Two-Spirit vs. Berdache : acknowledging self-identity

This is my second, and possibly last for now, post on queer issues resulting from post-Montreal Pride reflections. The first one was “here”:/2005/08/04/redefining-marriage-queering-up-anthro-textbooks/.

One thing that struck me at this year’s Pride was the increasing presence of the Two-Spirit community at queer events. A corollary thought that occurred to me is the apparent disparity between how anthropologists define the Two-Spirit identity and how Two-Spirited people themselves define it.

First of all, Two-Spirit is increasingly being used as a replacement for the misleading and inappropriate berdache, which has negative connotations due to its linguistic roots. In fact, searching for berdache on “Wikipedia”: automatically takes one to a page on “Two-Spirit”: However, many anthropology texts still refer to berdache. I guess old habits die hard.

Now, when anthropologists talk about berdache, they are often referring to male gender variants (please note that I have adopted Serena Nanda’s usage of this term from her book “Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations”: – an excellent book) in Aboriginal North America. One frequently finds the disclaimer that the berdache does not necessarily marry or have sexual intercourse with other male-bodied persons and that the gender crossing is mainly at the occupational or vestimentary level. Ironically (I think it’s ironic because of the mainstream Western fascination with female-on-female sexuality) this disclaimer appears to be even more ardent when discussing the “occasional” female gender variants.

So from this older anthropological stance, which still permeates much current anthropological discussion on gender variance, gender identity is not so completely intertwined with sexual orientation (in the strict sense of who one has sex with) that one will adopt the prescribed orientation of the gender to which one adheres. In other words, a male bodied person who adopts a female gender will not necessarily adopt the “sleeping with men” that is supposedly included in this gender role.

What is contradictory, however, is that the standard rubric of homosexuality in many texts incorporates a discussion of the berdache and often fails to make the very distinction between sexuality and gender. The berdache is then used as an example of (usually) male homosexuality with the implication that it’s probably more about the gender role than an actual sexual preference. What remains unclear in these discussions is whether there ever existed men who slept with men or women who slept with women without changing gender roles.

What I love about Nanda’s book is that she shows the complexity of gender variance in North America. There is no one single way of being a gender variant and, yes, there are more female gender variants than some would let on, although perhaps not as many as male gender variants for reasons that Nanda briefly discusses. But I digress . . . according to Nanda, some gender variants engage in heterosexual relations, some engage in homosexual relations and some engage in (gasp!) both. Heck, some don’t even engage in sexual relations at all.

Now, with regards to the replacement of berdache by the term Two-Spirit there might still be problems. In light of the diversity that is characteristic of North American gender variance, can we assume that all gender variants are blessed with two spirits? From an anthropological standpoint does the term Two-Spirit reflect the many variations on the theme any more accurately than berdache? I’m not sure. However, one thing I am sure of after reading texts written by Two-Spirited folk and listening to them is that the term is held in higher regard by Aboriginals and that is enough for me to adopt its usage.

What is interesting about the Aboriginal usage of the term is that it includes pretty much all the varieties of queer that are summarised by the mainstream queer community by one of the brands of alphabet soup (LGBT, LGBTT2I and so forth). All lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, intersexed Aboriginal males and females may self-identify as Two-Spirit.* This is a far cry from the very specific denotation of berdache yet at the same time, it acknowledges the diversity that is a part of this identity.

What is also interesting is that Two-Spirit maintains the spiritual component of this identity unlike its predecessor which reduced the identity to one relating purely to sexuality. Coupled with the European tendency at the time of contact to associate all things sexual with icky, sinful things, the use of the term berdache imposed and propagated an ethnocentric view of gender variants and people who had sex with members of the same sex (MOSS). Two-Spirit, however, reminds us that Aboriginal conceptions of sexuality before the influence of Christianity were far different than those of Europeans.

Now, is Two-Spirit a term that could readily correspond to the local terms in all the linguistic groups across the continent? Probably not. Are the realities of present-day Aboriginals who have sex with MOSS or who adopt gender roles that differ from those usually assigned to their physical sex the same as those of pre-Euro North America? Probably not. Do all Aboriginal people who have sex with MOSS experience what psychologists would call gender dysphoria? Probably not.

Does the term Two-Spirit enable queer Aboriginals to feel solidarity in a society where they risk being ostracised by the dominant cultural groups, by their respective home communities and even by the rest of the queer community? Certainly. And it does this without denying the enormous range of diversity within the Two-Spirit community itself or the presence of some shared elements with non-Aboriginal queers. I’m all for it.

My suggestion for anthropologists, then, is not necessarily to refer to what used to be called berdache in the literature as Two-Spirit. I think that the term gender variant is quite adequate for that in a cross-cultural context and that local terms such as nadleeh, alyha or hwame are most appropriate when discussing specific case studies. However, I think it’s important that anthropologists recognise the self-identification of Two-Spirit individuals and to remember that they exist right here, right now and that they are dealing with realities that are much different than those that existed at the time Europeans encountered Aboriginals.

*As with the increasing use of the term “queer” rather than the terms for specific identities, this is what I would call extreme lumping in the taxonomy of alternate sexual orientations and gender/sexual identities. Our extreme splitters would be the ones who resort to the alphabet soup and keep adding on letters. Me? I’m a lumper. But I recognise the good intentions of both camps.