Native Americans, other "primitive" cultures, and homosexuality

It’s common knowledge that Native Americans were widely accepting of homosexuality (in the form of “two-spirits”), and I’ve heard similar things about other non-Western cultures. How much truth is there to this? Did American Indians, on the whole, have no problem with gay people? Was this something true of all the various different New World cultures? I’m curious because the idea, to me, smacks of the sort of “noble savage” conceptualization that’s somewhat common among leftists, and it seems quite intellectually convenient that Indians would have the wisdom to be accepting of something that leftists themselves have pushed for acceptance of. I’ve never heard much to support the idea, so I suspect that there may be a little bit of rewriting of history in the claim. What about other hunter-gatherer groups? Are gay people accepted among Australian Aborigines, for instance?

I think the Ancient Greeks, during one period, were openly homosexual? Here’s a cite. And more of it in their militaries.

On second thought, I’m not sure if that was entirely relevant, sorry. You asked about “primitive cultures”, but I don’t think the Ancient Greeks were hunter-gatherers.

Yeah, I was aware of them. After all, that’s why they call it “The Unspeakable Vice of the Greeks”. I meant non-Western cultures, ones outside of our own cultural history. And yeah, they were more advanced than I meant.


This thread gives me a chance to cut and paste a sentence from a paper i wrote as a freshman in an anthropology class. The sentence below refers to the Baruya and Sambia societies of Papua New Guinea’s far south-east highlands:

Of course, i should add to my previous post by saying that the homosexual activities practiced during such initiation rites seems mainly to have served the purpose of engendering male solidarity and group identification. As far as i remember, in neither of the PNG societies in question did the men practice homosexual activities outside of the initiation ceremonies.


:smack: I forgot all about the Sambia. I’ve read a couple books on them. Homosexuality was done for ceremonial purposes, but it did not exist strictly during ceremonies (when the Sambia still had these practices, which I believe (but am not certain) they’ve given up). It goes back into the complex conceptualization of semen and masculinity in their culture - but I’ve never read anything about any particular attitudes towards gay people, as this practice was universal among young men. I would tend to suspect that they wouldn’t be into that, as they have rather exacting standards of masculinity. I know other New Guinean tribes have other forms of ritualized homosexuality, though I don’t know anything about them.

I think that’s the kind of pop-cultural fluff that the OP is trying to substantiate. Solid anthropological or historical references would be more appropriate.

As for the OP, do you mean homosexual practices (behaviors) or “gay people” per se? I ask because what you might find in some instances is that homosexual practices regularly occur (e.g., in initiation rites) but that the people who engage in them are not socially defined as “gay” and that persisting homosexual relationships in ordinary, everyday life are not socially sanctioned.

In this regard, it’s worth keeping in mind that rituals are rituals precisely because they are different from everyday life, sometimes an inversion of it. Just look at Mardi Gras, or a meeting of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes. Even if homosexual practices do take place in ritual events, this might only mean that they are accepted or used only in certain circumscribed contexts.

I’d just like to point out that by no means were pre-Columbian Americans one cultural group; I’m sure there are very few statements that are true about all of these cultures.

The Kuna Indians of Panama by all accounts are quite tolerant of homosexuality. The last time I visited Kunaland, there were a couple of guys near my hotel who were engaged in sewing molas (applique textiles used for blouses and sold to tourists), which is traditionally a woman’s task. Although they dressed like males, in t-shirt and shorts, they also wore jewelry, which only Kuna females normally wear. They were also rather effeminate in mannerisms (actually rather amusing, since they kept making catty remarks about the quality of one another’s sewing). I have also heard of male Kuna, noted for the quality of their molas, who dress as women. (The Kuna have a very elaborate and distinctive traditional female costume). On the other hand, the female cook at the hotel, who was somewhat masculine, dressed in male clothes, and I was told she was a lesbian. Now, I don’t know what the actual sexuality or sexual practices of these individuals might be, but it’s clear that the Kuna don’t have much of a problem with people who don’t fit into the standard sex roles regarding dress or behavior.

Re Australian Aborigines:

Take this with a huge grain of salt because I don’t remember many important details.

Anyway we went on a Aboriginal informational tour outside Alice Springs in 1994. The white Australian guide who seemed quite knowledgeable about all the details of the local tribe’s culture informed us that traditionally the young males of the tribe were forbidden contact with females from their teens until they were able to marry at the age of 30 or so (this period coincided with what Westerners might call their “walkabout”). According to the guide the males were homosexual during this time.

