Toward an End to Appropriation of Indigenous “Two Spirit” People in Trans Politics: the Relationship Between Third Gender Roles and Patriarchy

When I say that transgenderism is culture bound, don’t get me wrong: I think every gender role and presentation is, in fact, dependent on culture.  The entire idea of gender, the roles that are developed and called “gender,” are based on the sex binary.  That’s why almost always, when you see gender roles, even if there are more than two, you can bet money that it’s just a matter of reclassifying people who don’t fit into a culture’s otherwise rigidly defined sex roles.

Which brings us to the indigenous people of North America.

I have a special kind of rage for any white person who claims to identify as a “Two Spirit” person.  It’s like wearing a hipster headdress: it proclaims loud and clear that you’re a white person who likes to appropriate American Indian culture while having little or nothing to do with the culture you’re appropriating.

The version of this that’s less enraging but more prevalent (think of it as the “dreamcatcher” of appropriation–common, misunderstood, and talked about in gross ways by all kinds of white people) is the white trans person who points to American Indian cultures as some kind of more accepting place for people with dysphoria/GID, because many of these cultures had a “third gender.”  This represents a misunderstanding of what, precisely, being two-spirit meant culturally, economically, and socially for many two-spirit people, and also represents a very limiting, naive, “all these people look the same to me” view of American Indian nations.

Before we start: lumping all non-gender-conforming people in indigenous North America into a single “third gender” or “berdache” or “two-spirit” label is problematic.  The cultures of pre-Columbian North America were incredibly distinct from each other, with significantly different gender roles to be observed even in Indian nations that were very close to each other.

What gets even more interesting when you look into the two-spirit phenomenon is where it doesn’t pop up–or doesn’t pop up with the same frequency.

The Iroquois Confederation historically had no two-spirit people in spite of keeping significantly more detailed documentation of the lives of its people than many other American Indian nations.  For that matter, neither did the Apache, who treated two-spirit people respectfully and cordially when they met them but did not themselves have two-spirit people as part of their culture.

What would make the Iroquois and Apache different?  It’s not a matter of genetics.  That’d only be possible if there were no intermarriages between American Indian people from different nations, and that’s simply not true.

The Iroquois had one of the most politically egalitarian societies for men and women in the world, at the time when white folks set out to destroy them systematically.  Women had significant amounts of political power, and the society was not simply matrilineal (which can sometimes still involve huge patriarchal gender role issues–hello, Orthodox Judaism!) but involved real equality of authority.

The Apache were famed for their skill in battle, which may mean you’ve never heard one of the most fascinating parts about their culture.  Because war was a near-constant fact for Apache adults, while adults tended to have sex-segregated roles in society, children were actually given a very non-gendered upbringing.  Girls were expected to know how to do “boy” things, and vice versa.  Why?  Think about the home front during World War II.  It’s a good idea if all your people know the basics, just so that when there are war parties gone, or a sex imbalance after raids, you don’t lose all of the missing/dead people’s knowledge and skill base.

Neither of these societies–which have in some ways more progressive and egalitarian places for women and/or girls than contemporary societies–had two-spirit people.  Was this because they were evil and repressive?

Let’s take the Lakota, one piece of the Sioux nation, as an alternate example.  Please note that I’m speaking about the Sioux nations from the perspective of someone who has taken time to learn a great deal of a Sioux language and has studied these cultures both in historical and contemporary contexts.  The Lakota have a longstanding tradition of two-spirit people, documented as far back as the written record goes.  Among the Lakota, polygyny was accepted, and gender roles were extremely clearly established for boys and girls from an extremely early age.

The Lakota two spirit people are never born women.  Almost all of them, historically, have been men.  Claims of intersexed/hermaphroditic people from the 19th/early 20th centuries should ALWAYS be taken with a significant grain of salt, because of the trouble Europeans in this era had distinguishing between homosexuality and hermaphroditism (both male and female homosexuals were often thought to have hermaphroditic qualities–a historical fact we’ll talk about in another entry!).

Were no Lakota women “born this way” while men were?  Let me postulate a different theory: that it’s men in power who impose gender roles, and that Lakota men’s patriarchal society had to have somewhere to put “men who don’t ‘act like’ men” because of male gender policing. Lakota people put two-spirit men in the part of the camp where women and children lived, which was generally not as well cared for and considered not as prestigious because of the patriarchal way that they lived.

