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What is the 4th gender?

In recent years, there has been increasing discussion around expanding beyond the traditional gender binary of male and female to recognize a broader spectrum of gender identities. This has included the concept of a “4th gender” emerging in some contexts. But what exactly does this term mean?

The Gender Binary

For much of recorded human history, gender has traditionally been viewed as a binary system, with two distinct and opposite genders: male and female. This binary has been reinforced through social norms, laws, culture, religion, medicine, language, and other institutions over centuries.

The gender binary classifies people into one of two genders based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Sex refers to biological characteristics such as chromosomes, hormones, internal and external anatomy. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, norms, behaviors, and identities of men and women.

In a binary view of gender, there are only two possible options for gender identity: man or woman. People are expected to align with the gender identity that matches the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, someone assigned male at birth is expected to have a masculine gender identity as a man.

Beyond the Gender Binary

In recent decades, the gender binary has been increasingly challenged by feminism, the LGBTQ+ movement, and an improved understanding of gender identity. There is growing recognition that gender exists on a diverse spectrum rather than just two opposing categories.

Nonbinary and transgender identities demonstrate that gender is not always limited to the sex assigned at birth. Nonbinary refers to any gender identity that falls outside of the gender binary, existing somewhere in between or beyond the two categories of man and woman. Common nonbinary identities include genderfluid, agender, bigender, and genderqueer. Transgender refers to people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.

The emergence of these nonbinary identities shows that gender cannot be neatly divided into just two categories. For many, the traditional gender binary is restrictive and does not accurately represent their authentic gender. Recognizing nonbinary genders validates people’s lived experiences of gender diversity.

What is the Fourth Gender?

Against this cultural backdrop, the concept of a “4th gender” has emerged in some contexts as another term for nonbinary gender. It represents an additional gender category outside of the original two in the gender binary.

The notion of a 4th gender is not new. Various cultures throughout history have acknowledged more than two genders. For example, across South Asia, the hijra or third gender community has existed for thousands of years, though its recognition has varied over time. The Indigenous Māhū of Hawaii have traditionally embodied dual male and female spirit and served important roles in the culture.

However, the specific idea of a 4th gender in Western culture has gained more attention recently with the increased visibility of nonbinary identities. It emphasizes that just expanding to three categories of male, female and other is still limiting. Gender encompasses a spectrum too broad to be condensed into just a few discrete boxes. Adding a 4th gender is a symbolic way to move beyond the gender binary without confining nonbinary identities.

Nonbinary Identities Associated with 4th Gender

While no single term can capture the diversity of nonbinary experiences, some identities commonly considered under the 4th gender umbrella include:

  • Agender – having no gender identification or neutral gender
  • Bigender – having two distinct gender identities that may be man and woman, two nonbinary genders, or a binary and nonbinary gender
  • Genderfluid – having a flexible or fluctuating gender identity that may change over time or in different contexts
  • Genderqueer – rejecting the gender binary for a more fluid conceptualization of gender
  • Third gender – a catchall term for nonbinary gender in cultures with established three gender systems

People may claim a 4th gender identity to affirm that they fall outside the man-woman gender binary. It can indicate an unspecified nonbinary gender. Or some use 4th gender as a temporary placeholder while they explore and understand their gender.

Criticisms of the 4th Gender Concept

While intended as empowering, the idea of a 4th gender also has its limitations and critiques. Some common concerns include:

  • It may oversimplify the diversity of nonbinary identities into a single category
  • The number implies nonbinary genders could be neatly counted and classified
  • The concept remains rooted in Western culture and does not fit all global understandings of gender
  • Categorizing genders can constrain fluid identities
  • Creating additional gender boxes risks misgendering those who do not identify with them

Using any umbrella term for such a diverse community inevitably has challenges. There is debate around whether expanding the gender options is beneficial, or whether it is better to fully move beyond categories and embrace gender ambiguity.

Legal Recognition

Some governments are beginning to legally recognize nonbinary gender identities, including the 4th gender. This allows people to select a nonbinary gender option on legal documents like identification cards, birth certificates, passports, and driver’s licenses.

Countries with 4th gender options on government IDs include:

Country 4th Gender Option
India O
Pakistan X
Nepal O
Germany Divers
Canada X
Argentina X

Having official documentation that matches their gender identity grants nonbinary people greater safety, dignity, and access to opportunities in society. More governments adding 4th gender options signals increasing acceptance of gender diversity.

In Pop Culture

The 4th gender has gained some representation in popular media as well. For example:

  • In 2020, DC Comics introduced a nonbinary “4th gender” character named Rebis in the graphic novel The Sandman.
  • The USA Network show Royal Pains (2009-2016) featured a recurring nonbinary character named DK who went by 4th gender pronouns.
  • The sci-fi franchise Star Trek has explored nonbinary characters and 4th gender identities in several spinoff novels.
  • The video game Cyberpunk 2077 includes nonbinary gender options and uses 4th gender language in the character creation screen.

Seeing nonbinary characters and 4th gender themes in fiction reinforces to audiences that gender diversity beyond the binary exists. It promotes acceptance when portrayed positively through storytelling.

Inclusive Language

Using inclusive language helps validate 4th gender identities. Here are tips for being respectful:

  • Use gender-neutral pronouns like they/them when you don’t know someone’s gender identity
  • Avoid gendered words like sir/ma’am, businessman, mankind
  • Introduce yourself with your gender pronouns to normalize the practice
  • Listen to how nonbinary people describe themselves and mirror that language
  • Correct yourself quickly if you misgender someone and move on

Small acts like introducing gender-inclusive language into everyday conversations can make nonbinary people feel welcomed and accepted rather than excluded.

Health Considerations

Nonbinary individuals have unique experiences navigating healthcare systems designed around the gender binary. It’s important for providers to avoid making assumptions and learn how best to support nonbinary patients.

Recommendations include:

  • Have intake forms with inclusive gender identity options beyond just male/female
  • Train staff on using correct names, pronouns and language
  • Listen to each patient’s specific needs regarding gendered treatment
  • Recognize gender-affirming care looks different for nonbinary patients than transgender binary patients
  • Ensure physical exams and procedures are conducted sensitively
  • Push back against binary medical norms by accommodating gender diversity

Adjusting clinical environments and practices to be more inclusive of nonbinary genders leads to better care, trust, and health outcomes.


The 4th gender highlights that gender is not confined to just two options of male or female. It represents a symbolic challenge to the restrictive gender binary. However, it also has limitations in encompassing the full diversity of nonbinary identities and experiences. People should be given the freedom to describe their gender in their own terms without constraints. Moving beyond classifying gender into definitive boxes is necessary for true inclusion and acceptance of the gender spectrum.