North American Indigenous conceptions of non-heteronormative sexuality and gender practices have long been documented by settlers, missionaries, and explorers – and subsequently taken up in more fruitful explorations by anthropologists and historians. These conceptions are described under the contemporary term two-spirit, a word adopted by indigenous groups in the 1990s, emphasizing individuals’ experience of multiple gender embodiments which fulfilled particular social and ceremonial roles within their tribes. Originally called “berdaches” by 17th/18th century white French settlers and missionaries (the term, denoting a passive homosexual partner or slave, is now generally rejected as a slur), these individuals traditionally held integral social roles within their respective tribes which were eventually discouraged and violently eliminated by settler colonialists. Two-spirit embodiment, while holding specific meaning and terminology inter-tribally, commonly signified a religious or healer role. In Cherokee, the two-spirit term asegi translates to “strange” and has a similar use among some individuals as the modern connotation of the word “queer.”
The origin of the “berdache” institution has been debated, with various reasons attributed for the presence of two-spirit individuals. Some scholars (Trexler, 2002) interpret historical material to suggest that these roles were assigned by communities throughout the Americas in order to fulfill social roles that bolstered and reinforced existent hierarchy. However, this reasoning has been largely rejected within the contemporary two-spirit community and, additionally, has been troubled by the firsthand accounts of two-spirit individuals themselves, such as the famous case of Finds Them and Kills Them (Osh-Tisch 1854-1929), a Crow badé/baté who lived until 1928 and fought in the Battle of the Rosebud. The account of Osh-Tisch suggests two major points for the issue of agency in the construction of two-spirit social roles: 1. That the role was not only chosen by the individual in the Crow context, but was a cultural institution often based in exemplary traits (the excelling at women’s work) rather than a role of “passive sex partner” foisted upon the feminine boy or extraneous son, and 2. That the role did not exclude two-spirit individuals from performing the roles of both traditionally male and female gendered individuals, as Osh-Tisch’s role in the Battle of the Rosebud suggests. Similarly, the idea that two-spirit people were chosen in the context of constraint or out of demographic necessity does not provide a sufficient explanation for the female two-spirit person, whose traditionally male role as warrior, for instance (in the case of Bíawacheeitchish/Woman Chief of the Crow 1806-1858), would be perhaps more difficult to explain in the context of social construction under duress.
Two-Spirit presence has been noted in over 130 Native American tribes (Roscoe, 1990). Among the Great Plains Indians alone, there are instances among the Arapahos, Arikaras, Assiniboines, Blackfoot, Cheyennes, Comanches, Plains Crees, Crows, Gros Ventres, Hidatsas, Kansas, Kiowas, Mandans, Plains Ojibwas, Omahas, Osages, Otoes, Pawnees, Poncas, Potawatomis, Quapaws, Winnebagos, and the Siouan tribes (Lakota/Dakota). Female two-spirit individuals, while documented among the Cheyennes, were more widespread amongst Western North American tribes (Roscoe 1990). These practices were often, but not always, associated with non-heteronormative sexuality as well as non-binary gender; some two-spirit people engaged in same-sex or queer sexual and romantic/marriage relations, but not always. The predominant explanation for Two-Spirit embodiment includes a functional preference for the work of the opposite sex, and/or a cosmological experience of dreams and visions. The conception of gender as a binary is challenged by two-spirit notions of being neither male nor female, but following a four-gender spectrum more closely described by the following structure: feminine woman/masculine woman/feminine man/masculine man. Further, there are also various Inuit (culturally similar indigenous peoples of circumpolar North, Arctic Canada, Alaska, and Greenland) conceptions of non-heteronormative gender and sexuality which were often connected to the Inuit shamanic role of angakkuq. While the angakkuq is not always or predominantly a non-heteronormative individual, the inclusion of non-heteronormative subjects in its traditional social roles shows an association with LGBTQ+ ways of being. Two-spirit people have also been noted in other Arctic cultural contexts, such as among the Aleutians, Western Canada, and Greenland (Robert-Lamblin, 1986; Briggs, 1974; Briggs, 1991).
Learn more about the history of the word “two-spirit” on this episode of InQueery hosted by Geo Neptune.
Latin America/Central America
Research on Mexican non-Mestizo third-gender roles such as the Zapotec (Ben ‘Zaa, “cloud people,” indigenous peoples regionally concentrated in Southern Mexico/Oaxaca) muxe/muxhe as well as biza’ah in Teotitlán del Valle show that in less Catholicized regions, muxes receive higher levels of respect and are thought of as bringing good luck to their communities. They are often understood to be caretakers of the community and of their families. Third gender subjectivity often resists the Western notion of gender dysphoria, as there is a culturally accepted understanding of third genders as more ambiguously positioned rather than one side of the male/female gender binary. Muxe have various sexualities that are not necessarily determined by their gender variance, which has local categories based on dress, including vestidas (wearing women’s clothing) and pintadas (wearing men’s clothing, sometimes wearing makeup). Also, in the instance of a muxe choosing a male partner (called a mayate), this individual is not necessarily understood as a gay man/homosexual male.
In South America, one of the more well-studied LGBTQ+ groups are travestis, a shared term amongst Peruvian, Argentinian, and Brazilian culture. Travestis are assigned-male-at-birth individuals who, in Kulick’s account, use female pronouns, and self-identify across a spectrum. This spectrum runs the gamut from transgender to a type of third gender role that is distinct from transgender identity. Travestis are often working-class sex workers with precarious (yet also openly recognized) societal positions whose attitudes towards body modification and transitional surgeries tend to favor black market industrial silicone enhancements and intensive hormone therapies. Yet as Kulick notes, his Brazilian travesti informants had generally negative attitudes about bottom surgery, preferring to retain their penises for their sex work as well as pathologizing transness to some extent (Kulick, 1998). For these urban Brazilian travestis, gender was organized around the men/not men binary – the latter category encompassing women, homosexuals, and travestis. Overall, the travesti category describes a wide spectrum of self-identifying gender non-normative individuals (Fernandez, 2004) which often shift around changes in politics, cultural conceptions of self, legality, gender, and medical science.