While there were occasionally women in the Lakota and other Sioux nations that became part of war parties, they were not regarded as “male” in any way relating to their oppressed status at home.  There was no need for the patriarchal Sioux to create a category for gender non-conforming women, nor to give them special status or specific supposed talents (Lakota and Dakota two-spirit people are said to be excellent namers of children and are thought to be able to see visions of the future).  That’s something men do for men, because just by dint of having a penis, gender non-conforming men deserved to be able to have their own group and identity.

You see this in large numbers of patriarchal American Indian cultures: societies where there’s a firmly established “third” gender that men can elect to participate in (sometimes as older people, sometimes from an early age), while women’s gender roles are firmly entrenched and allow for little variance.  What’s amazing is that many people are invested in the notion that third gender was egalitarian.  Check out how careful this website is to show us both male and female two-spirit people–in fact, having more stories of female two-spirit people–while making no mention of the fact that female third gender individuals were incredibly rare compared to male ones.

Let’s take another example of a society that had a significantly different conception of gender and what it meant to be two-spirit.  The Dene people of Alberta are a First Nations group that historically believed children could be reincarnations of deceased relatives.  So far, so good, lots of cultures think that–hell, sometimes my own mother tells me I’m the reincarnation of my great grandfather.  But in Dene culture, if your parents saw the spirit of a woman enter your mother’s body when she was pregnant, regardless of your birth sex you could be referred to as “my daughter” by the man who believed his daughter’s spirit had been reincarnated into you.  You wouldn’t have to live as the sex of the person that you were thought to have been before, but would always be considered to in some way have a foot in each gender from your reincarnated past.

The Dene, it’s worth noting, forced women to go hungry at their husband’s discretion whenever the tribe was low on food.  Women in this society were among the most oppressed women in all of indigenous North America.  These supposedly progressive ways of viewing gender don’t come from cultures that actually treat women progressively.  Not once.

It’s very strange to watch the contemporary trans movement attempt to incorporate American Indian cultural conceptions of gender-nonconformity, because it’s so clearly an attempt to shoehorn people of the past into contemporary cultural labels.  In some third gender societies, two-spirit was simply a way to handle homosexuality within the group: homosexual men were considered not fully men, a halfway gender that wasn’t quite “normal.”  In others, it was a way to handle intersexed people in societies with rigid sex binaries.  In still others, it was for men who specifically preferred women’s work and roles, like weaving and cooking.

In almost none of these societies did two-spirit people born male identify *as women*.  We have no documented cases (in spite of documentation of other activities and feelings of “berdaches”/two-spirits in history) of two-spirit men anguishing over an inability to be fully recognized as a woman or to have a woman’s body.  They tended to identify as a different type of man, or something between masculine and feminine.

To systematically deprive historical two-spirit people of their own thoughts regarding their gender and what the historical record shows was their place in society–to misrepresent these people, who were often oppressed within their groups rather than lauded for their non-conformity, in spite of the all-too-common hagiographic contemporary notion of American Indian nations as places free from oppression–is to erase the nuance of real history in favor of a conception of history in which really, everyone’s just like you, you lucky 21st century son of a gun who has it all figured out.

The continuous use of two-spirit people as a way to show that transgenderism has existed in all societies–and the incredible lack of knowledge of the basics of indigenous North American cultures shown by many trans people who casually refer to there being transgender people in American Indian societies–is appropriative behavior.  It is taking the parts of a society that you think you like, without studying them much or looking at their origins, and deciding that the culture they’re from must really be deep and would really get you.  It’s de-contextualizing and de-humanizing, and erases differences between American Indian cultures as well as the fundamental ways those cultures historically were different from anything we have on the planet today.

What’s instead true is that American Indian nations that had more rigid gender roles and assigned women less power historically felt the need to strip male/female identities from non-conformers, while more egalitarian societies with less gender socialization lack two-spirit people because of, rather than in spite of, their lack of emphasis on sex-assigned gender roles.


–Deirdre Bell

The concept of the culture-bound syndrome

I’m going to start this blog with a clear but sure to be controversial statement.  Now, once you read that statement, if you feel yourself getting really defensive, please read the rest of the entry BEFORE sending hate mail.  So, here goes nothin’:

Gender identity disorder is a culture bound syndrome–not something you’re born with.

