Asia’s isle of five separate genders

“The Bugis have words for five genders,” explained Sharyn Graham Davies, an anthropologist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, “that map onto five ways of being in the world.”

Davies explained that in Bugis society, makkunrai and oroani correspond to Western concepts of cis female and cis male. Calalai are born with female bodies but take on traditionally male gender roles; they may wear shirts and trousers, smoke cigarettes, wear their hair short and work manual jobs. Calabai are born with male bodies but take on female gender roles, wearing dresses and makeup and growing their hair long. “Many calabai work in beauty salons,” said Neni, a calabai from the village of Segiri, north of Makassar. “We also help to plan weddings and perform at wedding ceremonies.”

Calabai do not impersonate women, Davies explained, but exhibit their own suite of feminine behaviours that would be frowned upon in makkunrai women, like wearing miniskirts, smoking and acting in a more outwardly sexualised manner. Within Bugis society, calabai and calalai people may be disapproved of in some quarters, but they are widely tolerated, even seen as playing an important role in society, and are generally not attacked or otherwise persecuted by their own community.

The fifth Bugis gender is bissu, which is considered neither male nor female but representative of the totality of the gender spectrum. Bissu, like calabai and calalai, display their identity through dress: they often wear flowers, a traditionally feminine symbol, but carry the keris dagger associated with men. Many bissu are born intersex, but the term has implications beyond biology. While Bugis gender is often described as a spectrum, bissu are deemed to be above this classification: spiritual beings who are not halfway between male and female, but rather embody the power of both at once.

“In the early days, the trauma of persecution they had faced meant no-one wanted to become or claim to be bissu,” Lathief said. “They were afraid of being arrested or killed; some were ashamed. Now, after several years, there are many more people who identify as calabai, and more who are proud to be called bissu.”

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