Americans have often held intersex, androgynous people, feminine
males and masculine females in high respect. The most common term
to define such persons today is to refer to them as "two-spirit"
people, but in the past feminine males were sometimes referred
to as "berdache" by early French explorers in North
America, who adapted a Persian word "bardaj", meaning
an intimate male friend. Because these androgynous males were
commonly married to a masculine man, or had sex with men, and
the masculine females had feminine women as wives, the term berdache
had a clear homosexual connotation. Both the Spanish settlers
in Latin America and the English colonists in North America condemned
them as "sodomites".
than emphasising the homosexuality of these persons, however,
many Native Americans focused on their spiritual gifts. American
Indian traditionalists, even today, tend to see a person's basic
character as a reflection of their spirit. Since everything that
exists is thought to come from the spirit world, androgynous or
transgender persons are seen as doubly blessed, having both the
spirit of a man and the spirit of a woman. Thus, they are honoured
for having two spirits, and are seen as more spiritually gifted
than the typical masculine male or feminine female.
Therefore, many Native American religions, rather than stigmatising such
persons, often looked to them as religious leaders and teachers.
Quite similar religious traditions existed among the native peoples
of Siberia and many parts of Central and southeast Asia. Since
the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from Siberia over 20,000
years ago, and since reports of highly respected androgynous persons
have been noted among indigenous Americans from Alaska to Chile,
androgyny seems to be quite ancient among humans.
Rather than the physical body, Native Americans emphasised a
person's "spirit", or character, as being most important.
Instead of seeing two-spirit persons as transsexuals who try to
make themselves into "the opposite sex", it is more
accurate to understand them as individuals who take on a gender
status that is different from both men and women. This alternative
gender status offers a range of possibilities, from slightly effeminate
males or masculine females, to androgynous or transgender persons,
to those who completely cross-dress and act as the other gender.
The emphasis of Native Americans is not to force every person
into one box, but to allow for the reality of diversity in gender
and sexual identities.
Most of the evidence for respectful two-spirit traditions is
focused on the native peoples of the Plains, the Great Lakes,
the Southwest, and California. With over a thousand vastly different
cultural and linguistic backgrounds, it is important not to overgeneralise
for the indigenous peoples of North America. Some documentary
sources suggest that a minority of societies treated two-spirit
persons disrespectfully, by kidding them or discouraging children
from taking on a two-spirit role. However, many of the documents
that report negative reactions are themselves suspect, and should
be evaluated critically in light of the preponderance of evidence
that suggests a respectful attitude. Some European commentators,
from early frontier explorers to modern anthropologists, also
were influenced by their own homophobic prejudices to distort
Two-spirit people were respected by native societies not only
due to religious attitudes, but also because of practical concerns.
Because their gender roles involved a mixture of both masculine
and feminine traits, two-spirit persons could do both the work
of men and of women. They were often considered to be hard workers
and artistically gifted, of great value to their extended families
and community. Among some groups, such as the Navajo, a family
was believed to be economically benefited by having a "nadleh"
(literally translated as "one who is transformed") androgynous
person as a relative. Two-spirit persons assisted their siblings'
children and took care of elderly relatives, and often served
as adoptive parents for homeless children.
feminine male who preferred to do women's work (gathering wild
plants or farming domestic plants) was logically expected to marry
a masculine male, who did men's work (hunting and warfare). Because
a family needed both plant foods and meat, a masculine female
hunter, in turn, usually married a feminine female, to provide
these complementary gender roles for economic survival. The gender-conforming
spouse of two-spirit people did not see themselves as "homosexual"
or as anything other than "normal".
In the 20th-century, as homophobic European Christian influences
increased among many Native Americans, respect for same-sex love
and for androgynous persons greatly declined. Two-spirit people
were often forced, either by government officials, Christian missionaries
or their own community, to conform to standard gender roles. Some,
who could not conform, either went underground or committed suicide.
With the imposition of Euro-American marriage laws, same-sex marriages
between two-spirit people and their spouses were no longer legally
recognised. But with the revitalisation of Native American "red
power" cultural pride since the 60s, and the rise of gay
and lesbian liberation movements at the same time, a new respect
for androgyny started slowly re-emerging among American Indian
Because of this tradition of respect, in the 90s many gay and
lesbian Native American activists in the United States and Canada
rejected the French word berdache in favour of the term two-spirit
people to describe themselves. Many non-American Indians have
incorporated knowledge of Native American two-spirit traditions
into their increasing acceptance of same-sex love, androgyny and
transgender diversity. Native American same-sex marriages have
been used as a model for legalising same-sex marriages, and the
spiritual gifts of androgynous persons have started to become
Walter L Williams is the author of The Spirit and the Flesh (Boston: Beacon Press) and is Professor of Anthropology, History and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California.
His most recent book is "Two Spirits: A Story of Life with the Navajo"