Excitement! Transgender! Skeletons!

So recently a skeleton was found that is approximately 5000 years old, and while it is a male skeleton it is buried in the way traditionally reserved for women. This has archaeologists speculating that it may be a transgender person, or some sort of third sex.

First of all, this is CRAZY COOL science, because this person is 5000 frickin years old and we know something about its gender identity, and second, a lot of reporters are using this as an excuse to say that we’ve found a gay caveman. Problem #1 with this statement is that caveman generally refers to Neanderthals, and this skeleton is not a Neanderthal, and problem #2 with this statement is that gender identity does not determine sexual identity. This seems like a good time to review some basic gender terminology. Sex=what your body biologically is. If you have testicles and a penis, your sex is male, if you have a vagina and breasts, your sex is female. If you have a mixture of these, you are intersex. Gender=how you present yourself to the world through cultural and social signs. If you play with dolls, like pink, wear makeup and try to speak in a high pitched voice, you are presenting a female gender. Orientation is who you are attracted to, and it is not a hard and fast kind of a thing. Most people exist somewhere on a spectrum, with attractions to both men and women, although probably MORE attraction to one or the other (check out the Kinsey study for more info). Additionally, someone’s gender and sexual orientation can interact in all sorts of interesting ways. If someone was born as a biological male, but presents as a female and is attracted to males, that person would probably consider herself heterosexual, not homosexual.

So to look at a skeleton that simply presents as a different gender from its sex can tell us nothing about who that person was attracted to while alive, or how it presented socially. Some cultures have what’s called a “third sex”, which is either something along the lines of transgender, gay or androgynous. But simply knowing that a skeleton identified outside of the typical male/female dichotomy does not tell us anything about where that person DOES identify. There are oodles of ways to identify. Male/female/other does not cut it.

So instead of jumping to conclusions like gay caveman, I vote we take the opportunity to understand as much as possible about other gender and sex constructions in an ancient culture as possible.

Cause wow that’s cool.


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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. April 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm —

    oh my gosh thanks for posting this! this mischaracterization has been bugging me for DAYS.

  2. April 11, 2011 at 4:00 pm —

    wow, that is really interesting. Thanks for sharing. On a semi-unrelated note, this was actually one of the things that really bugged me about the vid Mindy posted a couple of days ago. Not that I watched the whole thing, but it seemed to be dealing with masculinity/femininity in a strict binary, completely denying the existence of transgender/androgynous people, or people who perform their gender differently.

    Anyway, thanks!

  3. April 11, 2011 at 4:28 pm —

    lauren, there was so much wrong with that video. we could do a series on it.

  4. April 12, 2011 at 5:42 am —

    “…one of the…” I should have added (many).

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