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More on gender and sexuality, Part 3: Decolonizing our minds

October 3, 2010

This post has been sitting around, partially written, for a while even longer now. I was prompted to finally finish it up by the recent spate of homicide by bullying of LGBT kids. See also Sparky’s recent And the consequences of the hate, These bigots are beyond the pale, and also, on the coverage and discussion of Tyler Clementi’s suicide, Why are you downplaying the homophobia?. (Many other people have been writing excellent things on these subjects, too, but I remembered these posts.) The fits of shaking rage have kept me from writing about this more directly, but this series helps demonstrate that this bigotry and abuse is not inevitable.

It’s a bit of a supplement to my recent musings on gender and sexuality: More on gender, Part 1: Words and More on gender, Part 2: “Two-Spirit”. This post mostly tries to clarify some points I made earlier, with more focus on the decolonization angle. I’ve been having trouble writing lately, so this is probably a bit choppy. Please bear with me.

First off: I am not an expert on traditional cultural setups across North America. I know more about how things worked/to varying extent still work in Eastern Woodlands cultures, since that particular cultural complex is my background. Reading and listening to people from other regions, I have noticed some philosophical similarities, however.

As Onondaga faithkeeper Oren Lyons put it in an interview:

There are two common laws across this North America — our hemisphere — and that was to give thanks, be thankful for what you have, and to share. And the third one would be respect. Those were laws. Those were rules that nations lived by. Everybody knew, everybody understood it and everybody used it.

Speaking of respect, here’s a long quote from Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit” in Genocide of the Mind (p. 235-238). I just kept seeing relevant things in this essay. 😉

They looked at the world very differently; a person’s appearance and possessions did not matter nearly as much as a person’s behavior. For them, a person’s value lies in how that person interacts with other people, how that person behaves toward the animals and the earth. That is what matters most the old-time people. The Pueblo people believed this long before the Puritans arrived with their notions of sin and damnation, and racism. The old-time beliefs persist today; thus I will refer to the old-time people in the present tense as well as the past. Many worlds may coexist here…

To the Pueblo way of thinking, the act of comparing one living being with another was silly, because each being or thing is unique and therefore incomparably valuable because it is the only one of its kind. The old-time people thought it was crazy to attach such importance to a person’s appearance. I understood very early that there were two distinct ways of interpreting the world. There was the white people’s way and there was the Laguna way. In the Laguna way, it was bad manners to make comparisons that might hurt another person’s feelings…

In everyday Pueblo life, not much attention was paid to one’s physical appearance or clothing…Pueblo societies were communal and strictly egalitarian, which means that no matter how well or how poorly one might have dressed, there was no social ladder to fall from…

Because the Creator is female, there is no stigma on being female; gender is not used to control behavior. No job was a man’s job or a woman’s job; the most able person did the work…

I never heard anyone talk about “women’s work” until after I left Laguna for college. Work was there to be done by any able-bodied person who wanted to do it. At the same time, in the old-time Pueblo world, identity was acknowledged to be always in a flux; in the old stories, one minute Spider Woman is a little spider under a yucca plant, and the next instant she is a sprightly grandmother walking down the road.

When I was growing up, there was a young man from a nearby village who wore nail polish and women’s blouses and permed his hair. People paid little attention to his appearance; he was always part of a group of other young men from his village. No one ever made fun of him. Pueblo communities were and still are very interdependent, but they also have to be tolerant of individual eccentricities because survival of the group means everyone has to cooperate.

In the old Pueblo world, differences were celebrated as signs of the Mother Creator’s grace. Persons born with physical or sexual differences were highly respected and honored because their differences gave them special positions as mediators between this world and the spirit world. The great Navajo medicine man of the 1920s, the Crawler, and a hunchback and could not walk upright, but he was able to heal even the most difficult cases.

