The term “non-binary” has started to become a mainstay of 21st century vocabulary, especially now that people are becoming more educated about LGBTQ issues. However, the idea of a gender non-conforming person has been around for thousands of years. Various cultures have traditions that blur the line between masculinity and femininity, often manifesting in a harmonious combination of the two.
In this article, you’ll learn about three non-binary people in history who were so ahead of their time that they make our modern world look old school in comparison.
Queen Hatshepsut of Ancient Egypt
Anyone familiar with the history of ancient Egypt may have heard of its 18th Dynasty pharaoh, or “the king herself,” Queen Hatshepsut. Throughout the 3,000 year history of ancient Egyptian civilization, its pharaohs have been predominantly male. Hatshepsut is the second female pharaoh on record, but the way her gender identity is depicted through carvings and art suggests it’s not as clear cut as it seems.
While art that depicts Hatshepsut as strictly female does exist, there are also a number that depict her as male. In many of these statues, she is carved with a false beard while wearing clothes typically worn by kings. It is important to note that it was no secret that Hatshepsut was female, so these sculptural designs were very intentional.
The blur between masculine and feminine even goes beyond its physical representations. In Khnum’s pottery wheel, the chief god Amun gives Khnum instructions to form Hatshepsut out of clay to be placed in her mother’s womb. Amun refers to Hatshepsut as a “daughter” and uses female pronouns. The artifact then shows Khnum creating her with his potter’s wheel, but she is depicted as a young boy. So even when the gods were tricked into talking about her, she was not defined as asexual – instead, being both male and female.
The Universal Public Friend
The Universal Public Friend was an 18th century American preacher who traveled throughout the Northeastern United States. Born Jemima Wilkinson, the Friend and her siblings were previously disowned by the Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers.
When the friend was in his mid-twenties, he suffered from a serious illness. Running a high fever and nearing death, they reported receiving revelations from God who said there was “room, room, room, in many mansions, my friend.” They went on to say that Jemima Wilkinson had in fact passed away and been accepted into heaven. During this time, their body reincarnated as “Publick Universal Friend”. They have since renounced their birth name as well as any gendered pronouns.
The 18th century United States did not have the vocabulary or the culture at the time to call it non-binary. In fact, many writers of the time went against their wishes and outright portrayed them as strictly female. Some even went so far as to accuse them of being fraudsters. Today, the Friend is considered by many to be a central figure in transgender and non-binary history.
Compared to Western ideals, notions surrounding gender are far less strict in many Eastern and Indigenous cultures even today. A prime example of this fluidity is Native American Zuni artist We’wha. Born as a man in 1849 in New Mexico, Whe’wa was recognized by their community as a “lhamana”. In Zuni culture, lhamanas are biologically male people who take on roles typically performed by women.
We’wha wore a combination of traditional male and female clothing. They were taught skills largely attributed to men, such as weaving. However, they also learned other skills mainly practiced by women, such as ceramics and pottery.
In addition to having varied skills in crafts, We’wha also participated in Zuni societies which were generally gender specific. They performed with the male kachina society, a male group that performed ritual dances in traditional costume. At the same time, they were also part of the medicine society, a group of women who acted as healers for the tribe.
We’wha’s exposure to the many skills and traditions of their culture, unrestricted by gender roles, has allowed them to become a remarkable and highly celebrated individual in Zuni culture and society. When anthropologist Matilde Coxe Stevenson visited their tribe in 1879, she described Whe’wha as “the smartest person in the pueblo” and that their “strong character made his word the law among men and women” .
The idea of non-binary individuals seems to have been a historically difficult concept to grasp in Western culture. It’s only very recently that more and more people are beginning to understand that gender lines can be blurred. Gender roles are becoming less of a rule as more and more people challenge social norms surrounding gender identity.
Aside from gender fluidity, the common denominator between these three historical figures is their unflinching defiance of the social norms of their time. They were able to accomplish so much, and without having to compromise their identity.