Two-Spirit and Hijra: The Common Stories Uniting Us

Two-Spirit and Hijra: The Common Stories Uniting Us

November 25, 2022 | Author: Shalaka Laxman

Native Americans have often held members of the LGBTQ+ family in high regard, and the most common term to define gender-fluid people today is to refer to them as ‘Two-Spirit’ people. Rather than the physical body, Native Americans emphasized a person’s ‘spirit’, or character, as being most meaningful. Instead of seeing Two-Spirit individuals as ‘trying to change into the opposite sex’, it is more accurate to understand them as individuals who take on a gender status different from both men and women. This third gender status presents a range of options, from effeminate males or masculine females to androgynous or transgender persons, to those who cross-dress and perform as the other gender. 

The belief within Native American culture is to move away from ‘boxes’ and allow for the reality of diversity in gender and sexual identities. Since everything originates from the spirit world, Two-Spirit persons are seen as doubly blessed, having both the spirit of a man and a woman. Thus, they celebrate them for having two spirits and view them as spiritually gifted. Rather than ostracizing such individuals, Native American cultures often viewed them as religious leaders and teachers. 

Evidence has shown transgender people have existed around the world and throughout history. The Bakla (Philippines), the Muxe (Zapotec people, Mexico), the Two-Spirit (Native America), and the Hijra (India) were so much more than just being a part of the LGBTQ family; they were community leaders sought after for spiritual guidance. The common factor across all these cultures wasn’t just their celebration of alternative gender identities but the subsequent persecution that followed when their culture did not align with governments or the church. The Two-Spirits and Hijras share even more in common: the persecution of both groups by foreign colonizers who did not understand or accept anything outside of the ‘gender binary’ and instead condemned them as ‘sodomites’. 

Native American beliefs on gender and sexuality contrasted with European hetero-patriarchal views on gender and sexuality. European colonizers who ‘discovered’ North America were bewildered by Two-Spirit indigenous Americans. They perceived homosexuality as sinful and wicked in European cultures. For successful colonization, the colonizers had to remove their fluid gendered structure and instill European hetero-patriarchal ideals into the communities. Over time, indigenous communities internalized these hetero-patriarchal views, which led to the erasure of Two-Spirit stories and the oppression of indigenous women who once held influential roles in their communities. 


Like Two-Spirit people, Hijras have a unique and honoured place in traditional Indian society, which believed them to have the power to instill fertility in couples. India’s size virtually guarantees that the number of transgender people is enormous, even if the fraction of the population that identifies as transgender is small. India has over two million transgender people who belong to a group called the Hijras, a combination of religious sects and castes. Most Hijras are born cisgender males and then transition into their female form when entering their adult life. 

More recently, in India, Hijras are neither considered male nor female, but finally recognized as a ‘third sex’ by the government as of 2014. In the past, Hijras were welcomed in society and viewed as reincarnations of spiritual beings. We see evidence of Hijra culture in ancient Indian scripture, and Hijras also held religious authority and important court positions in Mughal era India. Believed to have the ability to bless, many would seek out Hijras for blessings during important religious ceremonies. 

However, similar to the Native American experience, when the British took over direct rule of India, government officials strived to enforce their western ideas and beliefs on Indians. Lawmakers accomplished this goal by passing ‘moral laws’ that banned anything western society viewed as impure and dirty. This included the creation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibited any ‘unnatural offences’ deemed ‘against the order of nature.’ This law subjected Hijras to compulsory registration and strict monitoring for a long time. Even after the Criminal Tribe Act of 1952 that repealed the notification (i.e., denotified the criminal tribal communities), Hijras are still victims of prejudice and excluded from society, stopping them from achieving equal opportunity in education and employment. Hijras are now marginalized and forced to function outside the traditional two genders, instead forming a third gender. While Indians may now acknowledge gender variation, they do not accept the variation socially.

Shalaka Laxman works as a Product Manager in London, focusing on developing sustainable financial products for large corporates. Before moving to London, she previously lived in New York and graduated with a B.S. in Commerce from the University of Virginia in 2014. Outside the day job, she writes a weekly newsletter with the latest developments in the sustainability space and runs By Shax, her own independent, conscious art and homeware brand. Shalaka grew up in Dubai before heading to the U.S. for university and enjoys reading, traveling, and all things cat-related, alongside time with family and friends.