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The Bugis people are the most numerous of the three major ethnic groups of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, with about 3 million people. Most Bugis are Muslim, but many pre-Islamic rites continue to be honoured in their culture, including the view that gender exists on a spectrum. Most Bugis converted from Animism to Islam in the early 17th century; small numbers of Bugis have converted to Christianity, but the influence of Islam is still very prominent in their society.
In contrast to the gender binary, Bugis society recognizes five genders: makkunrai, oroané, bissu, calabai, and calalai. The concept of five genders has been a key part of their culture for at least six centuries, according to anthropologist Sharyn Graham Davies, citing similar traditions in Thailand, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh.
Oroané are comparable to cisgender men, makkunrai to cisgender women, calalai to transgender men, and calabai to transgender women, while bissu are androgynous or intersex and revered shamans or community priests.
In daily social life, the bissu, the calabai, and the calalai may enter the dwelling places and the villages of both men and women.
The bissu belong to one of the five genders of the Bugis. There are divergent theories regarding their definitive origins.
For one to be considered bissu, all aspects of gender must be combined to form a whole. It is believed that you are born with the propensity to become a bissu, revealed in a baby whose genitalia are ambiguous. These ambiguous genitalia need not be visible; a normative male who becomes a bissu is believed to be female on the inside. This combination of sexes enables a 'meta-gender' identity to emerge. However, ambiguous genitalia alone do not confer the state of being a bissu. The person must also learn the language, songs and incantations, and have a gift for bestowing blessings in order to become bissu. They must remain celibate and wear conservative clothes.
In pre-Islamic Bugis culture, bissu were seen as intermediaries between the people and the gods, according to Indonesian anthropologist Professor Halilintar Lathief. Up until the 1940s, the bissu were still central to keeping ancient palace rites alive, including coronations of kings and queens.
Bugis society has a cultural belief that all five genders must coexist harmoniously; but by 2019 the numbers of bissu had declined dramatically, after years of increasing persecution and the tradition of revering bissu as traditional community priests. Bissu have mostly survived by participating in weddings as maids of honour and working as farmers as well as performing their cultural roles as priests. Hardline Islamic groups, police and politicians have all played their part in Indonesia's increased harassment and discrimination of nonheterosexuals. After independence in 1949, the ancient Bugis kingdoms were incorporated into the new republic and the roles of bissu became increasingly sidelined. A regional Islamic rebellion in South Sulawesi led to further persecution. As the atmosphere became increasingly hostile to nonheterosexuals, fewer people were willing to take on the role of bissu.
According to the Bugis gender system, calabai are generally assigned male at birth but take on the role of heterosexual females. Their fashions and gender expression are distinctly feminine but do not match that of "typical" heterosexual women.
If there is to be a wedding in Bugis society, more often than not calabai will be involved in the organization. When a wedding date has been agreed upon, the family will approach a calabai and negotiate a wedding plan. The calabai will be responsible for many things: setting up and decorating the tent, arranging the bridal chairs, bridal gown, costumes for the groom and the entire wedding party (numbering up to twenty-five), makeup for all those involved, and all the food. Rarely did I attend a village wedding with less than a thousand guests. On the day, some calabai remain in the kitchen preparing food while others form part of the reception, showing guests to their seats.— Sharyn Graham
Calabai embrace their femininity and live as women, but do not think of themselves as female, nor wish to be female or feel trapped in a male’s body, and they are respected by society. They are supported by family, and men accept them as males, living in feminine embodiment.[better source needed]
The calalai are assigned female at birth but take on the roles of heterosexual males. They dress and present themselves as men, hold masculine jobs and typically live with female partners to adopt children.