It’s important to point out that in the indigenous communal (also called “collectivist”) societies, the division of labor by sex was nowhere near as rigid as under modern patriarchy. Although there were general divisions that were pretty uniform—child-rearing and food production was mostly female work and big-game hunting was mostly male work—both sexes participated in the work predominated by the other. Also, as historian Gerda Lerner points out, “The particular work done by men and women has differed greatly in different cultures, largely depending on the ecological situation in which the people find themselves.”115
The sexual division of labor also changed quite a bit. Contrary to popular belief, women did participate in hunting and warfare in the more ancient histories of indigenous societies; it’s possible that the shift away from these activities occurred after patriarchy took hold.
Anthropologist Robert Briffault reported that “In British Columbia the women used to hunt” and in parts of the Americas, the women “used to go hunting regularly with the men.”116 Indigenous women in Tierra del Fuego were reported “to have formerly done most of the hunting,” in the Tungu people of Siberia, “young unmarried women and widows…hunt for themselves,” and the women of West Africa used to “carry bows and arrows and go out hunting without the aid of the men.”117
Briffault also wrote about women’s participation in warfare throughout the South Pacific, for example, in Borneo, where “it was quite common for women to fight by the side of the men, and even lead them into battle.”118 Women were also known to have been warriors in Australia, the Caroline Islands, New Guinea, and in the Ladrones Islands where men “fought under female leaders.”119
First Nation women in the Americas were also known to participate in warfare, for example, the Iroquois and Klamath, and in Mississippi and Colombia.120 The women warriors of Africa included the Berbers, Fanti, Fulahs, Watuta, and the “famous corps of Amazonsa of Dahomey.”121
Men of indigenous cultures were also not constricted to the “traditional” male division of labor. In fact, both sexes in most societies learned the full range of skills in order to be self-sufficient, and work considered to be women’s work in one place was considered to be men’s work elsewhere, like sewing and making tools.
There were also societies which expected men to learn women’s work if he wanted to marry. For example, Evelyn Reed related that among the matrilocalb Zuni society, “a suitor not only worked in the fields of his prospective mother-in-law, but also collected fuel and made buckskin moccasins, skin and textile clothes, and a shell or silver necklace for the bride.…Husbands became skilled in all that was formerly considered ‘woman’s work.’”122
One of the reasons that indigenous cultures were less rigid than Europeans about adhering to strict gender roles was because, in general (except in the highly patriarchal societies), they valued independence and individual autonomy rather than obedience and hierarchical structures.123,124,125 As historian Ellen Holmes Pearson described Native American societies, “consent held communities together, and concepts of reciprocity extended to gender roles and divisions of labor.”126
The ethic of valuing community while fostering individual autonomy extended to sexual and gender identity, as well.
Unlike the European patriarchy, which depended on strict obedience to the supremacy of male heterosexuality, most indigenous cultures not only valued females equally with males, they recognized that there were more than two manifestations of human sexuality and gender. In fact, across the globe, various indigenous societies recognized anywhere from three to a dozen different genders,c and terms like “dual spirit” and “third sex” have been used to describe the many variations of gender and sexual preferences.
In addition, most indigenous cultures saw lesbians, homosexual men, transsexuals, and other variations as having a sacred gift because they were born with spirits that were more complex than “single spirit” heterosexual people. As a result, they often served as healers, shamans, and intermediaries. In an article in the Journal of Bisexuality, Father Kenneth Hamilton cited research by historian Randy Conner who wrote:
In the earliest spiritual traditions known to humankind, gender-variant, homoerotically or bisexually inclined persons served as shamans and priests of goddesses, gods, spirits, and ancestors. With the so-called triumph of patriarchal, monotheistic religions, these men were slaughtered or driven underground, along with the female shamans and priestesses.127
Among the indigenous societies of the Americas, dual- or poly-spirit people were known to be integral members of over one hundred tribes.128 As educators Maddalena Genovese and Davina Rousell point out, “Two Spirit people were valued and respected members of their communities…They were teachers, healers, caregivers, medicine people, hunters and warriors.”129
That, however, was before the colonial invasions and occupation. Genovese and Rousell write that “colonial contact brought with it homophobic beliefs that quickly threatened and suppressed Two Spirit roles and teachings.” In fact, “Two Spirit people were often the first ones to be killed by European explorers.” As a result, “in an attempt to protect their Two Spirit brothers and sisters, many indigenous communities hid their Two Spirit members and stopped passing on the Two Spirit teachings to the next generation.”130
Even the history of the words used is a history of colonization and loss. Though the term used by Native Americans is “Two Spirit,” the word commonly used by anthropologists to refer to Native American non-heterosexuals is “berdache” (which actually refers to cross-dressing or homosexual men, but is also used as a generic term for women since women are considered a subspecies of men). However, the term—which comes from the Persian word, “berdaj,” meaning “kept boy”—is considered a derogatory word that European colonizers began using. Gary Bowen, an Apache LGBT activist, pointed out that “Native Americans find the term offensive as it…means…‘male prostitute.’ We don’t appreciate having our sacred people referred to in this way.”131
A new term, “Two Spirit,”d was adopted in 1990 at the 3rd International Native Gay & Lesbian Gathering in Winnipeg, Canada.132 But even this term is considered by some a result of European notions of “binary” sexuality; i.e., either female or male and nothing else.
