Monday, July 20, 2009

The Spirit and the Flesh

Walter L. Williams' The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Cultures is a precursor to, and covers much of the same ground as, Will Roscoe’s Changing Ones.

The Spirit and the Flesh is based on years of field work. Indeed, Williams stresses that Amerindian sources became much more likely to open up to him precisely because he was homosexual and therefore not likely to be condemnatory. (And more likely to ask the appropriate questions without hostile presumptions.)

Williams notes early that Amerindian patterns nowadays covered by the term berdache are confusing to Westerners, since they mix our notions of male and female (p.2).
Williams starts by examining how Amerindian myths, use of visions and dreams and concepts of nature permit the variant to be accommodated. He particularly examines the use of teasing and ridicule. He moves on to notions of them having mystical power and their use in ceremonial roles followed by their economic and social roles, particularly within (extended) families.

Having set the scene, the next two chapters explore the gender role (as a third/mixed gender) and the sexual roles (as sexual or even marriage partners of men) of the berdache. The final chapter of the first Part of the book examines the husband of berdache and how having sex with, or marrying, a berdache did not change the gender role of the male partner. Williams concludes:
Generosity and spirituality, not homosexual behaviour, are what underlie the social prestige of the berdache from the Indian viewpoint, but these qualities are emphasized without denying the sexuality of the beradache. Spirituality, androgyny, woman’s work, and sex with men are equally important indicators of berdache status (p.127).
Part II looks at the change in the roles of berdache since the coming of the Europeans. Brutality, repression, incomprehension and quiet survival are the major themes. The first chapter looks at the Spanish campaign against “sodomy” and its effects in Latin America. The second at pirates, seafarers, cowboys and other folk living in frontiers outside the normal social constraints, including hints about their interactions with berdache. The third at the way Bibles and Bureaus operated to repress the berdache traditions in a process of acculturation.

Williams then looks at patterns of resistance and survival (including simple refusal to talk about the special folk among them to outsiders). His also considers the influence of reports about third gender roles in other cultures at Western understandings of sexual variance.

The growth of a gay male culture provided one avenue for Amerindians who would previously have been berdache. But so did revival of berdache traditions as part of a revival of confidence in traditional Amerindian culture. This chapter is a nice study of cultural survival, resistance and evolution.

In Part III, Williams tries to draw some more general implications about issues of identity, variety and social constructionism. First by looking a gender-divergent females in Amerindian culture. He then concludes with a chapter on how cross-cultural perspectives can help us to understand and think about human variety and the fluidity of social roles, including gender roles.

The picture that Williams and Rosco draw of the typical expectations about berdache in Amerindian cultures is remarkably similar to the picture of contemporary gay men and their patterns of behaviour that David Nimmons charts in his Soul Beneath the Skin. Which suggests that some notion of a specific variety of the human is appropriate, since the berdache and contemporary gay males grew up in very different cultures with very different cultural assumptions.

There is a line of commentary which says that simple awareness of cultural diversity is somewhat subversive, since culture often operates most powerfully when its embedded assumptions are either invisible or taken as basic truths built into the structure of the universe. Being aware that other assumptions are possible, indeed viable, indeed may even work better, can undermine cultural assumptions. Reading studies such as Williams’ and Rosco’s certainly allow one to see the truth of that back onto Western culture, rather than only operating the other way.

And to expose the cultural arrogance and ignorance of some commentators: such as Charles Krauthammer claiming that:
Yet until this generation, gay marriage had been sanctioned by no society that we know of, anywhere at any time in history.
Which either rests on an archly restrictive use of the term gay marriage or is simply false.

Of course, being confronted with the reality of diversity can lead to a withdrawal in a more rigid, “purist” conception of one’s own culture. One can see that in the jihadi approach to the menace of modernity. And the growth of religious fundamentalism more generally.

I found both Roscoe and Williams’ studies informative and enlightening. And blessedly free of jargon and obscurity.

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