issue 201 - November 1989
What your dreams make you
Native Americans not only accepted lesbian and gay people, they also respected them as
prophets, hunters or healers. Rae Trewartha looks at homosexuality in traditional culture.
To be lesbian or gay in modern Western society is to walk a tightrope. Every time you meet a new situation you have to decide how many steps forward you can take - just how 'out' you can be without offending the sensibilities of people who are afraid of the differences you force them to confront.
It is encouraging, therefore, to learn about the place of lesbians and gay men in traditional North American Indian society and to re-discover that homophobia is not some sort of genetic trait indigenous to all cultures. Indeed, many North American Indian tribes so valued 'gayness' that people who displayed these characteristics were picked for special office.
Gay traditions were prevalent in most American Indian tribes.1 There are reports of both women and men living in same-sex marriages, of women who dressed and acted as men and men who acted and dressed as women.
The European chroniclers who first came across such behaviour and customs described them in terms that belonged to their own world. So American Indian homosexual men were called 'berdaches' - French for 'slave-boys', used to refer to passive male homosexuals. The name stuck - although its servile connotations were quite inappropriate in the Native American context where berdaches were accorded considerable social prestige.
Indeed, gay transvestites were often the shamans or healers of the tribe. Sometimes they had specific religious duties. Among the Crow Indians, for example, the tree that was used in the Sun Dance ceremony would be cut down by homosexual men. Berdaches were regarded as having special intellectual, artistic and spiritual qualities. They were also reputed to be hard workers. Their ability to combine female and male qualities often put them into the role of mediators between the sexes. When asked 'when you die ... what will you be in the spirit land? A man or a woman?', one Sioux 'winkle' naturally replied 'both'.
It appears to have been fairly easy for women in North American Indian societies to take traditionally male roles and live as men. Girls in the Yukon who declined marriage and child-bearing would dress as men and take part in hunting expeditions, reported Edward Carpenter in the late nineteenth century. This was also true of Sioux women who became warriors and married women. In the Kaska Indian families of Canada, parents would raise one of their daughters to become a warrior. Her sexual experiences would be with other women. Indeed, if there was sexual contact with a man it would ruin the lesbian's luck with game.
But it was not all hunting and war-making. The Kutrenai Indians of the Plateau speak of a woman who left the tribe for a year and married a white man. When she returned she had changed her name to 'Gone to the Spirits' and from then on behaved 'as a man'. She went on to achieve fame not only as a hunter and warrior, but also as a shaman, healer, prophet and guide.
The distinction between homosexual and heterosexual was not always clear or constant. Friendship rather than identity could determine the course of events. As women spent most of their time with women and men with men they were often emotionally closer to members of their own sex than to members of the opposite sex. A nineteenth-century army officer, who studied Indian customs closely, reported on male pairs, saying: 'They really seem to fall in love with men and I have known this affectionate interest to live for years.'2
The union of two men was often publicly recognized in a 'friendship dance'. Historian Walter M Williams argues that these friendships were not necessarily homosexual, but that for all males who felt erotic attraction to other men, these relationships provided a natural avenue for same-sex behaviour. He cites a report from the 1920s saying that for the Yumas: 'Casual secret homosexuality among both men and women is well known. This is not considered objectionable.'
But what was it about American Indian cultures that gave them such a relaxed and positive attitude towards homosexuality? To understand this we must look at their view of the world.
Indian society did not conceive of the universe as being composed of absolutes and polarities of black and white, male and female, good and evil. Nor did it automatically equate gender identity and sex roles with biological sex characteristics.
Similarly, the spiritual and the physical were not separate. An understanding of the spiritual informed a tribe's every institution, custom, endeavor and pastime. What was 'natural' to a person was what the spirits told that person to be. So, if the spirits told someone, through visions or dreams, to act and dress as a person of the opposite sex, for that person not to do so would be to go against their culture and to endanger their own lives. Or in the words of one Indian elder: To us a man is what nature or his dreams make him. We accept him for what he wants to be'.3
Some tribes believed that 'gayness was something people were born with. Others believed it came to a person in a dream or a vision. While others had special ceremonies to test whether a boy or girl was gay. For instance, in Californian tribes a child was seated on the ground with tools or weapons representing men's work on one side and those representing women's work on the other. The grass was set alight around the child and their future was determined by which pile they chose something from as they ran from fire to fire.
It was hard for Westerners to grasp such a philosophy - especially when it clashed so fundamentally with their own sexual taboos. So early writers would incorrectly describe the berdaches as hermaphrodites (people who have both male and female sex organs). Many tribes did use a term meaning half-man, half-woman' to describe the berdache, but this referred to a person's spirit or character, not to ambiguous genitalia. Western society was unable to understand that Indian society provided, through the berdache system, an alternative gender role.
