Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Changing Ones

Will Roscoe’s Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America is a very helpful analysis of genders in Amerindian* societies. These societies frequently operated on notions of sex and gender which contradicted Christian/European assumptions about there only being two genders.

In Christian/European/Western conceptions of gender, your biological sex determines your gender. That is, your gender is a “natural” expression of your physical form. So, that there are only two sexes (ignoring the tiny minority of intersex folk) means that there are only two genders. Sex and gender are the “same” thing. (Even though conceptions of the qualities or traits of each gender change over time.)

Which is not how Amerindian (or, as Roscoe points out when he extends his analysis) many other societies thought about the matter. To them, your gender was determined by your physical form and your psyche. So there were three (or four) genders: male-in-form-and-psyche, male-in-form-and-female-in-psyche, female-in-form-and-psyche and (sometimes) female-in-form-and-male-in-psyche. (Not all societies seemed to have acknowledged the last group, and some who did seem to have put them in a single physical-form-different-from-psyche gender along with the male-in-form-female-in-psyche.)

When it came to social roles, typically your emotional gender was more important than your physical form. Including who you had sex with (and who you might marry). But, as Roscoe is at pains to point out, it was about much more than sex.
In Part I, Roscoe takes us through Amerindian gender diversity. In Part II, he provides a more general assessment of its implications.

Roscoe first introduces us to Amerindian gender diversity, mainly through European reports of the same. Roscoe notes that there were plenty of same-sex marriages. He approvingly quotes a Crow elder from 1982 saying
We don’t waste people the way white society does. Everyone has their gift p.4.
Roscoe's first aim being to document Amerindian gender diversity: which, he notes, anthropology showed little interest in until the 1980s (p.21).

He also introduces a continuing theme, which is European failure to see Amerindian gender diversity in its own terms but, instead, refracting it through received theories. Ranging from Christian denunciations of “sodomy” to the condescending reductionism of psychoanalytic theory. The former included such vilenesses as Balboa in 1513 throwing 40 men dressed as women to the dogs, a massacre a C17th Spanish historian called
A fine action of an honourable and Catholic Spaniard (p.4).
Chapter Two is a look at the life and times of Osch-Tisch, a Crow bote (third gender male) warrior who died in 1929, aged 75. Chapter Three does the same with Hastiin Klah, a Navajo nadleehi (third gender male) noted for his artistic and his shamanistic knowledge and achievements, who died in 1937, aged 70.

Chapter Four examines alternative identities and genders native women, particularly through particular individuals (and how Europeans reported them, as distinct from how Amerindian sources remembered them). Chapter Five looks at gay Amerindians today, including the loss of traditional notions of gender diversity—and the roles such folk played—and the absorption and adaptation of contemporary gay and lesbian identities from wider American society. The loss of such traditional notions and roles Roscoe does not ascribe merely to Christian influence within Amerindian society, but also a wide range of actions and pressures by
countless government officials, school teachers, missionaries and local whites (p.101).
Then it is on to Part II, trying to put all this in a wider context. He starts by noting the huge difficulties Europeans had in simply describing what they were seeing (pp120ff). Particularly whether to see it primarily in terms of gender difference or sexuality and using terms such as hermaphrodite, homosexual, transvestite, transsexual.

Eventually, apparently starting in 1978, anthropologists decided those who have become labelled generically as berdache (a Persian word originally) were a third gender (p.123). Roscoe takes us through this developing understanding—including his own suggestion of gender diversity as a form of occupational specialisation—arguing for a multi-dimensional understanding that incorporates gender, sexuality, social role, productive specialisation and religious functions (p.135). He summarises the minimum conditions for multiple genders as being division of labour by gender categories, a belief system where gender was fluid or otherwise not determined by physical sex and historical circumstances that allowed such roles to be constructed and practised (p.136).

Roscoe then examines third and fourth genders in Yuman culture and history in terms of this analysis. Which leads into an examination of how much such traditional roles and concepts of gender diversity have survived in Amerindian cultures. Roscoe is very keen to consider transmissions of concepts and ideas between cultures. Including how European usages changed over time, from a sodomite
rhetoric of abomination (p.179)
to the use of a more neutral hermaphrodite.

He notes historian Rudi Bleys's work finds a tendency for European commentary on gender diversity in a wide range of non-European societies to shift from abomination of sodomites to noting their femininity and seeing same-sex activity as the province of a distinctive minority (p.182). Roscoe also argues that how what we now call homosexuals in European society had a self-understanding that could be construed as being that of a third gender (p.185). And that contact with gender-diverse cultures influenced how Europeans talked about, and thought about, human sexual variety, including in their own societies.

In Chapter Nine Roscoe powerfully critiques attempts to see the role of the berdache in Amerindian society as one of subordination, showing how the sources simply do not sustain such a view. He also notes how, up until the Valladolid debates in 1550, denunciations of sodomy were part of the justification of Spanish conquest (Pp195ff).

In his final chapter, Roscoe notes how widespread conceptions of third (and fourth) genders have been in human societies, including the ancient Middle East. How very common it was for such to perform shamanistic, priestly or other religious roles. And how challenging such is to Western conceptions of only two genders, the (solitary) naturalness of heterosexuality and the allegedly transgressive/deformed nature of divergence from that. As Roscoe says, that were not merely differences that were tolerated
they were differences that served (p.212).
The book also includes a comprehensive index of Amerindian tribes with terms used and roles played by members of third (and fourth) genders.

I found it a fascinating and very informative book. I particularly admired Roscoe’s care with sources. It does help make one see how bizarrely reductionist Christian/European/Western understandings of sex and gender have been (and still are).

* Roscoe uses the term American Indian. I prefer the single word Amerindian that, to my ear—being an Australian living in Australia—is less jarring in its false allusions to Indians. That Roscoe clearly has a great deal of experience with contemporary (American Indians) gives him considerable authority on the issue. The phrase still just jars on me.

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