top of page

Alternate* Roles

Lie: There are two genders that always match sex. People are only attracted to one gender. Those who fall outside these categories are rare, unnatural and are not important to larger society.  


Gender, sex, and sexuality are fluid despite western norms that are enforced and reproduced in daily life. Think about transgender people who resist gender norms, those who are men or women, and those who do not fit into either category. Queer people challenge sexual expectations, including but not limited to gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual people. They all inhabit alternate roles that go against the cisgender-heterosexual norm. 


Alternate roles are common in all cultures and people who claim them experience varied levels of acceptance in their communities. Some roles are completely accepted and celebrated while others are limited to specific spaces and face hostility. All alternate roles and identities are relative to the cultures they exist in and the way they are understood is dependent on how gender, sex, and sexuality are viewed in that culture. It is important to remember these roles are not static, they change over time and are affected by shifts in society.


Mola Depicting Battle with Giant Swordfish 


San Blas Islands (Panama), 20th century

Logan Museum of Anthropology

Omeggid Wearing Molas They Made

San Blas Islands (Panama), 2019

Taken by photographer Carlo Bevilacqua

Among the Cuna, a family’s income can be earned by selling molas made by women. The mola blouse (above left) is part of women’s dress and designs often include political symbols and inspiration from nature, folklore, and daily life. Wearing and making molas is exclusively done by women and is a way for them to maintain their agency and ethnic identity. In addition to cisgender women, omeggid (above right) also participate in the mola tradition. 


Omeggid are male-bodied people who do typical women's work and have relationships with men and women.  Omeggid usually express tendencies to a female role at a young age and are allowed to pursue this. In a society where women’s work is often seen as more important than men’s work. Having an omeggid in the family is seen as an opportunity.


Group of Women Who Do Mati Work 

Suriname, 1920

From Gloria Wekker’s (2006) ethnography to supplement fieldwork in Suriname

Mati is a role claimed by working-class Afro-Surinamese women who reject marriage and 

engage in sexual relationships with men and women. They often have multiple partners at the same time, some are long term relationships and others short. It is understood as more of a behavior than a fixed identity. This is why someone is not called a mati, but said they do mati work or have mati relationships. 


Accepted publicly, mati work is a way for women to support one another, exchanging money and other resources, through sexual obligations. Mati relationships are often between a young woman and an older woman. Although woman who do mati work are able to support themselves and their families through their relationships with women, sexual relations with men are also seen as important since motherhood is integral to womanhood.


Kris Sword and Sheath

Unidentified Cultural Group, possibly Bugis

Java (Indonesia), 19th/20th century

Logan Museum of Anthropology


Bissu Performing Ma’giri (self-stabbing ritual)

Indonesia, 1998

Taken by taken by Sharyn G. Davies during her fieldwork

For the Bugis, certain objects, called arajang, have divine power and are used in ceremonies. These include swords called kris (above left). Spirits can only be called into kris and other arajang by bissu, one of five Bugis gender roles. Bissu fall in the middle of the gender spectrum, equal amounts of maleness and femaleness give them great power. This power enables them to perform an important religious role, they were central to royal rituals, weddings, and the care of arajang.

Although the role of bissu has changed, they still use kris in ma’giri’, a self-stabbing ritual (above right). Bissu lightly stab themselves with the kris to prove their possession by a spirit when performing blessings. Their role has also shifted to focus on participation in film, stage plays and weddings while maintaining some of their traditional religious roles. Instead of being a target of hostility, some alternate roles are sources of power.


Finocchio’s Club Drag Show Program

San Francisco (USA), 1982

From JD Doyle Archives through Digital Transgender Archive


Paris Is Burning (1990) Poster

New York City (USA), 1990

Film Directed by Jennie Livingston on drag houses in Harlem in the mid-to-late 1980s

Drag is a form of art and self expression that was at the center of the U.S. queer rights movement in the 1980s and 90s. Drag balls (above left) are spaces where queer people express gender, sexuality, and racial identities while resisting oppression. Many performers are part of drag houses or gay families (above right). These serve as spaces of community for poor queer people of color and provides economic and social support. 

Despite the importance of people of color in the queer movement, the 'default' gay person is often imagined as a white gender-conforming man. This is due to the purposeful whitening of the gay rights movement instead of understanding it as part of a larger civil rights movement. The mainstream gay rights movement is 'white-centered' and often neglects issues of race and class. It has become about individual visibility, equality within oppressive institutions, and replicating the normative nuclear family. It is necessary to celebrate and center the most vulnerable queer people and make room for all kinds of ways of being queer. 

bottom of page