Before the arrival of Christian missionaries, a man could dress as a woman and work with the women and even marry a man without any fanfare. Likewise, a woman was free to dress like a man, to hunt and go to war with the men, and to marry a woman. In the old Pueblo worldview, we are all a mixture of male and female, and this sexual identity is changing constantly. Sexual inhibition did not begin until the Christian missionaries arrived. For the old-time people, marriage was about teamwork and social relationships, not about sexual excitement. In the days before the Puritans came, marriage did not mean an end to sex with people other than your spouse. Women were just as likely as men to have a si’ash (lover).

I initially tracked this down as an illustration of something I mentioned in the last post. More specifically, the anecdote about the young man the author knew growing up. Yes, he was gender-variant by most people’s standards now, but apparently he had enough other interests in common with other young men in his community that his quirks weren’t considered that important. He didn’t need to perform any kind of “special” social roles, because fairly standard ones were working for him.

As I mentioned in the last post, I am rather drawn to healing and medicine work, and may well have done that for at least part of my life had I lived in an earlier time. That attraction has a lot more to do with other aspects of my personality than with my genderqueerness; I’m a naturalistic thinker with a neurological setup that means I just don’t seem to have some of the perceptual filters in place that most people do. It’s ultimately all part of the same package, but those aspects of me aren’t closely connected to gender and sexuality. OTOH, I can well imagine that especially when people are immersed in a society that’s hostile to some of their differences, no matter what those may be–and keep getting bludgeoned in the name of other people’s religions–that being different in these ways might lead some people to do more spiritual searching.

That extended quote from Leslie Marmon Silko kinda puts ideas of spirit-chosen “specialness” in context. Very similar to what I was saying in an earlier post on The “Sacred”, it’s easy to describe each individual on this earth as having their own special attributes and gifts, and roles/work to which they’re particularly suited. Much less emphasis used to be placed on differences in gender, sexuality, and the kinds of physical and mental differences which turn into disability in a lot of other societies. Looking at things in a certain “there is some reason for this difference, even if I may never understand what it might be” way, anyone can be said to have been chosen by the spirits for a certain path in life.

Nobody is more sacred than anyone else. Nor is anyone’s path in life. Period.

In a really egalitarian society, there is nobody who is weird enough not to be accorded rights, respect, and dignity. If you’re expecting a wide range of human diversity–rather than trying to force individual humans into ideologically contrived molds (binary or otherwise)–certain characteristics are less likely to stand out as particularly relevant. Gender-variant people aren’t going to look much, if any, stranger than, say, musically inclined people or people who have proportionately big noses. Until and unless you start putting value judgments on certain differences, lumping people into prescriptive categories, and deciding who deserves a full measure of respect based on this.

Most North American societies preferred egalitarianism. It just works better. This ties in with the kind of pragmatism John Mohawk wrote about in The Warriors Who Turned to Peace:

The focus is on a desirable outcome that benefits everyone. One of the most famous quotations from Indians is from Sitting Bull: “Now let us put our minds together to see what kind of world we can leave for our children.” And another is out of the Haudenosaunee tradition now known as The Great Law of Peace: “Now we put our minds together to see what kind of world we can create for the seventh generation yet unborn.” Both of these are pragmatic constructions; both are about envisioning a desirable outcome and then negotiating the steps to go from here to the outcome that you want…

You have the power to make peace with an enemy only if you acknowledge that the enemy is human. To acknowledge that they are rational beings who want to live and who want their children to live enhances your power by giving you the capacity to speak to them. If you think they are not human, you won’t have that capacity; you will have destroyed your own power to communicate with the very people you must communicate with if you are going to bring about peace…

But to negotiate with them, you have to acknowledge that they’re human. Acknowledging that they are human means acknowledging that they have failings, but you don’t concentrate on the failings. You concentrate on their humanity…

Progressive pragmatism seeks ends that are universal and that have the quality of win-win negotiations. Both idealism–the idea that God is on someone’s side–and vilification–the idea that one side is evil or fundamentally in the wrong–are barred from this process. Instead, this process lays out desirable outcomes that all sides can agree upon, and these must be adhered to through a set of protocols, because it is not possible to create peace by force and because peace requires rules that both sides embrace and honor.

