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Gender Expression in East Asian Cultures

Gender Expression in Asian Cultures

Updated: Jan 30

Asian and Pacific Islander (API) identities add a unique layer to the gender identity and expression of queer people. Asia has a rich, diverse, and vibrant history of queerness, particularly regarding life outside of the gender binary.



Samurai and Wakashu by Miyagawa Isshō, early 18th century (Source: JSTOR)

During Japan's Edo period, gender roles encompassed a “third gender:” the Wakashu. Broadly speaking, Wakashu were born-male youths transitioning between childhood and adulthood. However, their role went beyond a transitory phase - they had their own unique rules, conventions, and styles, and occupied their own societal niche. The transitory nature of being a Wakashu was intertwined with sexuality; Wakashu were socially free from the responsibilities of adulthood but were considered sexually mature. As such, they had sex with both males and females, with social rules dictating them taking a more dominant role with women and a submissive one with men. With the rise of Christian/Victorian ethics from exposure to Western ideals during the Meiji period, the gender binary became more strictly defined, and Wakashu were ridiculed, condemned, or ignoredeffectively erasing their societal role.


In Japan today, there is a resurgence of gender expression outside traditional norms. In the Harajuku district of Tokyo, the “jendaresu-kei”, or genderless style, has gained popularity. There is still a long way to go regarding legislation for individuals who don’t conform to the gender binary. Japan's laws for changing your legal gender, for example, are regressive and invasive and operate under the idea that being transgender is a mental illness.



The blurring of the gender binary has a foothold in traditional Chinese opera. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, restrictive gender norms forced opera troupes to be separated by gender, so cross-dressing was necessary to fill gaps in roles. Male actors specializing in playing females were referred to as “nandan”, and were trained to aspire to a feminine ideal. They not only dressed in traditionally feminine clothing, but also were expected to take on the actions, habits, and mindset of a woman both on- and off-stage, occasionally as singing waiters and courtesans. Though this was generally accepted in entertainment, Qing laws criminalized individuals assigned male at birth who lived their lives as women, which could suppress their gender presentation.

Renown nanda Mei Lanfang performing Peking Opera (Source:


Today, for individuals with non-conforming gender identities and expressions, there is no comprehensive anti-discrimination policy, especially one that specifically mentions transgender individuals. Of social institutions, families have the lowest degree of acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals, but there is limited research on public attitudes specifically towards transgender acceptance in China. However, there is growing visibility of transgender individuals, such as Jin Xing, an openly transgender woman, who is one of the most popular talk show hosts in China, and younger generations are growing more accepting.



Indonesia’s pre-colonial era has long been accommodating towards gender diversity. One of the more populous ethnic groups, the Bugis people in South Sulawesi, recognize five genders: man (oroane), woman (makkunrai), male woman (calabai), female man (calalai) and androgynous priest (bissu). Another ethnic group, the Torajan people, recognize a third gender, or to burake tambolang. To burake tambolang played an important role in spiritual tradition, and people would admire and honor a village with one. However, beginning in the 1950s, bissu and calabi individuals faced violent persecution.

Engel, center front, a bissu in the town of Bone in South Sulawesi (Source: Al Jazeera)


Today, people can legally change their gender; however, there is no option to change your legal gender to a third gender. Additionally, legal gender changes can be subject to medical opinion, proof of gender reassignment surgery, and family testimony. Additionally, organizations like Latar Nusa are pushing for greater acceptance of bissu and calabi.



In Hindu, epic texts like Ramayana and Mahabharata feature multiple heroic characters: Shikhandi, (a key figure in the war in Mahabharata), Chitrangada (whose gender changes through the course of the story), and Vishnu (a god in his female form of Mohini), have presented their gender in fluid ways. Hijras, a third gender, also had recognized roles in ancient India. Mughal emperors were generous patrons of them. Hijras are treated with both fear and respect due to their cultural role in Hindu religious ceremonies; a hijra’s blessings would confer fertility, prosperity, and long life on a baby. A hijra’s curse is also taken seriously, so families often welcome hijras in and pay for their services. With the rise of colonialism and Victorian ethics, hijra became villainized.

A group of Hijra in Bangladesh (Source: USAID Bangladesh)


Today, hijra are marginalized in Indian society, though there has been some progress made. In 2014, the landmark Indian Supreme Court case National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) v. Union of India established the legal recognition of the “third gender.” However, the verdict lumps in hijra and transgender individuals, who aren’t necessarily of the same identity. India also has a 2016 transgender bill; however, this bill doesn’t allow an individual to self-identify as trans without medical confirmation.



The Tansug people of the Southern Philippines believed in a third gender called bakla, a Tagalog sexual/gender category that refers to individuals assigned male at birth who exhibit or are suspected of exhibiting sexual and gender non-normative behavior. They can be considered a Filipino “third gender.” Oftentimes, they served as babalayan, or shamans, who were either women or effeminate men called bayog (Tagalog) or asog (Visayan). They had important roles as the healers of both natural and spiritual illness, assisted in rituals for prayer, birth, and death, and overall, were respected members of the community who were held on the same level as the ruling class.

Bakla Protester During Pride March (Source: Arvinjaygaa - Own work)


Today, trans Filipinos face barriers legally in accessing social institutions like education and healthcare and in seeking justice. Though no national laws exist prohibiting cross-gender behavior, individuals still may be turned away from establishments without facing recourse.



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