In fact, across Native American cultures, the recognized range of other genders and sexual identities included lesbian, gay male, bisexual, intersexual (hermaphrodite), cross-dressing, transgender, women who live as men, men who live as women, as well as “gender-variant” individuals.133 In most cases, the women were hunters and warriors and the men engaged in traditional “women’s work,” such as cooking, sewing, tanning, and childcare.134,135,136,137,138
Two Spirit men were documented across North America, including: the Arapaho hoxuxunó, the Assiniboine winktan’, the Blackfoot ake:śkassi, the Cheyenne he’eman, the Plains Cree ayekkwe, the Crow boté, the Hidatsa miáti, the Mandan mihdeke, the Plains Ojibwa agokwa, the Omaha and Ponca minquga, the Osage mixu’ga, the Otoe mixo’ge, the Potawatomi m’nuktokwae, the Winnebago shiéngge, the Lakota winkte, and Dakota winkta.139
Since most of the recorded information about Two Spirit people came from Europeans, very little information exists on the women because Europeans dismissed females as irrelevant. As sociologist Kylan Mattias de Vries writes, “Female ‘berdache’ existed; however, they were not acknowledged and were later often overlooked by anthropologists.”140 Some of the few Two Spirit females who were documented included the ninauposkitzipxpe of the Blackfoot nation, the Cheyenne hetaneman, Piegan warrior Running Eagle, and Woman Chief of the Crows who had four wives.141
Elsewhere in the Americas, the Spanish invaders documented—and were horrified by—what they considered to be widespread homosexuality among the indigenous societies.142,143 Throughout the various indigenous cultures, there were a number of “third genders,” including the Zapotec muxe and biza’ah144 and the Incan quariwarmi.145
Elsewhere in the world, other indigenous cultures also held non-heterosexual people in high esteem, often considering them more sacred than heterosexuals because they embodied the spirits of both sexes.
In Polynesia, they were accepted members of indigenous Tahitian and Hawaiian culture, as were the fa’afafine of Samoa and the fakaleiti males of Tonga.146,147 In the Philippines, there are the female lakin-on and male bayoguin.148,149,150 In India, there are the hijras and trithiya prakirthi.151
In Africa, Kenneth Hamilton points to the acceptance of cross-dressing and “passive roles” of men in traditional societies, including “the Nilotic Lango of Uganda, the Teso and the Karamjong of northwestern Uganda and Kenya.”152 Sociologist Stephen Murray describes a number of others, including the female and male soregus of the Naman people, the Hausa boris, and the Ethiopian ashtime males. Murray writes:
With reports from hundreds of sub-Saharan African locales of male-male sexual relations and from about fifty of female-female sexual relations, it is clear that same-sex sexual relations existed in traditional African societies, though varying in forms and in the degree of public acceptance.153
And according to transgender scholars Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Rabbi Reuben Zellman, there were six genders recognized in ancient Israel:
In addition to ish and isha, man and woman, our Sages identify four other genders. There is the andgrogynos, a person with both male and female sexual characteristics. The tumtum, a person with neither fully developed male or female genitals. The ay’lonit is a person who was assigned female gender at birth, but developed male characteristics during maturation. The saris, is a person who is assigned male gender at birth but lacks male genitals.154
From daily life to morality to sexuality, the social structure of the indigenous world was radically different from that of the white Europeans, particularly in the societies where women held equal status with men. As a matter of fact, this equality was not only subversive to the cult of patriarchy, it threatened to overthrow the absolute rule of patriarchy. All of European society, from the family structure to the economy, was rooted in the premise that the “superior” men were the natural rulers and the “inferior” women were the natural servants of men.