In this case it probably makes sense in the context of survival in what is really a very harsh environment…the men can’t have children until later in life which probably keeps the overall population low enough that the tribe can get by on the scant local resources.

It is exactly this issue that makes me wonder if enviroment plays a larger role in a person’s sexuality than current thinking suggests. That there is a biological componet to sexual orientation seems obvious: however, the fact that homosexual activity in different times and cultures seems to vary so widely makes me wonder if the expression of this biological variation is heavily shaped by the social system that surrounds an individual.

In other words, I wonder if the same biological variation that expresses itself as homosexuality in an individual in our culture might not express itself in a substantially different way in an individual in another culture: this would explain why, in studying sexual behavior in other cultures things sometimes do not really seems to jive with our own classification system–we are trying to compare one variable, but three are so many other varibles that we don’t even understand enough to even identify coherently, let alone account for.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the attempt to understand these things, and certainly starting off with comparisons to things we are familiar with is a good place to start, but I honestly think we are as babes in the woods when it comes to understanding the expression of sexuality.

Manda Jo, I think I know what you’re saying, but we also have to take into account that these are the “official” social view of things. If you had asked my grandparents in 1950 if homosexuality was widely accepted in mainstream US culture, they would have told you absolutely no. They probably would have also told you that it was a deviant lifestyle that only a few perverts engaged in. Or that perhaps some soldiers during the war turned to one another for comfort or release, but they certainly weren’t “real” homosexuals. To this day, my grandmother will tell me with an absolutely straight face that her hairdresser has been living in the same house with his bachelor friend for 40 years now, and be very sincere in believing tham to be merely good friends and roommates. (And yes, they are gay and quite happily lifemates, so I’m not making assumptions here - I’ve asked them.)

Did that mean there wasn’t gay activity in the US in 1950? Of course not. Social acceptance doesn’t dictate whether or not a behavior exists. I assume by “current thinking” you mean the theory that sexuality is in large part, if not in entirety, biologically determined. There will still lots of gay people in 1950, that fact was simply not acknowledged in “polite society.”

No, I’m not doubting whether or not there were gay people–oif course there were gay people–and I really don’t consider 50s society to be so different from todays: I’m talking about things like Greek culture, where it seems to me, at least, that you can’t go through and cheerfully label people “gay” or “straight” or “bisexual” and have those terms really mean anything. Surely the same biological variations existed in Greece as they do in the modern world, but sexual behavoir–what sex, sexual attraction ,and sexual identity all meant–seems to have been substantially different. I’m just saying that these things may have played out very differently in times and places where the social roles of “gender” were different, in times and places in which sexual expression played a different role in personal identity.

For example, it is widely accepted that social conditioning and biology BOTH play a role in determining what is sexually attractive within a culture–that there are certain features on men and women both that are universally attractive–bigger hips than waist on women, for example–and features that seem to be attractive as a result of social conditioning: small feet, long hair, elongated necks. It seems to be inevitable that that same sort of social conditioning could affect other aspects of sexual attraction–not to the point that it invalidates or overpowers the biological reality, but a subtle interaction with it. If there is a signifigant social component to the expression of the same biological variation, then it seems counterproductive to project our own models of sexual identifications on cultures that are very different than our own. We need descriptions, not comparisons.

One of my Anthropology profs in college spent a lot of time living with/studying the Herrero of Africa (who may not be “primitive” enough for you–they are herders, but still pretty primitive by Western standards), homosexual behavior (though not what wwe think of homosexuality) was the norm. All boys were required to spend time with the older men, whom they gave sexual favors. Similar to mhendo’s notes, but my prof didn’t describe it as being quite so “ritual” or “sacred”. He also noted that common Western fooferall like “native societies respecting and revering their elders” was, in his experience, a bunch of crap. He said the Herrero bitched and complained about having to support their aging parents as much as Westerners do.

The links I provided may be “pop-cultural fluff” but I am not one to judge the critical assessment of any of them. However, they do illustrate the problem of finding information asked by the OP. In about 30 minutes of searching a topic about which I have no direct knowledge, it’s the best I could do.

And that brings up another point. As I consider myself a bit above average when it comes to online research (Hey, I belong to the SDMB!) what does this say for the typical Internet user who stops at the first link they find?

Discussions of gender variants in other societies or in ancient societies often focus on homosexuality (a concept, which if not accepted, is at least simple* to understand) to the exclusion of transgender. As transgender is a very complex phenomenon far less widely understood than homosexuality, it gets overlooked a lot.

