With Leticia Dadalto and Aró
September 2020

Originally Published in AA Files 77
Transience today refers to a quality of temporary existence; of passing by; of ephemerality. Etymologically, the word is composed of ‘trans’, meaning ‘across’, and ‘ire’, meaning ‘to go’. To be transient means to go across, and exists between the words ‘cis’, ‘on this side of’, and trans, ‘across’. The transient exists within the act of crossing and not resting at any given destination.

The Iban people are one of the many indigenous communities in Borneo. Young Iban men are sometimes visited in their dreams by the sibling deities Menjaya Manang Raja and Ini Inda. While asleep, the individual would see himself wearing a bekain, an item of clothing normally worn by women; with his hair is braided into a besanggol, a hairstyle normally sported by women, fully embodying the typical role of an Iban woman. The dream was a calling to become a manang bali, a gender nonconforming shaman, or else face suffering, illness or death.

Upon waking, the man would be initiated into his new role. Arriving at the ceremony wearing men’s attire, a coconut would be split on his head to facilitate his entry into the spirit realm, wherein his mind could be cleansed by the spirits, who would impart him with their wisdom. Gold dust would be rubbed into his eyes to grant him the ability to see semengat (souls) and hantu (spirits), and barbs inserted into his fingers to enable him to catch them. His chest would be pierced by an arrow to soften his heart and open it up to compassion for those who are suffering.

Once the newly initiated manang bali returned to ordinary reality, they would remove their male clothing, braid their hair and wear the bekain that they envisioned in their dream. They abandoned their past lives and lived socially as women, eventually marrying men. These shaman inhabited both the physical and spirit world equally, and were neither male nor female. Their unique ability to fluidly pass between and interact with multiple states was highly revered, as they are able to perform pelian, saut and nampok healing rituals and bring wisdom from the spirit world to their community.

In contemporary society, manang bali no longer exist. Once regarded with esteem, they became a source of shame for the Iban people after contact with British colonists was established. The third gender category was ridiculed by Western anthropologists, and the Iban people learned to shun their spiritual healers. With the mass conversion of indigenous peoples in Borneo to Christianity and Islam, the spiritual practices of this community have now become rare. The loss of the manang bali has meant not only the loss of gender plurality in the culture, but also the loss of connection to the spirit realm and its wisdom.

In Western societies, non-binary genders are perceived to have emerged relatively recently. However, they have existed for a long time in societies around the world. Many third gender people performed a social role as spiritual healers and shamans such as the manang bali, the Achnucek of the Kodiak people in Alaska and the Inkosi ygbatfazi of the amaZulu (Zulu) people of southern Africa. Many would be temporarily embodied during rituals such as خول‎ (Khawal) in Egypt and კინტო (Kinto) in Georgia. In some cultures, third gender people were acknowledged to exist but did not have any specific social role, such as กะเทย (Kathoey) in Thailand, Quetho of Tewa People in North America and whakawahine of the Māori people in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

The modern ascription of gender according to biological sex can in large part be attributed to the European Enlightment period, during which it became a common practice for artists and scientists to dissect cadavers and explore their interiors. Such endeavours found significant biological differences between the most commonly observed human bodies – male and female – and called into question the prevailing one-sex model, which asserted these were simply variations of the same sex.

With new information found and a hypothesis on the two-sex model, a research project was formed with the objective to confirm this idea, not dispute it. Scientists from France and Germany delineated research guidelines across Europe to analyse bodies and divide their sex characteristics in two groups. Hormone levels, brain size, body mass, bone structure, vein anatomy and every other aspect of the human body were divided into two categories: male and female. Variances outside of these standards, including trans and intersex bodies, were pathologised.

The quantification of differences between the sexes, justified and administered by science as the hegemonic adjudicator of truth, enabled the assignation of roles within the new, industrialised society that was evolving in Europe at the time. Such differences had commonly been used to determine social responsibilities by civilisations before the Enlightenment, however it was at that point that intellectual capacity was attributed to internal, biological characteristics. As a consequence, a social hierarchy was created that determined who had access to education, citizenship, work and capital.

As the colonial project developed throughout the 18th century, its impact spread across the globe. The two-sex model and, later, eugenics were used to justify gendered and racialised violence in the colonies and across Europe. Different genders and sexualities that exist outside of heteronormativity were criminalised. In the case of the English colonies in the African continent, Black bodies and Black culture were sexualised and used as a scientific ‘experiment’ in order to justify the subjugation of Black People. A notable example was the dehumanization of Saartije Baartman paraded in freak shows around London and Europe because of the proportions of her body. After her death in 1815 her body was still in exhibition until 1974 and was only buried by her family in 2002.

With the development of new technologies throughout the 20th century, however, the binary understanding of gender and race upon which such violence was predicated has been debunked, and intersex variations has been recognised as a third category of sex. Moreover, the diversity of hormone levels discovered even within each of the binary groups, female and male, emphasise that received gender roles are arbitrary – sex is independent from, and not part of, gender identity.

Those who identify outside of binary gender norms embody transience. Transience in the form of gender fluidity was once normal, but has since been side-lined by an attempt to rationalise something that was never rational in the first place. The idea that third genders and non-binary and trans identities are a recent development that emerged from ‘the West’ is historically inaccurate. As a result of colonialism, we have lost not only our collective acceptance of non-binary gender categories in society, but also the traditional role that such people have played as teachers within communities. Transient beings who embody multiple social roles and connect the physical and spiritual realms are an essential source of wisdom, community building and political progression. The apparent re-emergence of trans and non-binary identities in Western society is both a reclaimation of authentic ways of being and a protest against the hegemonic normalisation of bodies.


