Two-Spirits: Gender Roles in the Early Americas and What We Can Learn From Them

Long before European settlers landed at Plymouth Rock—and even long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue—the indigenous people of America were performing same-sex unions. In fact, it was a common practice that took place in over 130 different tribes, and in every region. In addition to male and female, there was a third gender class called a Two-Spirit. These were people who embodied both male and female roles, characteristics, and psyches. Education about Two-Spirit individuals seems to be gaining in popularity. A few years ago, a documentary entitled Twospirits was made. Here’s the trailer. It’s currently for rent on iTunes; I highly recommend watching it.

Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia about the Two-Spirit people:

In North America, among the Native American societies, same-sex unions have taken the form of Two-Spirit-type relationships, in which some male members of the tribe, from an early age, heed a calling to take on female gender with all its responsibilities. “In many tribes, individuals who entered into same-sex relationships were considered holy and treated with utmost respect and acceptance,” according to anthropologist Brian Gilley.

We-Wa, a Zuni Two-Spirit, weaving

Wait… what?! Treated with respect and acceptance? That’s pretty awesome. Whatever happened to that notion? Well, we happened. When the European Christians arrived and brought their influence, most of the Two-Spirit people were forced into the Europeans’ idea of gender roles, and some were actually killed in the name of religion. (Just another feather in our cap of abhorrent history.)

Take a look at some of the tribal roles fulfilled by those who were known as “Two-Spirits”:

▪ healers or medicine persons

▪ conveyors of oral traditions and songs

▪ prophecy, or foretellers of the future

▪ conferrers of lucky names on children or adults

▪ nurses during war expeditions

▪ potters

▪ matchmakers

▪ makers of feather regalia for dances

▪ special role players in the Sun Dance

It seems there were very important spiritual roles that were taken on by these people. In fact, as this article by Walter Williams mentions, spirituality was always emphasized over sexuality in Native American culture. They accepted people as they were, and moved forward, focusing on their spiritual gifts above all else.

Isn’t that a remarkable—yet foreign—concept to most of us? Of course, we love to talk about spirituality. But in much of the Christian world, our personal spirituality loses precedence to our sexual orientation. Sexuality somehow becomes a dark cloud that eclipses our very soul… putting to death our little Christian light to the world. You’ve heard it before:

“Oh, he’s such a wonderfully talented worship leader… it’s just too bad he’s gay.”

“She could really do something for the Lord if she would just turn from her wicked lifestyle. Why does she have to talk about her sexuality, anyway?!”

“Did you hear about so-and-so? It just would have been better for everyone if he had never come out of the closet.”

Or, consider what happened to me: A lady at my dad’s church kept pressing me to befriend her daughter. Showering me with niceties and flattering me with compliments, she told me her daughter just really needed a good Christian friend. After I started to hang out with this girl, I realize the truth: this girl was gay, and her mother wanted me to try to turn her straight! (Her gay-dar was obviously on the fritz!) In a turn of unfortunate events, this lady finally discovered that I am, in fact, also a lesbian. Oh, the irony! After that, I was no longer considered a good Christian girl. The story isn’t unfamiliar. This is precisely why so many LGBT Christians remain deep in their closets. Can you really blame them?

But what if we were free? Free to move past stereotypes and judgment. Free to explore our spirituality and help others without fear of belittlement and rejection. Are we getting there? I think so. It’s a long, treacherous road… but times truly are changing.

If any of you are Native American, I would be interested to hear your thoughts regarding the legacy of Two-Spirit individuals. Do you think that the original views of these people are still held by modern tribes today? How has contemporary American culture affected LGBT Native Americans?

One response to “Two-Spirits: Gender Roles in the Early Americas and What We Can Learn From Them

  1. Pingback: The Church and the LGBT Community: Why Some People are Afraid of Dialogue | Coming Out Christian

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