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Revista Sexologíea y Sociedad. 2013; Vol. 19, No. 1
ISSN 1682-0045
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Indigenous peoples and gender identities: questioning sexual dualism

Dr. Olivier Allard
Picardie-Jules Verne University, France

Doctor (PhD) in Social Anthropology at Cambridge University (England), professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the Picardie-Jules Verne University (France).


Some contributions made by social anthropology to gender studies are discussed. Cases of «third gender» and other phenomena that question Western dualism (man/woman, gay/straight, active/passive) are analyzed. It will enable to stress the importance of the ritual and religious aspects of gender identities, as well as the way they have erroneously been reduced by some authors to a question of sexual deviance (or eccentricity).

Key words: indigenous peoples, gender identity, sexual dualism

I want to express my gratitude to the French Embassy and CENESEX for this invitation which represents a unique opportunity to share ideas and experiences with you. I will also like to apologize for my broken Spanish; I have lived in South American countries for many years, but I spoke native languages most of the time.

That is why I am an anthropologist and I am going to speak on the basis of my field of study. But I will also attempt to draw conclusions and develop broader ideas. Therefore, I hope to convince you that anthropology can contribute to current debates; and I am also interested on hearing your comments.

My interest in gender identities began when I was living with the warao natives in the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela. This ethnic group has a category of people known in the warao language as tida-wina: they have the anatomy of men, but they dress and live as women. Therefore, we might consider it as a transgender identity; of course, there is no sexual surgery involved. This is not a case of occasional transvestism, but a permanent state. According to warao elders, they used to be secondary wives of polygamous men who were often shamans, that is, religious specialists of that ethnic group. Today, things have changed a lot: on the one hand, Venezuelans living in that area call them «queers», obviously, in a very disparaging fashion; on the other hand, since the HIV/AIDS epidemic outbreak, doctors and other health actors included them in the risk group of men having sex with men (1, for the HIV/AIDS epidemic). Consequently, in the warao communities living in close contact with native-born Venezuelans, we can find many effeminate boys and men who have joined the Venezuelan prejudices, thus becoming more queers than tida-wina. In communities especially affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we can witness the exclusion of those carrying the lethal infection, including the tida-wina, and AIDS contaminating intensity is overestimated: they interrupt all social relations, not only the sexual ones, with infected people, families and communities. So, cases like the waraos pose an intellectual and political problem: How can their gender identity be determined? What can we do in this regard?

In my presentation, I am going to speak about indigenous peoples across the world, especially in the Americas and the Pacific. We call indigenous people those native from former colonized regions who still exist and live under the domination of colonizers and their descendants. They are fragile peoples because they are victims of colonialism. I will deal with this issue at the end of my presentation. But I will also try to demonstrate that their problems can contribute to innovative thinking, for the indigenous peoples represent an intellectual resource.

Western sexual dualism: an insurmountable horizon?

Before telling more things about their gender identities, I would like to be more precise concerning the modern Western thinking characterized by sexual dualism. In Europe, this has been obviously studied by historians and berated by gender theoreticians. Obviously, we can think in the opposition between men and women. In the Western world, everything that could jeopardize such opposition is dealt with in a toughened fashion. For example, both the medical and official institutions take care of transsexuality, as shown by professor Jaunait. What I want to say is that, in Europe, for doctors and for the overwhelming majority of people, a person who has successfully changed his/her sex is not (or, at least, should not be) a transsexual person, but either a man or a woman. Otherwise, if the transgender identity becomes permanent, it will mean a failure of the medical process.

In several Latin American societies, anthropologists and sociologists have supported the idea that the crucial opposition is different: beyond that between men and women, the one existing between the active and the passive during sexual intercourse. The main criterion is not the anatomic sex, but sexual activity conceived in a dualistic manner. Active individuals are true men, and passive individuals are women, effeminate men or travesties. If you are an active individual, having sex with any person will have no consequence over your gender identity. Don Kulick, an anthropologist, conducted a study on this issue in Salvador de Bahía, Brazil (2), and George Chauncey, a historian, showed that it was more or less the same in New York at the beginning of the 20th century (3). Such logic might seem similar to that of the warao natives: a warao man can have a wife who is a biological woman, and another one who is tida-wina or transgender, but this has no consequence at all on his identity definition among the waraos: he does not become a bisexual or homosexual, he is still a man.

Then, my question is: would it be really impossible to escape from sexual dualism, being a man/woman or active/passive (or homosexual/heterosexual)? I do not want to argue here about the complex relation between gender identity (or sex) and sexuality, since this will require a very extensive theoretical and historical presentation (4:57-62). I just want to take some ethnographic examples to show that gender identities among indigenous peoples are not so dualistic, because they value third terms and changing processes; nor so «sexual», since anatomic sex and sexual practices are not seen as deciding identity criteria.