But if women joined forces and refused to accept men as their masters, men wouldn’t stand a chance of enforcing patriarchy—not just in Europe, but everywhere else it had sprung up. In fact, patriarchy’s only real threat to its existence is the power of women uniting with women.
Just look at a group of women sparking with laughter or facing down a military force and imagine an entire world populated by such spirited and powerful beings united in sisterhood: Then you’ll understand the enormity of the task required to crush the spirits, break the bonds, and control the sexuality of such beings. It requires far more than laws and physical assaults because unless you can convince females that males are the primary species and the bodies around which all suns must orbit, patriarchy stands little chance of surviving the power of females united in sisterhood.
And so there has to be a social structure to enforce the supremacy of men over women and prevent women from aligning with other women. That social structure is what feminist scholar Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality.”155 In other words, it’s exactly what we’re taught from the day we’re born into this Western-dominated world: women and men are meant to be together, and women are “hard-wired” to serve.
It’s an ideology that holds together an exploitative economic system that profits from female’s subordinate status. It’s a set of moral values that instills shame and self-hate in anyone who defies it. It’s a convention of social and religious standards that demands conformity by any means necessary. Above all, compulsory heterosexuality is a system of enforcing male supremacy by making it the only game in town. And that means eliminating all other possibilities of sexuality.
But the idea that there are only two possibilities for sexuality is as unnatural as the notion that there are only two ways of thinking. It’s a patriarchal, tyrannical idea that runs counter to human experience and all of human history. Sexuality is a fundamental human drive composed of multitudinous, diverse combinations of physical, emotional, biological, mental, and other factors, and it expresses itself in as many unique and individual ways as there are humans.
Though most of mainstream history fails to even mention people of other genders and sexualities, they have always played integral roles in the spiritual and political life of their nations and cultures. They’re not simply footnotes for a politically-correct history: their presence was and is a threat to the conquerors. These are the people whose very existence overthrows the dogma of binary gender sexuality, and confronts the tyranny and oppression of patriarchy’s social enforcement system of compulsory heterosexuality.
Women’s capacity to freely love and form bonds with one another outside of sex is what presents the greatest threat to patriarchy’s authority. But what better way to keep women at arm’s length from one another than by instilling in them a revulsion and fear of being labeled a lesbian? And what better way to enforce patriarchy than through compulsory heterosexuality?
The purpose of ensuring that females be constrained to heterosexuality—and the fear that drives patriarchy to such great lengths and depths of violence and repression—is not that Sisterhood leads to Lesbianism, but that Lesbianism leads to Sisterhood.
Patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality go together and depend on each other to survive. But no matter how long these ideologies have been around, they still need to be enforced every day through popular culture, advertising, religion, politics, laws, and extraordinary violence against females and all those who don’t conform to the heterosexual “norm.”
In his book Wisdom’s Daughters,156 author Steve Wall records conversations and oral histories of women elders of various tribes. Some of them address the traditional acceptance of diverse sexual identities.
Vickie Downey, of the Tewa-Tesuque Pueblo nation, tells him: “In every person there is the male and the female…In some males, the female is more dominating the male part of themselves…Long time ago that was looked at as something special. So we accepted that person…we respected that.”157
Mary Leitka, of the Hoh nation, says: “In our society we know that there are balances. We know that there are individuals who have characteristics of the opposite sex. This has been acceptable…It’s not shameful.”158
First Nations: Our First History
The Notes to Compulsory Heterosexuality
a: “Amazon” is the term commonly used to refer to any female warrior. In fact, they were an ancient tribe of women who probably came from the steppes of Russia. According to the PBS show Secrets of the Dead, the first written reference to the “race of warrior women is found in Homer’s Iliad, probably written in the 8th or 7th century B.C. Homer’s Amazons, a race of fierce women who mated with vanquished male foes and kept only the female children they bore, were believed to occupy the area around the Black Sea.”159
b: Matrilocal means the man moved to the woman’s community when they married.
c: The twelve identified so far are: lesbian, homosexual male, bisexual, asexual, intersexual (hermaphrodite), cross-dresser, transgender, women who live as men (“fourth gender”), men who live as women (“third gender”), “gender-variant” (also called “changing ones”), heterosexual female, and heterosexual male.160
d: The term “Two Spirit” comes from the Anishinabe (Chippewa) language and means to have both female and male spirits in one person.161