Queer Lapis. 2020. A Divinely-Inspired Gender: The Manang Bali Shamans Of Sarawak. [online] Available at:
[Accessed 19 July 2020].
Pratt, C., 2007. An Encyclopedia Of Shamanism. New York, N.Y.: Rosen Pub. Group.

Peletz, M., 2009. Gender Pluralism. New York: Routledge.

Parkinson, J. 2016. The significance of Sarah Baartman. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 July 2020].

Hines, S. 2018. Is gender Fluid? A primer to the 21st Century. London: Thames and Hudson.

Joel, D and Vikhanski, L. 2019 Gender Mosaic. London: Endeavour.

Aslan, R. 2017. Dry-Cleaners of the Soul. Berlin: Circadian.

Gender Plurality
This is by no means a comprehensive list. *denotes that the world may have developed into a slur in contemporary language

  1. Bissu, Calabai and Calalai of the Bugis people
  2. Manang Bali of the Iban people
  3. Nuba peoples of Sudan
  4. Sḫt of Ancient Egypt
  5. خول‎ (Khawal)* of Egypt
  6. კინტო (Kinto) of Georgia
  7. baklâ*, bayot and agi of the Phlllipines
  8. กะเทย (Kathoey) in Thailand
  9. Akava'ine of the Māori people (Kūki 'Āirani)
  10. Whakawahine and tanata ira tane of the Māori people (Aotearoa)
  11. Mukhannathun of the Pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula
  12. Quariwarmi of the Incan people
  13. Faʻafafine and fa'afatama in Samoa
  14. Fakaleitī, leitī and fakatangata in Tonga
  15. Rae-rae and Māhū in Hawai'i
  16. Rae-rae and Māhū in Tahiti
  17. Vaka sa lewa lewa in Fiji
  18. Muxe of the Oaxacan people
  19. Fakafifine in Niuē
  20. Pinapinaaine in Tuvalu
  21. Pinapinaaine in Kiribati
  22. Itijjuaq of the Inuit people
  23. A'yai-kik-ahsi of the Niitsítapi people (North America)
  24. Ninauh-oskitsi-pahpyaki of the Niitsítapi people North America)
  25. Napêw iskwêwisêhot of the Nēhiyawēwin people (North America)
  26. Iskwêw ka napêwayat of the Nēhiyawēwin people (North America)
  27. Ayahkwêw* of the Nēhiyawēwin people (North America)
  28. Înahpîkasoht of the Nēhiyawēwin people (North America)
  29. Iskwêhkân of the Nēhiyawēwin people (North America)
  30. Napêhkân of the Nēhiyawēwin people (North America)
  31. Batée of the Apsáalooke people (North America)
  32. Wíŋtke of the Lakȟóta (North America)
  33. Nádleehi of the Naabeehó and Diné (North America)
  34. Ikwekaazo and ininiikaazo of the Anishinaabeg (North America)
  35. Lhamana of the A:shiwi (North America)
  36. Basir of the Ngaju Dayak
  37. နတ်ကတော် (nat kadaws) of Burma
  38. Pawang of Pre-Islamic Malaya
  39. तृतीयप्रकृति (tritiya-prakrti) of Vedic India
  40. खसुआ (khasuaa) and खुसरा (khusaraa) in Urdu (language) in India and Pakistan
  41. నపుంసకుడు (napunsakudu) in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (India)
  42. కొజ్జ (kojja) in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (India)
  43. మాడ (maada) in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (India)
  44. Thiru nangai, ali, aravanni, aravani and aruvani of the Tamil People
  45. Khusra or jankha of the Punjabi People
  46. ಮಂಗಳಮುಖಿ (mangalamukhi) or ಚಕ್ಕ (chhakka) of Karnataka (India)
  47. Khadra of the Sindhi People
  48. પાવૈયા (pavaiyaa) of the Gujarati people
  49. হিজড়া (hijra) of the Bengali People
  50. Achnucek and shopan of the Aleut and Kodiak peoples (southern Alaska)
  51. Koe’kcuc of the Chukchi people in Siberia
  52. Elxá of the Kwtsaan people (Quechan people of North America)
  53. Haxu’xan of the Hinono'eino people (Arapaho people of North America)
  54. Quetho of Tewa People (North America)
  55. Wi-kovat* of Akimel Oʼotham (Pima people of North America)
  56. Inkosi ygbatfazi of the amaZulu people (southern Africa)
  57. Skesana of the amaZulu people (southern Africa)
  58. Inkotshane of the amaZulu people (southern Africa)
  59. Nkhonsthana of the amaZulu people (southern Africa)
  60. Tinkonkana of the amaZulu people (southern Africa)
  61. Mugawe of the Meru people (Kenya)
  62. Wandarwarad and Wandawande of the Āmara people (Ethiopia)
  63. Esenge and eshenge of the Ovambo people (southern Africa)
  64. Kitesha of the Songye people (Congo)
  65. Ikihindu and ikimaze of Rwanda
  66. Chibados of the Luanda people (Angola)
  67. Ashtime of the Maale people (Ethiopia)