*I do not mean to oversimplify the many-variegated real lives of gays, but just meant that the basic concept of man-on-man sex is simple enough for even morons to grasp. Meanwhile, some highly intelligent Dopers have struggled trying to understand transgender. At least you get points for trying!

For example, the berdaches of some American Indian societies. The “two-souled.” If you look at the whole spectrum of a berdache’s life and place in the culture, it becomes clearer that these are trans women. That’s what the “two souls” refer to. Someone starts out apparently male, and then the female butterfly emerges from the male chrysalis. To those who can see souls in the spirit realm as we see material objects with our eyes, this transgender process is a mysterious, numinous irruption of the sacred in human life. Wakan. The berdaches fully take on the total social role and gender identity of women. This shows that they are transwomen. Gay men are still men, you know.

Another misunderstanding of transgender is the failure to recognize a true crossing of the gender identity boundary; it becomes mistakenly seen as transvestism. They’re not the same at all. Transvestism is “fancy dress” (as our British cousins use the term for costume balls), or “play dress-up” for men. The phenomenon of transwomen, whose innate sense of self is female, is less recognized by casual observers. I think many people are still unaware of the existence of transwomen as such, and wrongly slot them into the categories of gay men, or transvestite men, or both. The difference is that the gays and TVs have male identity, while transwomen have female identity.

When male homosexuality, ritualized or not, is used for the purpose of male bonding (as in guys-only secret societies, the equivalents in other cultures of the He-Man Woman Haters Club), one effect is to marginalize women*, make them practically superfluous. Except for childbearing, domestic drudgery, etc., of course. There is a positive correlation between the level of sexual segregation and gender inequality. Transwomen, on the other hand, since we identify ourselves as women, want to enjoy the company of other women and all that girl stuff, and want to promote what is in the interest of all women.

I don’t mean to take away from the feminist credentials of the many fine feminist gay guys out there. Just be on the lookout for the danger of gaydom being unscrupulously exploited by male chauvinist piggery. I don’t blame gays for this, I blame the male chauvinist pig exploiters. This is how I definitively know I’m not gay: look at any gay porno site. Who’s conspicuous by their absence? Women! I couldn’t stand being anywhere women were excluded. Women are life itself. Exclusion of women is death to me. I like guys as friends, but aspire to being a lesbian, thank you. Maybe even a Lesbian: Sappho may have been the greatest poet who ever lived. They kept Homer’s manuscripts but burned Sappho’s. F**in’ male chauvinist Christian pigs. [/rant]

I mean… Why do you think they called him Spanky?

Yeah, and frankly, I didn’t ask about it. Call me selfish, but being gay, I’m a little more interested in gay issues. Which is why I started this thread.

And this is the stuff I’ve read, over and over, but it stretches credulity to imagine that among the hundreds (at least) of cultures in the Americas before Europeans came, they all shared the same fundamental attitudes towards transgendered people. I asked about this because, to me at least, this smacks of the sort of noble savage revisionism that tells us that Indians “coexisted with nature” and “didn’t believe in the ownership of land” and generally - conveniently - embraced the sort of life that the writers extolling their virtues also embrace. Further, was there, then, any place for gay (and not transgendered) people in American Indian society?

Why do you keep talking about transwomen anyway? What about the two-spirited people who were born female? They existed too. Or do they not count?

That’s very nice, but what does that have to do with this thread? I imagine most people here are quite aware of that already.

Gee, sorry for being gay. Because, you know, we chose to be gay just to support the patriarchy in its oppression of women and, better yet, transwomen. And of course, rights for women, gay people, and transgendered people must remain at opposition. Thanks for the reminder.

Of course, actual anthropologists have explained the role of homosexual sex (as distinct from homosexuality) as a population control mechanism - thus the frequency with which it occurs in Highland New Guinea groups, who lack agriculture and have to maintain low populations. Thus the teenage boys, who’d otherwise be making babies, get sent off by themselves to screw. That’s just one theory, but it makes a little more sense than yours.

That’s very generous of you.

Again, that’s very nice. Have fun with that.

So Christians are bad too?

Look, I don’t want to be mean, but I really don’t appreciated you hijacking a thread in GQ for a discussion of transgender issues, since they don’t really relate to what I asked (or, at very least, you didn’t do a very good job of relating them.) And don’t come in just to insult broad swaths of people. That’s really not helpful.