We often think that a sophisticated understanding of gender is a contemporary phenomenon. The idea of non-binary or non-gender conforming identities has come to the fore in Western societies relatively recently in historical terms.
However, a long tradition of nuanced understanding of gender had existed in Native American/First Nations peoples since before Europeans invaded the Americas. Before this incursion, Native American peoples recognized up to five genders. These non-binary gender conforming people are known as “Two-Spirited.”
Two-Spirit replaces the word Berdache, an offensive term used to describe homosexuality or what Europeans saw as transvestism. Coined by the French in North America, the term originally comes from the Persian term “beraj”, meaning sexual slave or “kept boy.” Because of its derogative connotations and historically pejorative use, the term was dropped in 1990. The term Two-Spirit was established in Winnipeg, Manitoba at the Third Annual Native American/First Nations Gay and Lesbian Conference by activist Albert McLeod and others.
While it may be tempting to describe Two-Spirit in Western terms like transgender, it is important to remember that Two-Spirit describes much more than just having a gender identity or gender expression that differs from one’s assigned sex. Given that Native Americans stressed a person’s “spirit” or character, a Two-Spirit person must be understood as one having a different gender from both women and men. This can range from slightly effeminate males or masculine females to androgynous or transgender persons, to people who completely take on another gender identity and social position.
The Two-Spirit tradition came under attack soon after Europeans established themselves in the Americas. George Catlin, an American painter, author, and traveler who specialized in Native American portraiture, claimed the tradition “must be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.”
Instead of being feared or reviled, Two-Spirit people were often held in high regard in their own communities. Not only were they socially valuable in their ability to do the work of both men and women, but they were also valued for their spiritual gifts. Since the physical world is believed to be a reflection of the spiritual world, Two-Spirit people were seen as doubly blessed, able to see the world with the eyes of both man and woman. They often held positions of esteem within their group. Two-Spirit people were seen as extraordinary human beings, and honored as such.