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Homosexuality and transgenderism among indigenous tribes

Updated on July 28, 2015

The discovery of Latin America

The countries that now form the Central and South America were "discovered" by Spanish and Portuguese navigators in the 16th century. During that time there was no such thing as a "homosexual identity", and every "non-natural" sexual or erotic act was considered sodomy (anal intercourse, oral sex, same gender sex, etc.).

In many written accounts, those navigators showed how shocked they were by the perversity and depravity of the indigenous peoples, who were always naked and, not rarely, would engage in deviant sexual acts.

According to some explorers' letters or diaries, like Francisco Lopez de Gomara (1552), homosexual idols were adored by Mexican natives in Sant Anton and Yucatan. In Peruvian lands, they've found sculptures made of gold, showing anal sex between men, that were melted by the Spanish explorers.

Homosexual practices also happened among advanced civilizations, like the Maya, Aztecs, and Incas themselves.

As Brazilian anthropologist Luiz Mott states, Spanish and Portuguese explorers, who followed the Catholic church, were guided by a religious moral that condemned all kinds of sexual pleasures as sins - a recurrent belief of the Christian faith as whole. Therefore, what happened in the so called New World - and would also happen in Africa - was the imposition of ideological canons and the heterosexist morality of the European settlers.

Indigenous sexualities and gender expressions

First of all, we must keep in mind that our Eastern, "civilized", models and conceptions of sexualities can't serve as basis to analyze aboriginal practices and perceptions. The very concept of "homosexuality", in fact, dates from the 19th century, and practices of sex between individuals of the same gender, previously, used to be classified within the broad notion of "sodomy". What is more, European travellers, based on their heteronormative values, frequently misinterpreted cross-gender roles as mere homosexual tendencies.

According to the GLBTQ Encyclopedia:

The analysis of the sexual culture of native peoples is problematic because the accounts of the conquerors are the only available sources to understand them. However, some authors have begun to read colonial documents against the grain to grasp the elements of native sexual cultures.

Some tribes used sex not only for reproduction nor pleasure seeking, but as part of other rituals, for healing, blessing, protecting, sacrificing, etc.

As part of the Aztec pantheon, for example, we can find Xochipilli, an hermaphrodite deity; in the female form, she was the protector of love and non procreative sexuality, and in the male form he became the protector of male homosexuality and controller of sexually transmitted diseases.

There are also accounts that men who were defeated adversaries in interethnic wars or politic disputes would be penetrated by the conqueror. In this case, the sexual penetration was a symbol of political victory, and way of humiliating the loser. This phenomenon might have been inherited from the Mayas who, at least in Yucatan, had shown the same custom.

Sex between men was also a common practice among Andean empires, from Colombia to Chile, including the Chavin, Tiahunaco, Nazca, Chimu, and notedly among the Incas and Chibchas.

Among the Tupinambá, who lived in the Brazilian coast, there were "gay" men (called tibira) and "lesbians" (called çacoaimbeguira). They both lived publicly as "homosexuals", assuming cross-gender roles when engaged in relationships.

In the Guaicuru tribes, there were the cudinhos, effeminate men who used apparels and decorations considered typically female and married to men, serving them and also assuming cross-gender roles.

The Kadiwéu tribe was famous because of their intricate painting patterns, a form of art done exclusively by women and by the kudína - considered experts in body painting. The kudína incorporate all female characteristics and lived as women, also marrying with men.

Xochipilli
Xochipilli
Kadiweu girl and her body painting.
Kadiweu girl and her body painting.

More than only two genders

Some Andean tribes, ranging from Venezuela to Patagonia, had traditions involving same-sex sexuality and variant gender identities with diverse cultural meanings. Because most of those peoples understood male and female gender roles as complimentary, the so called third genders were seen as the ones constituting the borders between those gender roles. Therefore, same-sex sexual practices and cross-gender identities were integrated in their social structure through rituals that expressed this complimentary relation between masculine and feminine.

In the North American continent, Natives who carried both female and male spirits are known as two-spirit, assuming cross-gender lifes as male-females or female-males. In the 1990s, the two-spirit identity was claimed by Native Americans in oposition to the derogatory term "berdache", used by non-Native explorers and later adopted by scholars.

According to Native Elders, two-spirit people were considered gifted because they carried both spirits. In some tribes, women engaged in tribal warfare and married other women, as well as there were men who married other men. They were viewed as a third and fourth gender, having specific roles in each society, such as foretellers (among the Oglala Lakota), potters (among the Zuni and Navaho), conveyers of oral tradition (among the Yuki), and so forth. Their spiritual power has been also related to xamanism, healing and blessing.

As historian and author Susan Stryker explains,

Historically, two-spirit people typically have been well integrated into the life of their tribes, and have often held revered and honored positions within them. Because of homophobia in the dominant cultures of North America, some aspects of two-spirit traditions have been suppressed or lost. Members of native cultures are often quite reluctant to discuss two-spirit traditions with outsiders, who they feel may misunderstand them or appropriate them for their own agendas.

Two-spirit couple
Two-spirit couple | Source

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