Wednesday, October 23, 2013

And Never Mark Twain Shall Meet

I've finally begun reading Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality,* after owning my copy for fifteen years.  (I have other still-unread books I've owned longer.)  It's a well-known book, collecting work by Indian and non-Indian writers, most but not all of them academics, and it's often cited in other works, so it's long past time I read it myself.  So far it's interesting, but of course I still argue with some of the writers' assumptions.

Co-editor Sabine Lang's "Various Kinds of Two-Spirit People: Gender Variance and Homosexuality in Native American Communities," for example, draws on the literature and on Lang's own fieldwork.  She begins by disavowing the term "berdache", which was long used by anthropologists to refer to "alteratively gendered people of either sex" in favor of "two-spirit," and to her credit she announces her intention, that whenever "talking about gender variance in a particular tribe, the terms existing in that tribe will be used" (100).

Lang points out that, though "the role of womanly, two-spirit males in Native American cultures (i.e., American Indian and Inuit-Eskimo) has long been viewed as institutionalized (male) homosexuality", "quite a number of reports mention 'berdache' males living with women or who had sexual relationships with women," and these reports have "been downplayed or overlooked by most writers."  She reminds the reader that "(to my knowledge) most anthropologists who collected data on the lives and sexual relationships of 'berdaches' never talked to a two-spirit person but interviewed members of a given tribe who were knowledgeable as far as their tribe's culture was concerned and were willing to cooperate" (102).  (This failure to talk to two-spirit Indians was already changing by the time Two-Spirit People was published in the 1990s: Lang, Will Roscoe, Sue-Ellen Jacobs and other anthropologists met and interviewed two-spirit people.)

So Lang argues, for good reasons, that
the traditional two-spirit roles ... are apparently not defined in terms of sexual preference; they are defined in terms of gender according to the way a given Native American culture constructs gender and gender roles, as well as appropriate sexual behavior relating to those roles.  Cultural constructions of gender and gender roles varied, and still vary, widely in Native American cultures given the diversity among these cultures. ...

Thus, in many native American cultures there existed -- and in a number of instances still exists -- three or four genders: women, men, two-spirit/womanly males, and, less frequently, two-spirit/manly females.  In each Native American culture that acknowledges multiple genders there also exist specific words to refer to people who are of a gender other than woman or man. ...

These terms do not refer to sexual behavior even though certain kinds of sexual behavior may be considered sexual behavior may be considered culturally appropriate for an individual belonging to any gender category [103].
This is all good, and should be known by people of varying backgrounds who still, to this day, equate gender variance among American Indians with homosexuality or gayness, or who talk as though all Indian cultures had the same pan-Indian concept of two-spirit.  ("Two-spirit" is a new word, coined around 1990 by Native American sex/gender variant activists as a substitute for berdache.  Like any such blanket term, it has an unfortunate tendency in use to erase historical and cultural differences.)  But there are problems.

Lang implicitly contrasts the various two-spirit "roles" with other constructions of gender and erotic variance, especially "homosexual," "gay," and "lesbian."  But many of the terms used by European Americans to refer to people who relate erotically to others of their own sex do not "refer to sexual behavior" either.  "Gay" and "lesbian," most obviously, but also older terms popular and clinical: "invert," "pansy," "dyke," "fairy," even "queer."  The older terms especially are based on gendered behavior first, with erotic behavior at most implied, just as Lang says of in the Native American terms she lists.  The pansy or fairy was characterized as an effeminate man, given to certain styles of dress (including but not limited to cross-dressing) with a tendency to work in certain occupations (hair-dresser, interior decoration, shop clerk, hairdresser, etc.) and a tendency to want to be penetrated by a "normal" male.  The dyke is a masculine woman, characterized by her manner of dress and her hairstyle, likely to work in male-associated jobs like truck-driving, and drawn to feminine women.  Even the cliched description of the invert, the soul of a woman in the body of a man, refers primarily to gender and not to sexual behavior, and has spiritual connotations not so different from those that supposedly characterize the two-spirit.

