Two-spirit couple stand back to back.

LGBT Identities in North and Central America: Two-Spirit

Addressing Cultural Bias

The native two-spirit people of North America exhibited identities in the pre-Columbian era that could be considered LGBT by today’s standards. However, it is essential when talking about these identities that we do not add our own cultural biases. Past native communities did not understand or perceive these identities the same way LGBT identities are today. The experiences of past peoples with these identities are similar to those of current LGBT people, but not equivalent.

A comic called "Ethnocentrism 101". Two chickens are on opposite sides of the road. First says, " How do I get to the other side?". Second one says, "you are on the other side!"

Bias in Research

Many researchers do not take the fluidity of sexuality and gender into consideration. They see gendered divisions of labor as hard barriers, instead of a suggestion. The idealized or simplified depictions of life often studied are partly responsible for this bias. Iconography shows the social norms of the time, not the reality of life for the whole population. Creating a seamless narative of practices and vaules belonging to those of the past is not a productive avenue of research. Doing this will always leave out the contradictions and exceptions. There will always be variability in culture.

Two-Spirit Identity

Pre-Columbian Period

Many native tribes of North America recognize an identity called two-spirit. People of this identity often have traits that are both feminine and masculine in nature. The two-spirit identity was based on the jobs one did for their community. For instance, if a male person participated in tasks done by women, they would be a two-spirit individual. These individuals would often adopt their identities in childhood. If a child was disinterested in the task of women as a female, they would be raised doing men’s work instead. In the Arctic, parents often chose to raise female children as two-spirit. This is because men would hunt, and meat was the most important food source. If there were not enough male children, female children would take the role as hunters. These females would take on a masculine role and wear men’s clothing.

Prestige

Two-spirit people often held high status due to their identity. Two-spirit Navajo people were often cherished healers or artists. Native communities saw two-spirit individuals as very spiritually powerful. Two-spirit people were often sought out for spiritual matters, especially those involving young men and warriors. Some California tribes entrusted two-spirit people with burying the dead, as cisgender people were not spiritually strong enough for such a task.

Early Colonial Period

When colonists first came to the Americas, they documented instances of feminine-presenting individuals of the male sex and masculine-presenting individuals of the female sex. Feminine-presenting males would often have intimate relationships with men, while masculine-presenting females would have similar relationships with women. Colonists took great offense to this, and they were especially disturbed by the feminine-presenting male individuals. Colonists suppressed the identity of two-spirit people through forced conversion to Christianity. Tragically, Europeans also killed many two-spirit individuals.

Impacts of Colonization

The presence of masculine-presenting females and feminine-presenting males in Native American society drastically decreased by the late 19th century. Forced assimilation caused negative attitudes towards homosexuality and “unconventional” gender expression. The erasure of homosexuality and freedom of gender expression in native communities has led to many native people to believe that these identities have no historical context.

Today

It is important to note that two-spirit is a modern term, and would not have been used by past native peoples. LGBT Native Americans coined the term to describe their experiences and link them with the gender expression and homosexuality practiced by their communities before colonization. Native LGBT people looked to historical and anthropological documentation to rediscover the repressed identities of their ancestors. The term two-spirit allows many LGBT native people to feel more connected to their indigenous roots. A Navajo individual named Erna Pahe explains, “ …we are Indian first, we’re Navajo, we’re Pima, we’re Apaches. And we do not divide our group and say that we’re gay, and making us different. We’re all Indians, and that’s the way we portray our feelings…”.

 

Two-spirit couple stand back to back.
Credit: Marcel Petit

The Diné

The Diné tribe’s worldview is one of fluidity and change. Their worldview has influenced them to have a loose, unrestricted view of gender expression in the past. Today, however, the Diné tribe has a more strict view of sexuality. The Diné Marriage Act made same-sex marriage illegal in the Navajo Nation. Those who are against this act say that the decision was influenced by colonization and that native peoples must reconnect with the beliefs of their past. There has also been a push to educate students, especially those who are native, on the history of two-spirit people and the sexual fluidity of the past. This increase in education will hopefully reduce discrimination faced by two-spirit individuals. Some native people believe the two-spirit identity came about through colonial influence. Education will spread the word that this is not the case.

Aztec Homosexuality

Spanish expeditionaries wrote a document called the Florentine Codex in Spanish and Nahuatl. The purpose of the document was to describe the lives and society of those conquered for the king.  This manuscript mentions homosexuality, but biased translations of the past skewed the meaning. The passages that mention homosexuality contain difficult Nahuatl words whose meanings have not been preserved. The translators also allowed their cultural bias to influence the translation, using words like sodomite and effeminate. Geoffery Kimbal, author of “Aztec Homosexuality: The Textual Evidence”, retranslated these passages in an attempt to remove the bias and correct the errors made due to not understanding aspects of the Nahuatl language.

Attitudes

From the Florentine Codex, it appears that Aztec society did not view homosexuality in a positive light, especially homosexual men. Spanish influence over the text likely exaggerates this disdain, however. For example, the codex describes the burning of gay men. It was the Spanish who instated this practice in the region. Attidues towards gay women were not as negative. Aztec society said lesbians are more of an oddity and people to be wary of. The translation reads, “She is scandalous / something fearful / an omen.” Even though Aztec communities did not view homosexuality in a positive light, there is no evidence that they violently suppressed it until the arrival of the Spanish.

