Androgynous people were seen as doubly blessed by the spirit world and therefore often looked to for guidance and well respected in North American aboriginal traditional cultures. They were seen as special individuals who embodied the spirit of both the male and the female and therefore assumed to have the capacity for greater vision. They were categorized by their people, not unlike the traditions in Siberia and Asia, into a third category that was neither ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and in the mother tongues of the various languages of these individuals they were referred to as “two-spirit” or “man-woman”.
As youths all members of the community were expected to officially accept a gender role for their contribution to the community (bow or basket). To complement and balance gender roles for a family therefore, it was acceptable for a feminine male who preferred women’s work for example to marry a man who preferred to be a hunter, or for a masculine female hunter in turn to marry a feminine female. The gender-conforming spouse of two-spirit people were not seen as different or odd or as anything other than honoured.
Two-spirit people were often considered to be exceptionally hard workers and artistically gifted, of great value to their extended families and community with the capacity to do both men and women’s work. Among many communities, a family believed it was of great benefit and honour to have a two-spirit person as a relative because they assisted with their siblings’ children, took care of elderly relatives, and served as adoptive parents for orphans.
The diversity of gender and sexuality was totally acceptable and seen as natural gifts from the spirit world. That was until Christian Europeans invaded and taught that two-spirit people were “berdache’ of ‘sodomites’ and condemned. Respect and acceptance for androgynous people greatly declined overtime due to the domination of Christian European values and two-spirit people were forced by government officials, Christian missionaries and even their own people to conform to male or female gender roles since the Europeans denied their category of existence.
For many decades two-spirit people lost their identity, but in the last few they have been trying to reclaim it, here is there story:
The link above opens a 20-min conversation of the overview of historical and contemporary Native American concepts of gender, sexuality and sexual orientation. This short documentary explores the “berdache” tradition in Native American culture, in which two-spirit people act as a conduit between the physical and spiritual world, and because of this were placed in positions of power within their communities that were lost due to colonialism and the result of many suicides and pain. (Michel Beauchemin, Lori Levy & Gretchen Vogel 1991 20 min. USA)
***the last one-minute is exceptional (20:14~): paraphrasing Harry Hay:
“if you are a straight white male in this society, you don’t have to think. Everything is scripted for you, like how to see the world, what your place is in it, everything reinforces that in terms of movies, schools, books, and so on. But if you are different, ethnically, visibly or otherwise, then you can’t follow the script. instead you are constantly having to think and ad lib what your role is and how you relate to things in a different way. It teaches you a completely different set of skills and how you think about things…you need to work out not what is automatic, but what is most appropriate for you…”
REF: Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1986