Transgender people may seem like a recent phenomenon, but all periods and cultures have had people who don’t fit into strict gender binary identities.
First, some terms:
Gender is “the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men” (World Health Organization). However, the term sex (in this context) refers only to the biological differences between male and female creatures. As you can see from these definitions, the term gender covers a lot more territory than does the term sex, and includes behavioral, cultural, and psychological traits.
Finally, the American Psychological Association says that transgender is “an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else; gender expression refers to the way a person communicates gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics.” They stress that being transgender is NOT a mental disorder; it is the discrimination and other obstacles that transgender individuals face that causes problems such as anxiety and depression. (Their excellent FAQ also has a number of resources for individuals and families.)
A well-known example of people who do not fit into are the Hijras in South Asia, who are now officially recognized as a third gender by the governments in India and Pakistan. To learn more about Hijras, check out this entry in the glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture. Transgender people have also existed in American culture since Native American societies dominated, although they have been perhaps less well-known even though they are closer to home. For an excellent introduction there is Transgender History in the United States, by Genny Beemyn, director of The Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Alternatively, for a fascinating account of a single person’s life, read The Female Hunter of Long Eddy, by Carolyn Dinshaw, a professor at NYU.
Transgender people are unfortunately subject to a great deal of discrimination, and all too often horrific violence. Caitlyn Jenner‘s courageous transition in the public eye may help to change this.