The Bugis People of Indonesia Recognize Five Genders, Expanding the Traditional Western Framework
In today’s “queer history from around the world” lesson, we’re diving into the Bugis people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia — an ethnic group who believes that gender exists on a spectrum. There are roughly 3 million Bugis people in South Sulawesi, making them the largest ethnic group in the area. While most are Muslim, many continue to honor pre-Islamic rituals, including their views on gender and sexuality. In fact, the Bugis recognize five separate genders.
Sharyn Graham Davies, an anthropologist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, says, “The Bugis have words for five genders that map onto five ways of being in the world.”
The genders makkunrai and oroani are similar to Western concepts of cis female and cis male. In contrast, calalai are those who are assigned female at birth but take on traditionally male gender roles, and calabai are assigned male at birth but take on female gender roles. In general, neither calalai nor calabai folks have a desire to transition; instead they “are comfortable holding gender identities that are non-binary.”
Lastly, there is the bissu gender, which represents the totality of the gender spectrum. Many of these folks are intersex and occupy a spiritual role for the Bugis people as priests. Bissu “are regarded as embodiments of male, female, mortal and deity combined.”
“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,” says Davies.
Each of these five genders is considered to be essential in Bugis society. The existence of these identities expands our traditional Western gender binary framework, reinforcing the idea that gender does not simply have to be one of two options that is assigned to you.
What do you think of the five genders of the Bugis society?
Image at top: Putu Artana / Alamy