Anthropologists have long been fascinated by cultures which recognize more than two genders (see, for instance, Kessler & McKenna, 1978; Malinowski, 1929; Martin & Voorhies, 1975; Mead, 1950). Symbolic organizations which show different, multidimensional societal compositions other than the Western sex-gender-sexuality-system have been used to demonstrate that binary sex_ gender is not a universal and obvious biological fact and, as such, that Western conceptualizations of sex_gender are dependent on a range of disciplinary cultural, symbolic, and structural regimes. Ethnological findings were thought to challenge the supposed universality of the heteronormative and dichotomous order in Western societies. These ethnological endeavors can be read as the attempt to prove or disprove the concordance between sex and gender. In this context a specific notion of the Third, as a different category than the ‘first’ sex (male) and the ‘second’ sex (female),1 has had a revival for mediation of knowledge on sex, gender, and sexuality. It is this configuration of the Third that will be of interest in this excursus. I argue that the various attempts to fill the concept of the Third with a meaning have taken different forms throughout time. In recent anthropological research, however, the Third has been occupied with the process of cross-cultural intersexualization. The Third as a category has recently been invigorated by a variety of researchers coming from different backgrounds and disciplines carrying different political and/or academic agendas. The Third has specifically re-appeared in ethnological research as an overall term for an array of diverse forms of human experiences and social, cultural, and bodily existence (e.g, Herdt, 1994; Martin & Voorhies, 1975). It has been applied to designate and name the relations between experience and socio-cultural and bodily existence-to interrogate what Westerners understand with the term identity. Several forms of living and expression have been put in the same category as the Third. Introductory anthropology textbooks commonly cite the hijra of India, the berdache/Two-Spirit of native North America, the xanith of the Arabian peninsula, and the female husbands of Western Africa as examples of a third sex_ third gender (Cucchiari, 1981; Herdt, 1994; Ortner, 1981; Roscoe, 1994, 2000). The concept of the Third has been applied with a variety of different meanings and could be described as a concept in search of a referent. In this excursus I focus on the history of the
berdache and the Two-Spirit movement,2 which re-claimed this history to create something new. In this excursus, I first highlight anthropological research which uses the berdache as an example of a Third. Hereby, I draw on the etymology of the term berdache to exemplify the use of an empty signifier that has traveled through centuries and continents to be rested on different bodies and identities. I chose the berdache because researchers nowadays see the positions that persons formerly described as berdache as being rightly put as a third (or fifth or fourth) place in relation to the Western binary sex_gender system. Interestingly, the descriptions of the berdache tend to feature non-normative maleness. This is a recurrent theme of the Third in anthropological research and highly significant in relation to the male bias that can often be found in research into a supposed third sex or third gender. The next paragraph discusses the Two-Spirit movement, which has defeated the foreign (etic/external) term of berdache. Here, I introduce the reader to one notion of the Third, which I do regard as useful (in some theoretical settings) to deconstruct the dichotomous universalized sex-gendersexuality system. Marjorie Garber has elaborated on the option to use a third in the service of irritation that exceeds the dichotomous organization of things and beings. I then briefly touch upon Homi Bhabha’s concept of the third space, which he introduced to delineate the move from an ‘us-them’ dualism to a mutual sense of ‘both/and.’ By drawing on him, I argue that the Two-Spirit movement can undermine the colonizing move of anthropological accounts of the berdache.