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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