Brave New (Gender) World

The U.S. is lagging behind … Nepal?

Last week, the director of Nepal’s Central Bureau of Statistics announced that starting with May’s national census, citizens of that nation will be able to specify a category of gender besides male or female: “other.” The new option comes in the wake of a decision two years ago by Nepal’s Supreme Court that required the government to enact laws guaranteeing the rights of gays, lesbians, transsexuals and bisexuals.

Nepal seems an odd place for this particular revolution to begin, but it turns out the Indian subcontinent has a long history of recognizing a third gender; its hijiras, who number around six million, don’t consider themselves either female or male. There are reports that India will add a third-gender option to its census form next year. Plenty of other cultures make allowances for other-than-bifurcated gender identification in various ways, including Thailand and Indonesia. Worldwide, a number of different creation myths involve a third category of being. In a famous Sanskrit epic, the hero, Rama, as he’s followed into exile by the people of his village, turns and instructs the “men and women” to go home. When he returns, years later, he finds villagers who identified as neither gender still rooted where he left them; they hadn’t known what else to do.

Can you imagine the uproar if the U.S. Census Bureau proposed adding a “third gender” category? We’d all get to hear Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck rage on about end times and dog-on-man and Adam and Eve. But there is something very odd about shoehorning the vast spectrum of human gender identity into just two categories. It leaves those who don’t fit traditional male and female roles in the same limbo as Rama’s followers, feeling excluded and unsure where to go.

According to a fascinating report from the Pew Research Center, the U.S. Census Bureau in the mid-1800s had three racial categories: “White,” “Black” and “Mulatto.” “Chinese” and “Indian” were added in 1880, and “Japanese” in 1890, along with “Quadroon” and “Octaroon.” It wasn’t until 1990 that the category heading was changed from “Color or Race” to just “Race.” In last year’s census, respondents could choose from among 15 different options, including “Some other race”—with a write-in space.

Recognition matters. Nepal gets that. Maybe America will, too, someday.