In 1952, few Americans were familiar with the concept of transsexualism. It was difficult to understand or acknowledge that “gender” was not synonymous with “sex;” that is, most people believed that the anatomy with which a child was born would indisputably influence his or her behavior, disposition, career choices, tastes and sexual preferences in one of two ways: male, or female. It was in that year that Christine Jorgensen was born. Christine Jorgensen was in fact a pseudonym for a 26 year old ex-GI from the Bronx named George. Since childhood Jorgensen had been haunted by his place in the sexual binary system, pulled like a magnet to a female identity despite his male genitals. He had finally decided to seek sex-reassignment surgery, an operation that was not available in America but was crudely performed by some doctors in Denmark (Brown et.
Eventually details of Jorgensen’s surgery were leaked to reporters and the Daily News screamed “EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BOMBSHELL” one quiet morning in December, propelling America into a frenzy of shock, outrage, and curiosity. Some people even saw the fact and publicity of such an event as an important landmark in the destruction of all moral and societal “good.” What most Americans and other Western citizens didn’t know was that a rich history of transsexualism, transgender ism and / or gender variation had been alive and celebrated in many Non-Western societies for innumerable years. The Two-Spirited people of the various American Indian tribes and pre-contact south- and central-Americans are arguably the most interesting example of unique transgender al customs, beliefs, and societal significance. Two-Spirited people, first written about in Western literature in the late sixteenth-century, were called “bard aja” or “berdaches” by European missionaries (Trexler).
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These words indicated a receptive role in sodomy and derived from the Persian “bar dah” — prisoner or kept boy.
Despite evidence that some “berdaches” did provide homo-sexual services for warriors in central American tribes and the apparent frequency with which they took same-sex lovers, these individuals played a primarily gender-based, rather than sexual, role. In some cases this gender role was functional, such as in the incidences of female-born children being raised as boys to facilitate a father’s hunting in the Inuit subsistence based economies. Similarly, in families whose children had all been born male, a child in present-day Colombia may have been given a female gender to fill the role of father’s servant or caretaker of a sick mother. Generally these individuals would retain their given-gender for the rest of their lives (Trexler).
It is important to realize, however, that in most indigenous cultures, the child raised Two-Spirit was not simply raised in the opposite gender role, but as a combination of the two, as notes Roscoe in The Zuni Man-Woman: “[A] male lh amana would take on roles that not only included male occupational status such as farmer, weaver, shaman and story-teller, but potter and housekeeper as well, which were female roles (126).” On the other hand, the majority of research on Two-Spirited people has revealed a gender role that is more spiritual than functional. In stark contrast to Europeans, indigenous Americans did not generally view the existence of a “third gender” as an abnormal phenomenon, but instead as a unique blend of male and female that comes with a heightened spirituality.
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In quite a number of tribes, such as the Navajo, parents would recognize a child that was to become a man-woman or woman-man by the way he or she acted while very young (Goulet).
In the cultures of the Plains and the Prairies, as well as in parts of California and the Northeast, the choice to become a Two-Spirit was preceded by a vision or a dream, which “both explained and legitimized their choice to become a gender other than woman or man” (Lang, 95).
In still other cultures, for example the Canadian Dene-Tha, children are gendered according to a complex system of cross-sex reincarnation beliefs (Lang, 95).
Often these reasons for gender variance are not exclusive, i.
e. , a male may express a predisposition for traditionally female chores while young and later experience a spiritual instruction to become a woman, or vice-versa. Regardless of the reason for gender variance among Two-Spirited people, their dual-genders are a natural part of the Native American cultural world view that “emphasize[s] and appreciate[s] transformation and change” (Lang, 93).
Native Americans are expected to go through many changes in a lifetime.
The Navajo N’a’adleeh’e’e, in fact, means “someone who is in a constant process of change” (Lang, 97).
As living examples of profound change and the mixed natures of masculinity and femininity, traditional Two-Spirits were generally held in high esteem, celebrated and revered in some tribes and given important jobs, as notes Terry Tafoya in a 1992 article:.