The berdaches in America: a ternary identity based on productive activities

My first examples come from native North America where, since the Conquest, the existence of transgender people, known as berdaches (5, 6), was very frequent, similar to the tida-wina among the waraos. They were mainly men who performed female tasks and dress as women, though there were also women involved in hunting and wars who were considered men (despite the fact that they did not dress as men). One might think that they were like today´s persons who change their sex but, as there was no «sex re-assignation» surgery at that time, most interpretations focused on sexuality. According to many authors, they had sexual relations and, sometimes, married with ordinary women and ordinary men, that is, partners of the same anatomic sex, but having a complementary identity. In Conquest times, they were considered «sodomites». In Central America, Vasco Núñez de Balboa revealed how he threw forty of them to feed the dogs in Panama (7). During the 20th century, it was conceived as a particular cultural response to the homosexual trends existing across the world: that is how the ethno-psychiatrist George Devereux explained this phenomenon in 1937 (8). It could also be suggested that it was only a consequence of the opposition between active and passive, a way to anticipate the transgender people described by Kulick in 1997 (2).

However, instead of only basing myself on our concepts, I would like to call the attention on how they differ from us. I am going to stress two aspects. Firstly, they are conceived as a third category, they are valued as half men and half women or, better to say, halfway between men and women (9). It means that those who do not fall in one of these two main categories are not invisible; on the contrary, they play a special role. In native North America, transgender people used to hold religious and ritual responsibilities: being between the two sexes provided them with the capacity to act as mediators between the world of humans and the world of spirits, that is, the role played by the shamans (5; 6:88-89). Today, people acting as spiritual mediators are called «two-spirit people» or «two-soul people» instead of berdaches, decision that was adopted at the 1990 Conference of Native North American Gays and Lesbians held in Winnipeg (10:109).

Such implications, which have nothing to do with sexuality, lead me to my second point: it would be a mistake to understand this phenomenon as especially a sexual one. So then, I will go back to what I said concerning their sexual practices. Certainly, many anatomic men with a female identity were married to men, and many anatomic women with male identity had love and sexual relations with women. But this was not systematic at all, and there are also many cases of men with female identity who were married to women and had children. This means that sexuality was not a determinant criterion (6:96). For example, according to anthropologist Don Kulick, what happens in Salvador de Bahía is quite different: the first experience as a passive individual is crucial, more than anything else, for the development of transgender people as reflected in their autobiographic stories (2:579-580).

Among North American native populations the main criterion was the productive activities chosen by boys or girls, especially hunting and war, on the one hand (symbolized by the bow), and agriculture and crafts, on the other hand (symbolized by the basket). Obviously, in the Western world, gender identity can be linked to trades as well. However, according to my experience in France and England, a boy choosing female activities or a girl choosing male tasks will only result in a suspicion concerning his/her sexuality: in the Western world, sexuality is the main criterion used to define identity, and the activity is merely a revealing indicator. On the contrary, in native North America, productive tasks determined the identity of persons. This can be also explained by the fact that the division of labor was extremely important and rigid among them. Rigid in the sense that specialization was very distinct and determined the people´s destiny; at the same time, however, there were many specialized careers that could be studied.

In short, by presenting the example of North American native populations, I wanted to show that it would be a mistake to confine gender identities to a matter of sexuality, or even more, to a binary form, as explorers did first, and then scientists: these cultures provide room for third terms, and attach more relevance to productive activities when defining individuals.

Papua New Guinea: a matter of ritual

Now I want to continue with a quite different example from Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific. Natives from that area are very famous since the 1960´s for their male initiation rituals. Boys of 10 years of age were separated from their mothers and taken to the men´s house where they lived until marrying at the age of twenty. There, they had to go through several rituals. But what really called the attention of Westerners was that minors had to do fellatios with older boys and drink their semen (11:90-103; 12). After marrying a woman, however, they never had homosexual relations again. Female practices were not so well known but, according to some anthropologists, there was something similar with the milk given by mothers to their daughters (11:96-98). Of course, these practices became a scandal when discovered by Europeans in the 1970´s: men´s houses were burnt down and men were humiliated though, unlike what happened in the Americas during the Conquest, none of them was killed.

In this case, the opposition between male and female is very distinctive, since there is no third sex, but sexual practices. This can be understood as an opposition between active and passive or, better to say, inseminator and inseminated. However, when carefully studying the anthropological descriptions, some important issues should be taken into consideration. Firstly, each individual traverses many opposed positions. In the case of a boy: he begins as an initiated minor drinking the semen of elders, then he becomes a grown-up and minors drink his semen before he marries and inseminates his wife. This is a significant difference in relation to what happens, for example, in Salvador de Bahía, where a boy usually keeps the same sexual position (active or passive) throughout his life (2). I want to specify that fellatio is only practiced among boys and vaginal penetration between men and women only. Secondly, the analysis of symbols and beliefs show that, for natives in Papua New Guinea, the male and female reproductive organs are the same thing: both the penis and the uterus are tubes used in different ways. The British anthropologist Marilyn Strathern expressed: the organ does not define a person´s sex; it is the person who defines the sex of his/her organ by using it in a certain way (13:212). The different stages of the initiation ritual specifically play this role. Therefore, the idea is that dualism characterized practices and acts but never the essence of organs or individuals.

