My favorite bit of the Abhidhamma is the first paragraph: Phenomena that are skilful, phenomena that are unskilfull, phenomena that are undesignated.. Actually, this seemingly innocuous phrase emerged from the debates in ancient India about the nature of the Dhamma: can we describe everything as dyads—as pairs of opposites or complements—or do we need to acknowledge a “third”. The Theravadins opted to include the “third”, here said to be things that are “undesignated”, that is, not describable as either good or bad.
This is good. Dyads get all rigid and crusty. They become dogmas; literally black and white. So here, as often in Buddhism, we meet the mysterious “third”, somehow not quite fitting in to the normal scheme of things.
This is not merely a problem of categorization. The existence of a “leftover” is essential for Awakening: Nibbana is among those things that are “undesignated”. It is beyond good and evil, and its existence signifies that an escape from the duality is possible.
The same is true on more mundane levels, such as gender. Everywhere we go, we are subtly conditioned to think of gender as binary; signs on bathrooms, clothes, idioms like “he/she”, and so on, with all the connotations and stereotypes that go along with these.
Yet this, like all dyads, undersells the truth. Gender is far more complex than just two. There are gay people, whose sexual orientation does not agree with the stereotype. There are transsexual people, who identify with a gender other than that assigned at birth, and who may seek to change their gender via surgery. There are intersex people, who have physical attributes that are not readily assignable as either male or female. There are asexual people, who simply have no sexual interest. And I am sure there are many other variations. And of course, all of these things may interact, and change, and be fluid and uncertain.
But what is certain is that these people are all, you know, people. They have jobs and loves and losses and lives, just like anyone else. But they have something that many others don’t: they have to endure a constant discrimination, an exclusion and marginalization that pervades every aspect of life.
I am a very privileged person. I’m white, male, middle class, from a developed country. I don’t know what it’s like to be harassed for being who I am. I don’t know what it’s like to live your whole life being told you’re different, weird, a freak. But I imagine it’s not very nice. So I have to listen to what others say to know what discrimination feels like.
It’s even worse when you come to religion. Here we are, approaching the realm of the spiritual, a place we come to because we believe in something better; because we want to be lifted up. Yet we meet, here again, the same dreary, boring discrimination we’ve found elsewhere; except now it comes from God, or from the Buddha, or from Allah. Terrific. That’s just so helpful.
Why is it that religions seem to be the bastion of the most repressive forms of discrimination? I think it comes down to order. Recall the anthropology of Levi Strauss; he talked about how tribes negotiate ambiguous dualities through such things as the kinship systems. Who can we have sex with? This is one of the basic questions that cultures have to answer, as soon as they create structures larger than an extended family group.
Culture arises from this imperative; negotiation of sexual partners is one of the key concerns of all ancient mythology. And “third gender” people don’t fit neatly into this either/or narrative. They become defined as “other” by culture; notice how animals don’t have this kind of discrimination. In more developed cultures, there is a mythic narrative that explicitly defines the acceptable roles of male and female; this is sorted out, for example, in Genesis.
How that happens depends on the culture. It is, of course, entirely possible to include the “third” as part of how humanity is “in the beginning”, and some cultures in fact do this. In India, traditionally at least, there has been a greater tendency to be inclusive of diverse sexualities, and people of third genders have often been ascribed a special sacred role. These days, with the rise of a more narrow-minded Hindutva mentality, such ideas are becoming displaced, under the influence of the more rigid and dogmatic monotheistic religions.
Religions have inherited the role of sustaining this kind of order. Notice how it goes: first there is a statistical generalization (most people fit into a cisgender male or female role); then there is a normative assertion (cisgender masculinity and femininity are the only acceptable forms of gender and sexuality). That normative assertion is then forever in battle with reality. Listening to Catholic and Anglican bishops insist that there is and can only ever be one form of marriage, I was left wondering whether these good gentlemen had ever met an actual human being.
But religions should be doing much more than telling us what is right and wrong; in fact ethics is really tangential to religion. The real purpose of a true religious or spiritual path is to point to a greater or a higher sense of meaning; a value that changes all values. For Buddhists, this is Nibbana; for Christians, God, and so on. So it is inherent in the very nature of the spiritual path that there must be a “third”, beyond good and evil.
And to point this out, to embody it in human culture, has been one of the traditional roles of third gender persons, whether in ancient Greece, China, or India. Living on the edges, they are a reminder of the limitations of our cultural norms. They show us that dyads are never perfect.
In modern times, this dynamic is playing out in new ways. We no longer wish to assign people special roles, whether for good or bad, based on a sacred text; instead we want to empower people to find themselves, to grow and live in the best way that they can. And third gender people, by speaking out and letting us know of their lives and their sufferings, reveal for us some of the myriad ways we are bound by culture and convention, limiting the expression of our humanity. This is not just a theory or an ancient sacred ideal; it is a powerful force that has changed, and is changing, our world for the better.
It is sad but true: we usually have to suffer before we start to question. I hope our world is moving, slowly and uncertainly, towards a more inclusive ethic, one that values all humans—and non-humans. It will take time. One thing is sure: this will not be driven by those, like me, who have much. It will be driven by those who suffer. And we owe a special debt of gratitude to all those courageous people who do not fit neatly into the categories that our cultures have decided on, who speak out and who change things for the better.