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third gender

noun [countable/uncountable]

a categorization of a person as neither male nor female

'The Australian high court has ruled that New South Wales must recognise a third gender after handing down its decision in the long-running case of Norrie, who has been fighting since 2010 to have a sex change recognised as non-specific.'

The Guardian 2nd April 2014

'The history of the hijra community's stretches back to antiquity. But now, with a new supreme court ruling, India's third gender has finally achieved full legal recognition.'

The Guardian 16th April 2014

On the 15th April 2014, India's supreme court legally recognized a third gender, declaring that those who identify themselves as neither male nor female should be entitled to the same educational, welfare and employment rights as other men and women.

third is usually understood to mean 'other', a word which is often seen on application forms and official pieces of documentation as a catch-all category when the standard options provided are inappropriate

This landmark step, whilst potentially at odds with the same court's decision not long ago to criminalize homosexual acts, has abruptly thrown the term third gender into the public eye. In India, the declaration of a third gender is primarily connected with the hijra community, the collective description used for transsexuals, transvestites, cross-dressers, eunuchs and transgender people. This community has often lived on the fringes of society, ostracized because of their gender identity and denied basic rights – a situation which the new ruling attempts to address. However India is not the first country to legally recognize a third gender, Nepal taking the same step in 2007, and Bangladesh in 2013. In November 2013, Germany became the first European country to allow a third gender designation on birth certificates.

In the expression, the use of the word third is of course based on the convention that there are 'two' fundamental genders, male and female. The term third sex is correspondingly also sometimes used to refer to the same concept. Third is usually understood to mean 'other', a word which is often seen on application forms and official pieces of documentation as a catch-all category when the standard options provided are inappropriate. 'Other' in relation to third gender identification has a variety of alternatives across the world, including indeterminate, unspecified, non-specific, genderless, and even simply X.

Background – third gender

The expressions third gender and third sex date as far back as the 17th century, at the time connected with an emerging subculture of effeminate males and a marked increase in hostility towards effeminate or homosexual men. The terms continued to exist as popular descriptors of homosexuality and cross-gender into the 20th century, but fell out of favour with gay liberation in the 1970s and a growing recognition of sexual orientation and gender identity as separate concepts. Their renewed use in more recent times is partly attributable to a greater understanding of biological sexual variation and a realization that the human body cannot always be neatly categorized as one of two sexes.

The expression third gender has various interpretations, the strictest being as a category which is completely independent of male or female. Others include the state of being both man and woman, being neither man nor woman, being in an intermediate state between man and woman, or the ability to cross or swap genders.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 29th April 2014.

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