Now, I want to emphasize another idea. For us, these are obviously sexual practices. Besides, it is true that couples of minors and elders could feel pleasure, even affection. However, they are not, in any way, the expression of a particular sexual desire. There are also stories –though we do not know if they are historical stories or tales- of boys who died because they refused to comply with the ritual. This is a compulsory act because it forms part of a ritual system based on the belief that boys should receive the semen before producing it, and because those receiving the semen will grow. That is why masturbation is strictly forbidden, for it will mean losing a precious substance which is always destined to others, like in a closed circuit (13:218; 14:263). From the natives’ viewpoint, turning children into fertile men is one of the goals of the ritual. I do not want to argue about the fact that, according to Western science, these are irrational and false beliefs. What I want to say is that, in Papua New Guinea cultures, as well as the third sex in the case of North American native populations, these acts cannot be confined to sexual acts, because they are also ritual acts having a great cosmologic and religious significance. This is important if we want to understand the anthropology of these phenomena, without an ethnocentric perspective. However, I will like to suggest that we can also draw conclusions or ideas from these cases which will help us to think of gender identities in other cases, less exotic than those found in the native societies presented so far.

Some conclusions

To conclude my presentation, I will attempt to relate these anthropological debates to more general, and maybe more militant, reflections on gender identities.

Firstly, as I believe has been clarified by my presentation, I want to contest the trend to deal with sex and sexuality as something omnipresent determining every aspect of identity and every practice, and representing the key to understand every social and individual process. Somehow, it is similar to the critic made by Michel Foucault concerning the modern production of sexuality as a discursive field (15). In the indigenous societies I described, sex is not the individual´s essence, neither anatomic nor psychological, because people tend to be more complex than that. Nor sexuality, because sexual acts are not determinant, as in the case of North American native populations, or because one has to go through many opposed positions, as in the case of Papua New Guinea. Then we can think that not considering sex as a necessary element of the civil status and the identity card will not be an «anthropological aberration», as was called in France during public debates (16).

I also want to introduce a new topic which, so far, has been absent in my presentation: procreation. Certainly, in Western societies, there is a tendency to dissociate sexuality from procreation. This does not mean that we think we can reproduce ourselves in an asexual manner. In France, the government still refuses to allow medical-assisted procreation for homosexual couples. However, we value sexual pleasure as a means to achieve personal achievement, which is even more important than social maturity achieved when having children (17). Therefore, while in many non-Western societies parents teach their children how to become parents, we hope that adults convey to their sons and daughters everything about contraceptive methods. While in the indigenous populations sterility is a personal and social calamity, in Europe, having too many children, or having them at an early age, is considered a personal and social danger.

Let´s go back to the anthropological cases I presented today. Many of the practices I described are associated with fertility, but a fertility that should be understood in a broad sense: as social and cosmological productivity. Therefore, what for us are sterile practices, for them they constitute a fertility condition or means: the North American shamans ensure the environmental fertility and successful hunting, while rituals in Papua New Guinea turn boys into fertile men. Once again, I do not want to argue that these are particular beliefs, but to take into account what they can teach us. I believe that one lesson to be drawn from indigenous peoples is that we should not confuse social and symbolic fertility with biological generation. For example, in France, conservatives blame homosexual couples for not having children in a «natural» way or express aversion to transsexual women who will never be pregnant. The same way gender identity is not simply confined to sex, fertility is not confined to a biological aspect. Thus, the procreation of a neonate is not the same as the production of persons. Therefore, much more complex social relations bearing little relation to sexuality are required.

All in all, I will like to go back to the introductory issue of my presentation, namely, the consequences of colonization, the contact between indigenous populations and European societies, subsequently mestizas. When speaking of colonialism, we usually focus on economic and political processes, but gender was also affected by colonization. It is as important as the economic and political aspects and, sometimes, it is closely associated with them. A striking example of this phenomenon: when I told my colleague A. L. Gutiérrez Choquevilca that I was going to speak about gender identities of indigenous peoples, she told me something she experienced in Peru where she was researching the quichua natives in the Amazonia. Recently, they began celebrating Mother´s Day, promoted by a neighboring oil company. The celebration is quite original. They dramatize gender and exploitation relations at the same time. Some men, disguised as prostitutes, dance with others disguised as oil engineers. It is true that Peruvian engineers have relations with native girls and, to a certain extent, this inter-ethnic relation becomes a sort of gender relation, because they both redoubled. What I want to say is that this is the most efficient domination that exists. Now, indigenous peoples sometimes manage to defend their political autonomy, their economic independence or their cultural heritage; but they never dare to defend the most original aspects of their gender cultural system or rituals displaying acts which are considered aberrant or deviant acts. They have assimilated the shame caused by practices not included in the heterosexual standard and, so far, almost nobody has helped them to get rid of that domination. I believe this could be a future goal: not only to defend the economic and political autonomy of indigenous peoples, but also to struggle against the imposition of alien standards defining practices in terms of sex and sexuality, always conceived under a binary fashion.


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