While the idea of fluidity in gender might seem new to people, it is not a modern phenomenon. Examples of bending identities from history and myth can pave the way for deeper perspectives on this long-established concept.
When I was first introduced to the concept of gender fluidity, the notion felt familiar instead of strange. As a devoted explorer of mythology and folklore, I had long been reading about Gods and mortals who transcended the confines of the gender binary. On the contrary, a well-received opinion today is that fluidity is a contemporary phenomenon. A 21st-century ‘invention’, even. Doesn’t this claim conveniently erase the rich history of fluid identities throughout cultures of the world?
For a brief overview, gender fluidity means flexibility in one’s gender identity or expression, or both. It’s about not feeling tied to a single gender label, allowing it to shift and change with time. It plays a significant role in understanding diverse gender identities. For centuries, if not millennia, traditions across the world have recognized and honoured gender nonconformity. As we celebrate Pride this month, it’s imperative to show appreciation and learn from them the vast ways gender can be perceived.
A recurring theme in Hindu mythology that I grew up fascinated with, is that of Gods and Goddesses often blurring the lines between masculine and feminine. The ‘Puranas’ recite various tales of this including one where Shiv merges with Shakti to become Ardhanarishwara, (Sanskrit: Lord who is half-woman) who is seen in many Southeast Asian sculptures. Another story is that of Shikhandi, who was born into a female body but always knew was a man and later entered the battlefield of Kurukshetra as one. It was also ordinary for Gods to turn into Goddesses to enchant ‘Asuras’! In Norse mythology, Loki is a famous gender-bending entity. In Greek myth, the prophet Teiresias spent seven years as a woman, and in Mesopotamian lore, the Goddess of fertility and love is depicted with both masculine and feminine elements.
While such beliefs provide significant insight into the perception of gender thousands of years ago and still remain a part of cultures worldwide, people may find it hard to see some sense of reality in it as it is lore, after all. This is why it’s essential to also discuss credible historical accounts of gender fluidity that go a little less far back into history.
Flourishing cultures have not only accepted but also revered the dynamic nature of gender. One of the more prominent instances is that of the Native Americans. In their societies, the existence of feminine men, masculine women, and transgendered people was ubiquitous. They were called “two-spirit” people and were considered strikingly knowledgeable. There were no rules regarding expression of identity and cross-dressing was routine. With the advent of the Europeans, this flexibility was no longer tolerated. The Mahus of Hawaii and Tahiti, who never put restrictions on gender identity, met with a similar fate after colonization. Certain ethnic groups in Madagascar would raise their boys with long hair and multiple piercings if they tended to show feminine traits and this practice is still prevalent. These are only scattered examples from a myriad of customs from all over the world.
While in some historical contexts, queerness might have had a negative connotation, it’s refreshing to realize that more often than not it was nothing out of the ordinary. Its acceptance sure did gradually plummet after the Euro-Western dominance, but its existence could simply never be questioned.
For a modern interpretation, legends and lore about the fluidity of gender can be viewed through a lens of acceptance and inclusivity. These stories serve as a powerful reminder that gender has always existed along a diverse spectrum, and they should encourage us to pursue social structures that protect the dignity of all individuals, irrespective of expression or identity.
There will always be diversity in the human experience, let’s honour it. Today, as the modern world wrestles with the idea of accepting anything that is beyond the binary, remind yourself of this perpetual truth- Gender fluidity is as old as time itself.
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