This had some brutal consequences. For the colonizing forces the prevalence of homosexuality only served to reinforce their belief that they had a divine right to destroy Native American culture and its peoples. Only tribes which have had little or no contact with European civilization have been able to retain their sexual diversity. In the 1950s and 1960s anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum was studying the Amakaeri people of Peru, living in the depths of the Amazonian rainforest. They maintained a culture where homosexuality was the norm and heterosexuality only occurred for purposes of reproduction.4 A similar situation exists in parts of tribal Polynesia.5
Today, gay North American Indians are involved in a struggle to recover the wisdom of their ancestors in relation to homosexuality. It is not an easy job. But some tribes have managed to retain more than others. According to lesbian North American Indian activist Barbara Cameron, the Pueblo Indians are 'probably the most together tribe in the country, the ones who have best retained the old ways and traditions ... gay people are still accorded positions of respect in the tribe. Some are healers, medicine people.'6
Twenty years after the Stonewall Riots in New York, which seemed to pave the way to gay liberation in Western societies, we are still fighting for the right to have homosexuality accepted without prejudice. It would appear that as a community we will, in all our rich diversity, continue to walk a tight-rope and only dream of being accepted for 'what our dreams or nature make us'.
Freelance writer and anthropologist Rae Trewartha is a lesbian, a mother and an AIDS activist from Aotearoa (NZ)
1 Another Mother Tongue. Judy Grahn. Beacon Press. 1984.
2 The Spirit and the Flesh, Walter L Williams, Beacon Press,1986.
3 Which Homosexuality? Essays from the international/scientific conference on lesbian and gay Studies, Gay Men's Press. 1989.
4 Keep the river to your right, Tobias Schneebaum, Grove Press, 1969.
5 Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia. G Herdt, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1984.
6 Gay American History, Jonathan Katz, Thomas Crowell. 1976.
LESBIAN - FEMINIST - Lucía Ueda
Ever since I was very young my best relationships were with women - friends, teachers, or my mother.
As a student in Lima I had many friends - both male and female. But I always found myself questioning those situations that kept women in a secondary role. I was always looking hard for a positive image of women.
Such thoughts may lead to feminism and not necessarily to lesbianism. With me, however, it all came together. It happened when discovered that a friend of mine was lesbian. Here I was, suddenly presented with a new image of woman. I saw that it was possible to live another way. Immediately I recognized myself. It was incredible!
My family's reaction was unusual. They did not put any pressure on me or give me any moralistic sermons. In this I am lucky. They just kept quiet about it. My partner's mother - my mother-in-law you could say! - is also unconventional. She has managed to avoid all the usual pitfalls of prejudice. She simply accepts me as her daughter's partner.
My political activities are of course very much determined by my lesbianism - but this is only because society gives so much importance to the matter. If society did not intrude into the private lives of lesbians and gays it would not be necessary for us to defend our rights to live out our sexualities as we see appropriate.
One of the criticisms that is levelled at us - both as lesbians and feminists - is that our movement comes out of the middle class. It is true, but you have to launch a movement from somewhere and our policy is an open door one. Everybody is welcome.
Lesbians in Peru live with a great sense of guilt. After all we are transgressing what society considers most sacred - the role of the woman and the mother to be docile and to depend emotionally and economically on men. This is why we, as a movement, must give lesbians support and communicate a sense of identity.
Lesbians are at the receiving end of increased brutality and harassment in Peru. The police have been making trouble for us. For example, they recently raided a lesbian disco and detained 76 people for several hours. They only released the women after the curfew came into force which meant that they could he shot on sight as they tried to make their way home.
What is more, the police had tipped off a TV station about the raid beforehand so the women were filmed as they were arrested. This was shown three times at peak viewing time on the news with pictures of the women accompanied by really scandalous commentary and distortion of the facts.
Lucia Ueda works with GALF (Grupo de Autoconciencla de Lesbianas Feministas) In Lima. She was interviewed by Sonia Luz Carrillo.
Gay Task Force (GTF)
Tasmanian Lesbian and Gay Rights
Khush (South Asian Lesbians and Gays of Toronto),
Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM),
Presente (Lesbian and gay solidarity group for Nicaragua),
Shakti (South Asian Lesbian and Gay Network of London),
Worth reading on ...HOMOSEXUALITY
There are many excellent books Most useful are those that place it in the broader context of social attitudes to sexuality. in The History of Sexuality (An Introduction) (Penguin Books 1981)Michel Foucault persuasively strips away layers of misconceptions and presents us with a fresh, illuminating picture of the social, economic and political forces that shape our attitudes to sex. This book is a must, and Foucault writes beautifully. Another myth-exploder is the Homosexual Matrix (Meridian, second edition, 1987) by psychotherapist and sex researcher C A Tripp. One of the most refreshing books to have emerged recently is Perverts in Paradise (GMP 1986). Brazilian writer, film-maker and gay activist Joao Trevisan manages to combine the history of homosexual Brazil with an erotic sensibility. It's a delight.
In a different vein is Heinz Heger's harrowing and intensely moving personal account of the life and death of homosexual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, The Men with the Pink Triangle (GMP, 1980). Essential reading.
It is hard to choose from the plethora of good lesbian and gay novelists, but Suniti Namjoshi's The Conversations of Cow (The Women's Press, 1985) wins on pure inventiveness. It's a witty and sharply satirical dialogue between Suniti, an 'average middle-of-the-road lesbian separatist, and Bhadravita, a Brahmin lesbian cow. Audre Lorde's Zami: a New Spelling of my Name (Sheba, 1982) is another gem, giving a powerful and poignant picture of growing up as a black lesbian in New York.