclaim they are "neither man nor woman" (Nanda 1990). Generally, though not always, hijras wear female attire and have female mannerisms and patterns of speech. 2

While the role of hijra may be recognized, what is notably absent in most present-day South Asian cultures is a masculine "third-gender" role for women. Giti Thadani, a modern Indian lesbian, has recently written about "lesbian invisibility" in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, recounting frightful tales of women who identify as lesbians but whose families force them to marry (Thadani 1996, esp. chaps. 1 and 5-8). Although female gender variance now finds little acceptance except in a few remote areas of India, 3 an examination of ancient and precolonial texts reveals that distinct social and economic roles once existed for women thought to belong to a third gender. Hidden in history, these women dressed in men's clothing, served as porters and personal bodyguards to kings and queens, and even took an active role in sex with women.

To explore this female third-gender role, I shall first consider some of the current theories about alternative genders in traditional societies and then examine the remnants of such genders as still exist in remote regions of India. I shall then survey ancient Sanskrit and later historical documentation of women whose occupations, cross-dressing, and masculine behavior match what we might expect a third gender to entail. Finally, I will discuss the demise of third-gender roles for women in the subcontinent, and suggest how further analysis of female gender-variant roles might advance the historiography of gender and sexuality. [End Page 4]

The Concept of Third and Fourth Genders

Third, fourth, or alternative genders have been variously defined by historians and anthropologists. Will Roscoe argues that "evidence of multiple genders in North America offers support for the theory of social constructionism, which maintains that gender roles, sexualities, and identities are not natural, essential, or universal, but constructed by social processes and discourses" (Roscoe 1998, 210). A system of multiple genders, according to Roscoe, can only exist outside dichotomous gender systems, which polarize sex, gender, and sexuality into categories of male and female. In a binary gender system, androgyny becomes the only available alternative. "Third and fourth genders, on the other hand, help us to perceive all that is left over when the world has been divided into male and female--the feelings, perceptions, and talents that may be neither" (210). Roscoe argues that many traditional non-Western societies have utilized the talents unique to individuals who were members of an alternative gender to serve society as a whole (212). Roscoe identifies three elements common to the alternative gender roles found in early Native American societies: "economic specialization," "techniques and patterns of shamanism," and "gender difference and homosexuality"--the latter "commonly...