a venerated place

Many of the world’s cultures recognize more than two genders. The notion that there are those of us who do not fit precisely into either a male or female role has historically been accepted by several groups (excerpt from this article)

Among Native Americans, the role of third, fourth, or even fifth genders has been widely documented. Children, who were born physically male or female and yet showed a proclivity for the opposite gender, were encouraged to live out their lives in the gender role, which fit them best. The term used by Europeans to describe this phenomenon is Berdache.

Berdache found here

The berdache could adopt the clothing of women, associate and be involved with women, do the work normally associated with women, marry a man and take part in many spiritual ceremonies of the tribe. The Arapaho of the plains believe the role existed due to supernatural gifts from birds or animals.

image of Arapaho men (1898) found here

Parents would watch a child who seemed to have a tendency toward living as berdache and would assist him in pursuing it rather than discouraging him. Berdaches excel in weaving, beadwork, and pottery; arts associated almost solely with the women of the tribe. One notable attribute of the berdache is that the work of these people is greatly prized both within and without the tribe. 

image by Robert Freeman found here

Although there is much fluidity in alternate gender behavior, a berdache reaches some absolutes when it comes to adopting biological female roles. This limitation has not eliminated attempts at mimicking such female biological processes such as menstruation and pregnancy. The Mohave alyha were known to have gone to great lengths to simulate mock pregnancies. They would self induce constipation and then “deliver” a stillborn fecal fetus. Appropriate mourning rites and burial were performed with the involvement of the alyha’s husband.

Indian burial platform found here

One of the most entertaining stories associated with the adoption of female dress and attitude comes from a  famous berdache, We’Wha. In 1886, she went to Washington DC to meet President Grover Cleveland accompanied by anthropologist and debutante, Matilda Coxe Stevenson. Because she passed easily as a woman, she was allowed into the ladies rooms and boudoirs of the elite. She delighted in telling the Zuni upon arriving home that “the white women were mostly frauds, taking out their false teeth and ‘rats’ from their hair.”

image found here

There are some characteristics of the sexual practices of berdache, which differ from those of other same sex relationships. Berdaches almost always observe an incest taboo which involves the avoidance of sex with another berdache. One explanation for this is that sexual partner of the berdache must, by nature, be masculine. This belief is consistent with the emphasis on the gender aspects of the role rather than the sexual aspects. It also dovetails with the information on berdache marriages to masculine men. In these unions, the berdache is considered a wife and is valued by the husband not only for the domestic duties the berdache performs, but also for the socially acceptable homosexual relationship.

image found here

Berdaches frequently are available for sex with both unmarried adolescent boys and married men who occasionally seek out same sex partners. Because of this, female prostitution is not needed. Traditional berdaches were also available as sexual partners during hunts and in war parties. This was yet another reason why they were welcomed on these excursions.

Sioux War Party (1907) found here

Published in: on October 3, 2011 at 10:58 am  Comments (45)  
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  1. Things certainly have taken a dramatic change in Western society, haven’t they?! And not necessarily for the better. Mrs. Wife and I saw Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on Broadway last night and, let me tell you, gender blurring and confusion is alive and well on the Great White Way.

    • I’ve seen the film but not the stage play

      • The stage show is what stage shows are all about. Singing! Sequins! Crossdressing! OTT costumes! Showmanship! Dancing! Sauciness!

        Problem is, once you’ve seen it, all other Broadway shows pale in comparison. Nothing will measure up to Priscilla. I am ruined.

  2. Well, we had Gay Pride Parade on Saturday and there were many, many berdaches. And an astonishing number of Freddie Mercury look alikes, I’ve never seen so many moustaches in one place at one time!

    • I prefer Tom Selleck’s

  3. How very civilized. Truly.
    (Although I’m not too keen on the giving birth part….)

    • Yes I’d give that a miss too

  4. I read once, too, that certain plains tribes recognized a segment of the population as “The Contraries.” They wore their clothes backwards, walked backwards, etc. Their important function in the society was to remind its members that there is more than one way to look at things and to provide alternative views in any tribal deliberation. One writer speculated that the Contraries may have been homosexual or transgender members who identified themselves by their sense of being “different.” They served as clowns, entertainers, tricksters and healers. And they confused the hell out of the enemy.

    Valuable post.

    • I’d heard of the contraries but I didn’t know about the transgender angle

  5. A forward thinking lot really but stimulating mock pregnancies…i must say that’s like method acting !

    • Mock pregnancies are always stimulating 😉

  6. This post is SO interesting – I hadn’t known any of that!

  7. I deliver a fecal fetus on most days.

    • I think I can recommend a product for that.

  8. Providing it is not detrimental to society as a whole and harms no one, I’ve always thought it better to tolerate something than to moralise against or fight it. We still have a lot to learn.

    Still, it’s amazing what some men will do in order to avoid the housework 😉

    • Yes, “mainstream” society still has far to go.

  9. Speaking as a chick magnet I agree. The attraction that chickens have for me I can only explain by the shape of my legs.

  10. Hmm and the Indians were called the savages…. Hmmmm

  11. I liked jams comment. Hardly a savage attitude, this complete acceptance of the berdache and the integration into the society. We could learn a LOT about tolerance from this.

    Great post, Nursemyra, interesting and very informative. I also learned a lot.

  12. Marvelous…it’s taken western civilization to get back to accepting this…

  13. It’s ironic how the state is reluctantly struggling to legalise gay marriage in America, when it has been in existence in Berdache partnerships for aeons.

    • Yes, it is ironic

  14. Wonderful post, Nursie.

  15. Fascinating information. Such a pity that the oh-so-“civilised” of previous centuries had such pathetically narrow-minded outlooks on life.

  16. And the invading Europeans had the nerve to call themselves “Civilised”.

  17. i was nodding my head and thinking “how civilized…”… right up to the part about the dead turd baby.

    • well when you put it like that….. 🙂

  18. But what about girls who were masculine?

    • I don’t know Binky, they weren’t mentioned in the article

  19. fecal fetus? So THAT’S how the jerks in the USA government got here !

  20. Interesting.

  21. All I know, is granny was part Cherokee, and the Cherokee Women traditionally wore the pants in the house.

  22. Fascinating. This was touched on a bit in the film Little Big Man.

    • Was it? I’ll have to get the dvd

      • That is one of my favorite movies. Absolutely love it. You are in for a treat.

  23. There’s a lot that one can learn from the tribes.

  24. Loved this, Nursie. And have sent the link to a friend. I just know she’ll enjoy your work.

  25. Oh wow… how open of them to accept people as they are. 🙂

    • The world would be a much nicer place if that acceptance was universal

  26. My hair usually looks pretty ratty, too…

    • It’s hard to tell by looking at your avatar

  27. Our so-called advanced civilised societies have a long way to go before they accept the many people whose personalities simply don’t fit into the traditional gender roles. They’re forced to fake a gender identity that’s quite alien to them for fear of the ridicule and incomprehension if they just do their own thing.

  28. excellent post!

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