What's the deal with the Gay Indian?

I’ve heard this story twice now, from vastly diffenent people. When debating the morality or lack thereof of homosexuality, someone will say something like: “Well, the Indians would have a man in their tribe/village who wore women’s attire, did women’s work, and was regarded with ‘tolerance’ or ‘understanding’ and was just another member of the tribe.”. I have been around long enough to know not to automatically believe everything I hear. There are seveal things that cause me concern about the accuracy of this account:

It seems to me that to lump ALL Indians into one category is not likely to be an accurate account of Indian society.

Furthermore, there is a strong tendancy of people, especially from the left end of the political spectrum, to reagard the Native American societies as some kind of perfect utopia which did not contain any of what they consider wrongs of our society.

Also, it seems to me that the more primitive the society, the LESS likely it is to tolerate different behavior.

Finally, our political culture and the internet in particular is infested with many instances of misinformation which is passed from one person to another.

For these reasons, I would like to ask if anyone out there has any hard information supporting or refuting the account of the ‘Gay Indian’.

“Different” is often a matter of social convention, not a matter of universal standards. For example, what would we do with somebody whose “difference” consisted of being ill-tempered and prone to violent outbursts? We would probably try to stop such behavior. Some Germanic cultures had a place for such people amongst their berserkr. So, are you saying that cultures with “berserkers” are less “primitive” than our own?

The specific social position you are talking about is also known as a “berdache” (European origin word). However, it was not necessarily a matter of sexual preference in and of itself.


Thus, while the “berdache” social role existed, identifying it as “gay Indian” misses the mark (although that might be one way that homosexuals in these cultures might be able to find a place).

The popularization of this image is probably from the movie, “Little Big Man”, in which there was a cross gendered Indian, known as a Heemaneh among the Cheyenne. While the movie is probably not the most reliable source of information on the subject, the concept is real:

Cross-cultural Perspecives in the Psycholog of Women & Gender

Most primitive cultures have a niche for the cross-gendered; most American Indian tribes had names for them, and many were revered as healers:Native American (Indigenous) Sexual Constructions

I wonder how well that worked.

Try googling Faafafine. This still happens in Samoa, with men taking on female gender roles and dress and the community is tolerant.

Also try googling the term “Two-spirit”.

The Lakota have a tradition along these lines IIRC.

I thought he was in the Village People

It takes a village to … no that woud be wrong, so wrong.

at the Y-M-C-A!!

Please define what you mean by “Primitive” because I do not necessarily see some of our modern time’s behavior as so evolved.

Nah, we don’t need to hijack to satisfy willful obtusity. I think everyone knows what he/she meant by “primitive” in that case.

A few years back I was working for a tribe which was going through the laborious process of federal recognition, whereby a tribe has to prove its existence as a social and political community distinct from its surroundings. The tribe has a modern tradition of acceptance of homosexuality, and there was a lot of circumstantial evidence to show that this practice is a very old one going back hundreds of years.* I toyed with the idea of using that tradition to show that the tribe was running by a completely separate social standard from the surrounding community. It would have been a monumental task to conclusively prove it, but several anthropologists and researchers agreed with me that we could “see” it, even if we didn’t have time to develop it into probative evidence.

One of the most prominent openly gay Indian activists is Jack Jackson Jr., who is now working in the Arizona state legislature. As director of governmental affairs for the National Congress of American Indians, Jack has already placed his name on the books as one of the finest legislative minds working for American Indian interests.

Curiously enough, the NCAI offices here in DC are located just half a block from DuPont Circle in one direction and the (straight) strip clubs along M Street in the other. More than once I’ve noticed that when a big meeting knocks off, one group of guys will head uphill, and another group will go downhill.

  • The best evidence would have come from colonial-era records, as there were supposedly a number of trials of Indians for homosexual behavior. Unfortunately the public records were edited or expunged by Victorian-era record keepers on moral grounds. Original copies purportedly exist, but the state in question is busy concealing all of its records concerning its resident American Indians and we’ll be lucky if the originals survive intact for use by future generations.

Coincidentally, I’m reading the journals of Lewis and Clark right now and under the entry for December 22, 1804, they mention meeting up with “a number of Squars (squaws) and men dressed in Squars clothes”.

Bernard DeVoto, who edited this edition in 1953, places a footnote here that reads, “These are ‘berdashes’, that is, homosexuals; the Indians believed that they had been directed by a medicine vision to dress and act as women and they suffered no loss of status.”

This seems pretty progressive for 1953; I doubt DeVoto would’ve mentioned it if it hadn’t had some basis in fact. In my reading of gay/lesbian history, I also think that I’ve somewhere seen a photo of a well-known berdache. I’ll have to look it up when I get home.

We’wha, probably the best known berdache.

We’wha looks like a glum Isaac Mizrahi.

…Or Robert Little Star.

Yep, that’s the picture I’ve seen in some GLBT books.


:skips away humming:

Here in Panama, I’ve spent some time with the Kuna Indians, who live on small islands off the Caribbean coast. They have the reputation of being accepting of homosexuality, and from what I’ve seen this is true.

The Kuna have retained most of their traditional culture. Men usually wear Western clothing (t-shirt and trousers or shorts), while women wear colorful and elaborate outfits including an appliqued and embroidered blouse (mola), skirt, kerchief and jewelry. Sewing molas is traditionally a women’s activity.

The female cook at the hotel I usually stay at always wears t-shirt and shorts rather than women’s clothing. (At 5’8", she also happens to be much taller than most Kunas of either sex.) I’ve been told she is a lesbian and lives on another nearby island with others. I’m not sure if there are also male transvestites there.

The last time I was at the same hotel, two men had set up shop sewing and selling molas nearby. Although they dressed in t-shirts and shorts, these were more colorful than men usually wear, and they also wore jewelry. One of the two was also ostentatiously effeminate in his mannerisms. (And was very catty about the quality of his partner’s molas. “Buy mine,” he said. “Why are you looking at his? Mine are much better!”)

Such cross-gender behavior seems to be widespread. From here:

It will be interesting to see what the OP takes away from this discussion. I think you all have put his/her doubts to rest.

As for why people bring this issue up: I think that in debates (or more likely: college arguments in dorms over having one’s beliefs challenged) the fact that there are cultures that accepted gender and sexual roles much different from our mythic visions of an all straight utopia back before those gay people acted up, is meant to put to rest the idea that liberal values lead to bad things like homosexuality. In fact many strongly tradition-bound cultures accepted homosexuality, in their own way.