Culture bound syndromes include a wide array of medical issues.  Some are very familiar to Americans and Europeans, like anorexia and bulimia, which arise because of the complex interplay between our culture’s views on beauty, food, and (often) femininity.  Others, though, are experienced more frequently (or exclusively) in other parts of the world, which can give them the air of otherness.  For example, the phenomenon of koro–in which, depending on one’s culture, one believes one’s penis to have been stolen or to have started shrinking into nothingness–is experienced today primarily in West African nations and parts of Southeastern Asia and the subcontinent, although it has been experienced as an epidemic in European/American cultures in centuries past.

Similarly, Dhat syndrome is experienced by people who believe very strongly that they are losing energy and sexual function, and are experiencing extreme symptoms of depression and anxiety, because they are losing semen in their urine.  It happens because of religious views about semen and ejaculation in some cultures in India and Nepal.

The idea that trans identity is neurologically innate, set by laws of biology in utero, is one that can only come from a perspective that is blind to historical and anthropological realities.  In some cultures, people who are outside the gender binary believe quite fully that they have chosen their gender path.  In some, it’s a choice made after the mid-point of one’s life, while in others, puberty is when the issue is decided.  What’s more important is that in different cultures and times, the idea of gender identity and what it means to violate the gender binary and have a non-conforming identity is different.

If the transgender identity phenomenon was, as many people have said (ad nauseam with arguments that sound way too much like people saying that men and women have different brains that explain their culturally-assigned differences), genetic/epigenetic and determined at/before birth, this would imply that the phenonemon of painful, debilitating dysphoria would manifest in this way throughout history and in many cultures.  It doesn’t.  While there are gender non-conforming people throughout history, the near-obsessive, anxiety and depression provoking, dysphoric feeling that one’s primary or secondary sex characteristics are “wrong” for one’s brain is a phenomenon that isn’t reflected in all history or cultures worldwide. It’s culturally specific.

What that means is that some elements of our culture are leading to the ways in which gender non-conformity manifests here, including the phenomena of transgenderism, gender identity disorder, and dysphoria.

This blog looks to explore some of those cultural elements from what I hope will be a somewhat different perspective.  Before we start looking at the specifics, though, I’d like to lay out some basics of what I believe and don’t believe, so that we’re all on the same page and I don’t get hate mail based on the fact that one time you interacted with a radical feminist who was mean to you.

What I DO Believe:

The reluctance to acknowledge GID as a culture bound syndrome comes from a history of discrimination against gender-nonconforming people and the greater willingness of Americans and Europeans to accept gender non-conformity if they view it according to their biological/neuroscience model, in which gender identity is innate and unchanging.  In some way, this makes it “not the person’s fault,” which is a sad and upsetting way to see gender non-conformity viewed.

Dysphoria and GID are experienced as real, sometimes painful phenomena.

Gender non-conformity occurs in many cultures and is the result of the fact that the sex-based gender binary makes no goddamn sense.  GID and dysphoria–the specific ways in which gender non-conformity are experienced in our culture–are what I’m referring to when I say that transgenderism is a culture bound syndrome.

Gender non-conformity and non-compliance is different from culture to culture, both historically and in contemporary societies.

A phenomenal amount of energy is devoted to telling people that their gender identity is brain-based and innate, and that there are “male and female brains.”  This notion is incredibly destructive and has little place in feminist thought.

That “third,” fourth, and so on gender identities in other cultures are also culturally mediated, and that in some of these cultures third gender identities work to reinforce rather than subvert sex-based binaries (we’ll get into this later, I promise).

That the concept of transgenderism as currently manifested in the United States can lead to complex issues of identity, appropriation, and acceptance.

What I DON’T Believe:

That being transgender is a “born this way” phenomenon bound by genetics that is experienced in the same way in all cultures.

That referring to GID as a culture bound syndrome is transphobic.  It is not anorexia-phobic to refer to anorexia as a culture bound syndrome–it doesn’t erase their experiences or trivialize them.  Your culture is an important part of you, and it’s not surprising or abnormal that your culture would manifest in important parts of your gender identity and self-concept.

That being transgender, inclusive or exclusive of SRS and hormone treatments, makes you somehow a bad person.

That transgender and non-gender conforming people should be subject to employment discrimination, street harassment, et cetera.

That people with gender dysphoria or a strong aversion to their culture’s typical gender identity are “faking it” in some way.

That it’s off-limits to discuss the ways in which our culture mediates and creates the phenomenon of gender identity and transgenderism.