So, when Lang goes on to say that
In Western culture, a homosexual relationship is defined as being between two men or two women -- two individuals who are of the same sex and the same gender [104]
-- she's flat wrong.  Her use of the blind passive ("is defined as") is a giveaway: Just who is doing the defining?  I'd really like to know.  Just about the only people I know who define homosexuality in these terms are Western or Western-trained academics like Lang, and they do so solely to distance themselves from that definition.  She can't mean biologists or psychologists, since they overwhelmingly conceptualize homosexuality in terms of inversion.  At the grass-roots level, most American gay people I know of agree that there's some kind of connection between homosexuality and inversion.  The respectability-minded gay people I call Homo-Americans, when they're in public-relations mode, insist that we are and should be gender conformists -- but when they want to raise money for their organizations, they put on drag shows.  And remember the gay male clone who told the gay sociologist Martin Levine, "Darling, beneath all this butch drag, we are still girls."  So it's hard to be sure, when some avowedly manly gay men throw tantrums over figure skaters, that the same guys don't have a Dolly Parton costume in their closets for those private moments, or enjoy lip-synching with Dianna Agron.  William S. Burroughs "was notoriously dismissive of pansies, fags, and swish" and once raved to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac that "All complete swish fairies should be killed, not as traitors to the cause of queerness, but for selling out the human race to the forces of negation and death"**  -- but in the 1980s documentary Burroughs Allen Ginsberg affably reminisced with Old Bull Burroughs about their youthful drag personae; I believe Burroughs was The Countess.  But maybe he wasn't a complete swish fairy.

So what could Lang have meant?  My point is not that homosexuality really, essentially does equal inversion, it's that there is no such thing as the Western definition of homosexuality: there are several, and they coexist, however uneasily.  But the inversion model is prominent among them, and probably dominant (or hegemonic, as they say).

A few pages later, Lang writes,
Because most anthropological researchers classified relationships between two-spirit males and men and two-spirit females and women as homosexual, when doing fieldwork in North American cultures they failed to look for relationships involving two persons of the same sex and the same gender.  Thus, hardly anything is known about the way homosexual relations in the Western sense were seen in Native American cultures at a time when two-spirit roles were still largely intact and about concepts of homosexuality that may have existed in American Indian cultures before the massive impact of Western influences.  It seems, however, that there was generally no way to acknowledge a sexual relationship between two men formally, or between two women formally, the way various kinds of heterogender relationships (woman and man, male two-spirit and man, or female two-spirit and woman) were acknowledged formally [106-7].
If non-Indian anthropologists defined homosexuality as sex between two individuals of the same sex and same gender, then why did they classify relationships between a two-spirit male and a social man as "homosexual"?  On Lang's assumptions, they should have regarded it as something totally foreign to their culture, looked (apparently in vain) for homogender homosexuality, and concluded that there was no "homosexuality" in American Indian cultures.  Instead, Lang says, they looked at two-spirits and classified them as "homosexual."  This makes no sense, on Lang's assumptions.  It makes plenty of sense, however, if we recognize that the dominant "Western" model of The Homosexual was the invert, and the model of "homosexual" relationships was heterogender.  Indeed, Will Roscoe has shown*** that the doctors who constructed the European medical model of inversion drew on American Indian "berdaches" as one of their historical inspirations.

Suddenly Lang is concerned to discover evidence of homogender homoeroticism among the Indians.  I think it is a safe bet that social males did sometimes have sex with one another and even form enduring bonds with one another, as did social females.  This also happened in the West despite the dominance of the inversion model.  But homogender relations were, as Lang admits, rendered invisible by a conceptual model that refused to admit their existence, and other writers in Two-Spirit People offer evidence that homogender sex was usually proscribed among the Indians, whether between social males/females or between same-gender two-spirits.

Lang herself writes that among the Shoshoni, "The only sexual relationship that is considered inappropriate is between two taina wa'ippe [i.e., two-spirits].  Such a relationship seems to viewed as incestuous because at least male taina wa'ippe regard each other as 'sisters'" (106).  But the rejection of sexual relations between inverts is worldwide, with terms like "incest," "lesbianism," and even "cannibalism" used to express their abhorrence of the very idea.  Annick Prieur reports in her study of Mexico City vestidas that she has "also heard jotas comment with disgust at the sight of two mustache-wearing men kissing each other, seeing it as something "abnormal." ****  Yet Mexico is a "Western" culture.

Despite all the evidence of variety and difference within cultures, even dissident anthropologists and sociologists have an amazingly difficult time recognizing that societies aren't uniform or monolithic.  I don't know what to do about this resistance, but it's a problem: it distorts not only their understanding of other cultures, but of their own.

* Edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

** Quoted in Barry Reay, New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America (Manchester, 2010), 171-2.

*** In Roscoe, "Was We'Wha a Homosexual? Native American Survivance and the Two-Spirit Tradition," GLQ (1995) 2(3), 193-235, esp. 215.

**** Annick Prieur, Mema's House, Mexico City: On Transvestites, Queens, and Machos (Chicago, 1998), 149.