The Berdache Spirit
by Wendy Susan Parker
In 1530, The Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca wrote in his diary of seeing "soft" native Indian males in Florida tribes dressing and working as women. Later, numerous reports by 17th century Spanish Conquistadors in the southwest, and 15th century writings by Catholic missionaries, French fur traders and British Colonists in the northwest confirmed the same phenomenon in other tribes. Cultural anthropologists later documented this "third gender" status in at least 120 other North American tribes and in numerous other cultures around the world.
They were named by Europeans as berdache" from the Persian "bardaj," originally a derogatory term meaning a passive homosexual partner usually a "pretty" or feminine young boy. Yet, Indian berdache are very different from the European view of "berdaj" as "sodomite heretics" as written about by the Crusaders invading Persia in the Middle Ages.
Instead, native cultures seem to embrace the notion of an opposite gender identity, different from one's anatomical sex WITHOUT any implied sexual preference. They were viewed by native tribes as having an almost Sacred" status for the most part. Indian spiritual philosophy not only accepts a "third gender" status, but almost encourages it. With few exceptions by some of the more warlike tribes like the Apache and Comanche, the berdache are found to comfortably coexist in almost every single North American tribe, especially in the midwest, great plains and the southwest.
Unlike European Americans, gender or sexual divergence did not threaten the Indians. Berdache males in particular often became healers, surgeons, counselors, therapists, high religious priests, shamans, witch doctors and medicine men. They were regarded as a kind of "holy men." Berdache males could also become one of the multiple wives of Indian braves and, in rare cases, of genetic females who became "men" by proving themselves as warriors. The term berdache" is, of course, a generic one, as they were called by different -terms depending on the tribe. They were "winktes" in the Lakota Sioux, "Nadle" in Navaho tribes, "Shamans" in the Mojave and "Mahu" in the Polynesian culture of Tahiti.
Since the berdache could mix characteristics of both genders, they were viewed as having a special status as if "blessed" by the gods. They were thought to be the "middle gender," and seen as prophets and visionaries having an almost mystic and psychic vision into the future. They were often consulted by tribal elders and chieftains because they were thought to have a kind of "universal knowledge" and special connection to the "great spirit."
It is extremely interesting to note that the concept of a "transsexual" is a Western one based on the notion that there are two "opposite" sexes with distinct, culturally "Approved" gender characteristics. Western philosophy seems much narrower in this respect than Eastern philosophies as it allows only for strict stereotypes. Setting up a rigid dichotomy of paired opposites allows little tolerance for cultural and social variances of what is perceived to be masculine or feminine. With these narrow constrictions on all behavior, it is little wonder that we live in such a neurotic and violent society. With little room to express the total spectrum of human emotion from nurturing to assertive behavior, people have to hide or ignore some of the basic emotional outlets ascribed to one gender or the other. Only recently do we see a social acceptance of men "in touch" with their feminine side, or assertive women who, as the book says, "...run with the wolves."
Because of these polar stereotypes, people who are merely dissatisfied with their GENDER ROLE feel they have only ONE alternative: to anatomically become the other sex through surgery. Since this was impossible before the surgical techniques and synthesized hormones of the 20th century, Native American Indians allowed for more gender role flexibility without the social stigma of our modern culture. In our myopic modern society, restrictive western social values see only two diametrically opposed possibilities, yin OR yang, rather than the unifying combination of both in an androgynous mix.
A "culture" is really just an accumulation of social and historical "habits" through a repetition of tradition. The notion of feminine behavior and "being a woman" is a SOCIAL entity, not a biological one. (Sorry Mr. Freud, anatomy is NOT destiny.)
In comparison with Native Indian berdache, it is arguable that many transsexuals of today become "post-op" only because of the pressure of a Polarized" western society of EXTREMES. (In Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies, one is encouraged to seek the "middle path.")
In modern times, one is forced to choose only one role or the other with NO allowances for variations along an infinitely divisible gender spectrum. Even more confining in modern America is the view that calls for even MORE extreme role models. I call this the Rambo/Bimbo syndrome. You are either Sylvester Stallone, Marilyn Monroe, or a disappointment." In a metaphysical sense, the modern post-op TS could be seen as perpetuating gender role stereotypes and thus limiting the social wardrobe and habits restricting both males AND females.
Sex and sexuality seem to be a biological constant. However, gender identity should not be drafted by laws and defined by society's rules! The Indians of North America constructed a beautiful option of alternative gender possibilities WITHOUT stigma. As part of their "vision quest" to search for higher truths, they allowed a kind of personal freedom which we don't ever enjoy today. We are not given the personal-life choices that were readily available in what we arrogantly call Primitive cultures.
By allowing the flexibility of lifestyle variations, the Indians liberated themselves in a spiritual sense in a way we could learn from today. The emphasis among the Indians was more towards social role choices and expectations than focusing on sexual behavior. Our culture today in America has an obsession with homophobia that is both unhealthy and, ultimately, self destructive.
A study of Indian berdache culture could teach us all a way to break out of the narrow-minded Western model of "deviance" and allow us to appreciate the beautiful diversity of the human population in our species of humankind wherever they may fall along the spectrum of the beautiful gender rainbow.