The Florentine Codex. The book is open and pages decipting humans are visible.
Written by: Bernardino de Sahagún

 

Zapotec Muxe

Muxe are male individuals of the Zapotec culture who do not conform to the gender expression of men. Zapotec communities often accept muxe individuals, but are not so accepting of female individuals who do not conform to womanly gender expression. People of this latter identity are called ngulu. Zapotec communities consider muxe individuals to be extremely intelligent and skilled. The Zapotec culture considers the craftsmanship of muxe individuals to be more valuable than that of cisgender women. Muxe have the privilege of being able to follow creative pursuits, which Zapotec society values highly. Cisgender women do not have the same opportunity to work in the arts, meaning they are less valued in the culture.

Discrimination

While discrimination towards muxe individuals is not common within the Zapotec community, muxe must deal with harassment from non-indigenous people. Young muxe people can face discrimination in their homes. There have been instances where families beat and shame their muxe child to test if they are truly muxe. The families believe that the muxe individual will remain feminine even under such harsh treatment if they are truly muxe. Afterwards, the community will accept them. Many muxe people are proud to have gone through this treatment, as they see it as validating their identity.

Muxe named Naomy sitting.

Mesoamerica: An Overview

Iconography

Mesoamerican art that depicts human bodies may provide insights into the gender expression of the day. Many human figures in these paintings show no primary or secondary sex characteristics. Depictions include scenes of elites performing rituals in clothing not typically worn by those of their sex. This could symbolize a third gender or cross-dressing.

Division of Labor

The traditional view of Mesoamerican divisions of labor sees women as involved in weaving, cooking, raising children, animal husbandry, and performance of domestic-related ritual. Men built homes, hunted, farmed, engaged in warfare, and were leaders. Not every Mesoamerican individual followed these roles, however. There is also evidence that these roles were not as strict as previously believed. For example, it is likely that people of all genders participated in the crucial task of farming. It is important to note that many Mesoamericans lived in small family units that were spread out. One cannot be choosy about who completes tasks when the number of people available is limited.

Fluidity

When a female individual held a postilion of leadership in Maya society, they often temporally adopted a more masculine form of gender expression. This shows that the division of labor, and gender expression itself, was quite fluid. Class and age shaped the way Mesoamericans experienced gender. The experiences of an elite woman and those of a common woman are vastly different. For the Aztec, the process of becoming an adult was more important to the development of one’s place in society. 

Depiction of an Aztec boy being taught to fish and an Aztec girl being taught to weave

The Maya

The Maya used homosexual sex for their own gain. Elites would perform rituals where they raped the gods to harness their power. The Maya worldview linked penetration with war, human sacrifice, and bloodletting through the penis. The Maya defined sex as the act of penetration, regardless of what part of the body was penetrated. The Moon Goddess of Maya mythology engaged in sex acts with both men and women. The Maya understood her to be both penetrated and the penetrator in these instances, signifying her dual nature. An example of this comes from a ritual meant to shoo away spiders. In the ritual, the Moon Goddess has sex with a female spider. The spider has a penis, emphasizing the masculine and feminine aspects of life.

Maya art depicting two naked men embracing

Homosexuality in Central America Today

Many Central American countries view homosexuality as shameful due to a history of misogyny. Men who are penetrated by other men are seen as submissive and weak. Communities often have more tolerance for men who are the penetrator, as this role aligns more with that of a heterosexual man. Since women are not as valued as men in Latin society, the man who takes on the “woman’s role” in sexual activity is also less valued.

Chileans celebrate passage of law alllowing same-sex marriage
Credit: Rodrigo Garrido

Lesbians

Literature covering LGBT matters often leaves out women. This often has to do with what qualifies as sex in different cultures. As stated in the section about the Maya, they viewed sex acts as involving penetration. This often does not occur in lesbian sex, meaning that it is not “real” sexual activity in certain contexts. However, Native American research leaves out lesbians for a different reason. This is due to the gender identities of native groups being less binary. Thus, lesbianism cannot be as easily defined. Two-spirit females of the past entered into relationships with both men and women. On the contrary, research emphasizes two-spirit males relationships with men. This is the case even though it is common knowledge that two-spirit males also often had relationships with women. This shows western bias, as the gay identity has had more attention (positive and negative) than the lesbian identity in European contexts.

Image of Sharice Davids with supporters behind her.
Sharice Davids:
Congress Women who is a lesbian and Native American.
Credit: Colin E. Braley

Support for Two-Spirit Populations

Native American populations of every identity have faced issues with healthcare access. Most efforts focused on healthcare for two-spirit individuals involve HIV and AIDS research. While this is an important issue, the emphasis on HIV has led to stigma towards two-spirit individuals and the neglect of other healthcare needs. Healthcare for two-spirit people also lacks community connection. Social bonds are important to the health of all, especially marginalized groups. Native Americans in particular place great value on their familial bonds, so it is essential that two-spirit individuals feel connected to their communities. Underpresentation in demographic surveys is another issue. Data is needed to address and meet community needs.

Indian Health Service logo.

Concluding Remarks: History is Power

The historical significance of LGBT people in Central and North America is immense. The identities of past people help members of current communities find their place in society. Colonial powers attempted to silence this history, and were largely successful in shaping the attitudes Indigenous populations hold towards LGBT identities today. History is deeply personal, as seen through the link felt by two-spritit people today to those of the pre-colonial past. It is important for all to reflect on our history, as it can provide clarity in the face of confusion. Discussing history also prevents repetition of the mistakes made by our ancestors, and allows for success where they failed. Providing adequate medical care for two-spirit individuals and Native Americans in general is one step of many needed to address the misdeeds of the past and present.

2 thoughts on “LGBT Identities in North and Central America: Two-Spirit

  1. So interesting and well written. The visuals and links are also top-notch. This author writes in an engaging manner even for those who may not initially be all that interested in a topic. She brought it to life for me.

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