Berdache is a term that commonly refers to Native North American gender variants. These are individuals who assumed alternate gender identities by taking on all or some of the tasks and behaviors associated with the opposite sex. Although it is often used in the anthropological literature to refer to biological males who fully or partially took on women’s roles, it is occasionally used for gender variants of both sexes.
The term has become disputed in the anthropological literature for several reasons. The main reason is that the term itself was originally used by Spanish explorers and was derived from an Arabic word meaning “male prostitute” or “slave.” These explorers had a derogatory view of gender variance and related behaviors, so the term assumed a negative connotation.
Gender variants were often mistaken by early European settlers to be transvestites, homosexuals, or hermaphrodites. None of these identities is accurate in describing the identity of the gender variant. Although cross-dressing and same-sex relations existed to varying degrees among gender variants across Native societies, they carried a different significance within local cultural frameworks than they did for Europeans. Hermaphrodites, individuals who are born with elements of female and male genitalia, may or may not have become gender variants.
The anthropological literature holds evidence of a higher incidence of male than of female gender variance. Some Native societies had both female and male variants while others had only male variants. This might be due to a higher level of flexibility for women in terms of the behavior and tasks in which they could engage without losing their status as women. In any case, these individuals were categorized as members of third or fourth genders rather than as members of the opposite sex.
The Navajo and the Mohave are examples of societies where both female and male gender variance existed. The Navajo term for both male and female variants is nddleeh, while the Mohave distinguish between the male (alyha) and the female (hwame) variant.
In many Native societies, an individual became a gender variant by showing an affinity in childhood with tasks associated with the opposite sex. In many cases, such as among the Mohave, there was a ceremony that served to test the strength of this propensity and to mark the individual’s new status.
Societies differed in the extent to which the gender variant was expected or allowed to adopt behavior of the opposite sex. Depending on the cultural context, the individual might fully or partially adopt the dress, tasks, sexuality, and demeanor associated with the opposite sex. An example of the nearly full adoption of behavior linked with the opposite sex is the Mohave alyha, who would not only carry out female chores and wear women’s clothing but would imitate menstruation and childbirth.
Attitudes toward gender variants in Native societies ranged from admiration and awe to fear and ridicule. However, the spiritual systems in place in many of the societies where gender variance existed provided a context whereby a gender-variant identity was validated and given meaning. Very often, the gender variant was considered to hold sacred powers and had special status as a healer or filled specific roles in sacred ceremonies.
While early European explorers assumed that all gender variants were homosexual, there was variation in their sexuality. Some variants engaged in sexual relationships with one sex only; others had relationships with both women and men; and others had no sexual relationships at all. In many cases, short- and long-term unions could form between a gender variant and a member of the same sex. Even in societies where homosexuality was generally frowned upon, such as the Navajo, these unions were acceptable since the participants were of different genders.
By the middle of the 20th century, the numbers of visible gender variants among Native societies had decreased significantly. Forces of Western socialization contributed to changes in attitudes toward gender-variant individuals, and they came to stand greater chances of being marginalized. Recently, wider movements for the rights of homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals and other categories of people who fall outside of the sexual mainstream have had echoes in Native communities. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Native North Americans have promoted a new recognition of the role of gender variants in Native societies. Although local terms are sometimes used to describe these individuals, the pan-Native term “two-spirit” has come into popular usage.
- Nanda, S. (2000). Gender diversity: Cross-cultural variations. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
- Roscoe, W. (1998). Changing ones: Third and fourth genders in Native North America. London: Macmillan.
- Williams, W. (1992). The spirit and the flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian culture. Boston: Beacon.