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We’ve been here before

When a culture has a word in its language, it’s a sign of an idea that was visited before. 

Non-binary ideas on gender are often criticized as new and strange concepts. But, a short study on words that are over two hundred years old reveals how non-binary ideas on gender have been visited by cultures around the world for much, much, longer than most religious rhetorics and traditional narratives portray them to be. These words and their derivational word families often describe a wide spectrum of gender expressions, demonstrating how nonbinary ideas on sexuality have been a natural aspect of society. Human cultures have acknowledged the complexity of gender identity for centuries—our languages hold evidence.


(Deriv. asittakapandaka, ussuyapandaka, opakkamikapandaka, lunapandaka, pakkhapandaka, napumsakapandaka) 

Used in ancient Sri Lanka to describe nonbinary genders, pandaka is a cognate from Pali. The origin of the term pandaka is thought to be derived from anda, which variously means `egg' or `testicle' in Pali, with the basic concept appearing to be that of a non-procreative sexuality. Subsequently, the derivatives of the term incorporate diverse expressions of genders and their sexual preferences, including exclusive fetishes, intersex individuals and those with a libido linked to lunar phases.


(Deriv. ubhatō)

Found primarily in Buddhist Pali texts in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and India, the root of this term is ubhato meaning `two-fold', while byanjana denotes a sign or mark of gender or reproductive characteristic. Hence, in literal terms, the word means 'a person with the signs of both sexes/genders'. Bunmi Methangkun—late head of the traditionalist Abhidhamma Foundation in Bangkok, observes that the category of ubhatobyanjanaka persons described in the canon is understood as including both biological and ‘psychological’ intersex persons. 


(Var. kalapakkha, junhapakkha)

Used in India and sparingly in Sri Lanka, this term and its derivatives exclusively identify sexual expression responsive to the lunar cycle. Those becoming aroused during the waning moon (kalapakkha) and the waxing moon (junhapakkha) were recorded by the Buddhist scholar-monk Buddhaghōsa saying that a pakkha "becomes temporarily impotent for fourteen 'black days' of the month”.


Used widely across South Asia to identify intersex people, this term communicates the idea of ‘half’. This is probably the reason for the popularity of the term, as the preposition of ‘half’ could be used to describe many gender expressions with both masculine and feminine characteristics.


Used among the Bugis ethnic group in Indonesia, Calalai infers ‘to be a man’ and refers to biological women who represent themselves in masculine ways.


Used in Indonesia, Calabai infers ‘to be a woman’ and describes people who have male biological sexual characteristics but occupy a role traditionally occupied by women. 


Used in Indonesia, Bissu is a word used to describe the totality of masculinity and femininity. The etymology of the term is unclear but it probably derives from the Sanskrit word bhiksu, meaning monk. It refers to the spiritual role of this gender expression as they perform rites and are thought to bridge the worldly and the divine.


Still used throughout the Indian subcontinent, the etymology of the word ‘Hijra’ can be traced to its Arabic root ‘Hijr’ which means departure or exodus from one’s tribe. It’s usually used to describe transgender persons and in a way, ties poetically with how all trans persons are in perpetual exile from the world and their own biological body.


(Deriv. khanith)

Found in classical Arabic and Islamic literature, this term is used to describe non-binary people, typically referred to as effeminate men or those with ambiguous sexual organs. Its etymology points to the meaning ‘variant’ and gave rise to the vernacular Arabic term ‘khanith’ used in some parts of the Arabian peninsula. 


Used in classical Islamic texts, Mudhakkarah describes women who were masculine in appearance or mannerisms and preferred to function in roles typically carried out by men. 


(Incl. niizh, nádleehí, winkté, hemaneh)

In 1989, during a gathering in Winnipeg, Manitoba, LGBTQ people from North America adopted the term ‘Two Spirit’ to collectively identify themselves within their tribes. This term is used by tribes in Canada and the USA and serves as a unifying concept for the diverse gender identities acknowledged across various tribes. The term ‘Two Spirit’ was introduced as a universal term in English to foster broader understanding, although its meaning may not always translate to the complete or exact meaning of Native languages. 

✺ The attitude towards non-binary genders changed with influences like colonialism and religious states embracing orthodox values of a single belief system.  Within such contexts, some of these words have gained associations with criticism and negativity, and even given rise to colloquialized versions used as derogatory terms. However, all these terms have initially been used simply to identify, acknowledge, and distinguish diverse identities that were naturally present in society. Understanding the etymology and original meanings of these words allows us to use this language to create understanding rather than hostility.


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