Gender norms in past Native societies

Link to the article:

Some thoughts on above article:

In this article “The ‘two-spirit’ people of indigenous North Americans,” Walter L Williams explores the prevalence of homosexuality within Native cultures, uncovering the existence of gender-nonconforming individuals throughout time. Like many other articles written about queer history, this one also exposes the undeniable effects of colonialism on the rise of homophobia within non-white cultures. It also indicates how big a role religion played in encouraging this discrimination. I found it to be enlightening because it shows that homophobia was taught and that people always have a choice on how to treat others.

The article also depicts how much more inclusive certain Native culture seemed to be towards queer people long before many other cultures were. It seemed ideal in many ways, such as the fact that they focused on an individual’s gifts and personal characteristics while still allowing them to experience homosexual relationships to the fullest. The fact that queer people were even allowed to marry in some of these past societies was very eye-opening information, as I was always under the impression that full rights were something only modern queer people enjoyed.

The article even tells us that, “Native American same-sex marriages have been used as a model for legalising same-sex marriages.”

As with any system, there were imperfections in those older societies as well.  For instance, they didn’t seem to account for these scenarios:

What if a feminine guy or masculine woman was straight? Would they still be expected to marry the same sex?

Was there even a distinction between gender expression and sexual orientation?

What if a feminine woman wanted to marry another feminine woman?

What if someone was gender variant but had no interest in marrying the same sex or performing spiritual rituals?

What about bisexual people? What about polyamorous people?


The two-spirit tradition was something I always thought of in a romanticized way, because it validated something about my own experience that few other cultures even saw as being “real”. But it’s clear that while one system may work for some, it will inevitably leave out others.

The article notes, for instance, that in some of these traditions, “androgynous or transgender persons are seen as doubly blessed, having both the spirit of a man and the spirit of a woman.” This makes me wonder at the assumptions that were attached to gender variant people. Not everyone who is trans feels that they have two genders inside them, and not everyone who looks gender diverse is always trans.

It appears that Native culture were not immune to heteronormative ideals. Two-spirit people were thought to have both feminine and masculine traits within them and were expected to manifest these traits into a social role:

“A feminine male who preferred to do women’s work (gathering wild plants or farming domestic plants) was logically expected to marry a masculine male, who did men’s work (hunting and warfare). Because a family needed both plant foods and meat, a masculine female hunter, in turn, usually married a feminine female, to provide these complementary gender roles for economic survival.”

As forward-thinking as the two-spirit tradition appeared to be, it is doubtful whether this acceptance was given only to those who met a certain level of conformity in their performance of stereotypical male/female gender roles. Perhaps they weren’t quite at a place where they could allow people to exist outside of roles. But it’s an article worth reading anyway, because it is another example of how transphobia and homophobia were the result of systematic oppression, and a reminder that queer and trans people had always existed long before the discrimination began.

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