Gender in Bugis Society: If Gender Is A Social Construct, Why Only Two?
By Lyssa Gold
This month’s topic will have a bit of history and a bit of amateur anthropology (apologies), but since it’s my column I guess I can write what I want! We’re low on warnings this time around, but please be aware of; • Allusions to persecution of gender non-conforming people If you’re okay with that, then please read on!
This time, I’m going to talk about the Bugis people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and more specifically, their understanding of gender. They have lived in this region for at least 4,500 years, and their experience of gender is far more expansive than the binary that dominates other societies, perceptions that have been present in their history for centuries, even playing a major role in their origin narratives. We might see the fairly recent increase in the acknowledgment of gender diversity as a purely western concept, but in reality, we are trailing in the wake of many other, non-western, societies who have far more established ideas about gender beyond the binary.
In Bugis society there are five genders, and gender is an intersection of multiple “pieces” of a person, each equally important to understanding gender identity. The body is one of these factors. Sex is important but doesn’t decide gender. Bodies can be differing degrees of male and female, so someone AFAB (assigned female at birth) isn’t assumed to be a cis woman. Spirituality complements this, since the soul, which is intrinsic to gender and indisputably decided by God, might differ from sex. Finally, how a person presents themselves, their dress, actions, the social roles they adopt, their occupation and how they express erotic desire, are all part of a person’s gender identity.
Cis women (makkunrai) and men (oroané) exist within the Bugis gender spectrum, and both genders adhere to traditional ideals of masculinity and femininity. These concepts, and their performance, are also integral to Bugis understanding of gender. Calalai, calabai and bissu, the three further genders, exist beyond this binary, but relate to it so far as each gender expression subverts or goes beyond these traditional perceptions.
Calalai are AFAB people who present in a traditionally masculine way – influencing how they dress and act, their jobs and their relationships, with feminine women who they might adopt children with. Complementing this is a spiritual aspect that is male, however they don’t identify as or wish to be a man or woman; “Well, I wouldn’t want to be a man. Not that I could be with this body...but a woman? Nah...marrying a man, wearing uncomfortable clothes, being refined [halus]. No thanks!”.
Calalai’s female bodies are an equally important part of their gender and what makes them calalai, and allow them to occupy a social space that men and women cannot, such as being able to spend time with their cis-woman partners outside of marriage.
Calabai take on many of the social roles expected of women and present themselves in a hyper-feminine way, which subverts traditional Bugis ideals of femininity.
Being assigned male at birth means they are not constrained by the same societal expectations as cis women: a calabai could go out at night alone, but for a cis woman this would defy Bugis assumptions of how they should act. Like calalai, there is a spiritual aspect to their gender, which is female, although they don’t identify as women. Specific social roles have been developed by calabai that only they can take on, such as the organisation of weddings.
The final gender is bissu, which has a lot of spiritual and historical significance in Bugis society. Bissu are spiritual leaders who embody both male and female aspects and are considered both man and woman. Alongside and because of this duality, they are both human and divine, enabling them to be possessed by spirits, an important part of the ceremonies they carry out. As one Bugis puts it; “We don’t know if God is male or female, so only someone who is half man and half woman can be possessed and mediate the spirit world.”
As important members of their community, bissu would serve at court as advisors, performing ceremonies for coronations, births and deaths. In Bugis origin narratives, they descended to earth with creator deities to bring life to the planet. The number of present-day bissu is greatly reduced due to persecution over the past century, but community efforts to try and reverse this damage show the importance of their role in Bugis society.
Bugis ideas of gender challenge many preconceptions of what gender can be and how sex relates (or doesn’t) to this. They are formed in an entirely different context to our own notions of gender, and exposing ourselves to and understanding this and other perspectives on gender identity can only be a good thing.
If you want to know more about gender, these are some useful charities and resources for the trans community! • Mermaids have a really excellent website with information on identity and trans issues:
• The Beaumont Society are the oldest transgender support group in the UK, and provide resources and support for the trans community:
• Scottish Trans provide links to trans and intersex groups, within and without the UK, as well as a wealth of resources:
• TransUnite have a really useful list of groups for gender variant people across the UK that you can search to find your closest one, including youth groups:
If you’re interested in reading more, then these are some of the resources I used in researching this article. Sharyn Graham Davies has done a *lot* of work on this topic so if you’re really interested then look up some of her work!
• It’s Like One Of Those Puzzles: Conceptualising Gender Among Bugis (Sharyn Graham Davis, 2004) - available free on Researchgate
• Gender Diversity in Indonesia: Sexuality, Islam and Queer Selves (Sharyn Graham Davis, 2010). I got a lot of this through Google Books, or pester the library to buy more queer books, they take recommendations! • Negotiating Gender: Calalai in Bugis Society (Sharyn Graham Davis, 2001) Free online