As I talked about in Happiness, Part 4: Seeing beauty, this kind of ongoing, pragmatic approach to peace (hózhó, duyukta, skennen’kowa, etc.) applies on multiple levels: from international affairs down to within the individual. If you focus on differences rather than on your common humanity and what kind of relationships–and eventually, world–you want, nobody is going to be happy. Nobody.

Let ideology trump other considerations, and you can get a situation going as quoted in the last post: ‘As a Crow tribal elder said in 1982, “We don’t waste people the way white society does. Every person has their gift.”’ You can focus on and pathologize people’s differences, but does this make anyone (or their societies) happier or healthier? Better to focus on what people can actually do, and how best to accommodate their individual talents and limitations. And this does apply to every human being on the planet, not just those who come across as weird by certain ideological standards.

In this context, I can’t help but think of the classic extended analogy involving homosexuality and lefthandedness, and value judgments based on difference. I also can’t help but notice that, in a social climate dominated by oppositional binaries, varying degrees of ambidexerity and their equivalents in gender/sexuality just don’t get mentioned much. Jacob Davenport offers a more useful version of this analogy. In part:

Many people cannot use their opposite hand well at all, but some people have great dexterity in both hands although they favor one. A very small percentage of the population is actually 50/50 ambidextrous. Dexterity in each hand seems somewhat independent…

Homosexuality is not the opposite of heterosexuality, but instead its compliment. As most people can be dexterous with both hands but favor one, most people are attracted to both genders but favor one…Most people have traits of both genders, but favor the set belonging to their own. A few people can interact with society from either prospective, and a few people lack strength in either set of traits.

This is a little heavy on the essentialism, with traits assigned as masculine or feminine, but it recognizes far more human variation. Do value judgments based on any of this variation actually help either the individual or their wider society? It’s hard to see how they could.

By this point, it’s also hard to imagine a society which doesn’t assign complicated value rankings to individuals based on this kind of difference. But they have existed, and worked just fine until groups of people prone to ideologically driven value judgments showed up. Enter the wétiko.

What I’ve talked about here is another reason I have trouble with the modern Pan-Indian “Two-Spirit” label as it’s frequently used. I can understand why, given the way a lot of queer and gender-variant people have been treated over the past few centuries, they might find the idea of people like us having special, respected social roles very appealing. Especially special spiritual roles, given the way (to quote Iain Banks) “different cults within this one big, mad, misogynistic religion founded by a schizophrenic who heard voices telling him to kill his son” have justified dealing with people like us. And especially given the number of us who are now struggling, to one extent or another, to work past the aptly termed Genocide of the Mind#, and learn more about what it really means to think like one of the “old-time people” in our varied cultures. It can be hard sometimes to sort out what people were really doing and thinking previously, especially when a lot of sources of information are so heavily filtered through Western cultural bias–be it through anthropologists and other biased, religion-obsessed outside observers*, or through elders who have been subject to creeping assimilation and Christianization.

A spirit-related good kind of specialness in one’s community is a lot more palatable and healing idea than the God-ordained deviation and general badness approach we’ve all been exposed to. But, in the vast majority of cases, I really don’t think this is a culturally appropriate idea. That’s still setting up one or more categories of people who are more special than others. While not nearly as destructive as its sadly more familiar flipside, to my way of thinking that’s still not right.

It also places more emphasis on gender and sexuality as central defining characteristics than, AFAICT, most traditional cultures in North America ever did. For me at least, putting things in perspective has been an important part of trying to decolonize my own head, and untangle my hair. Yeah, I’ve had some very rough times in my life because of my perceived-as-weird gender and sexuality**: specifically, the (frequently negative) emphasis that gets placed on these parts of our lives and spirits. It only makes sense that a lot of us would temporarily place a lot of emphasis on them ourselves, trying to figure out how these aspects of ourselves fit into a less harmful way of looking at the world. But, is internalizing this heavy emphasis necessarily good for us, in the longer term?

I am very aware of coming from a cultural complex that, to paraphrase Barbara Mann IIRC, drove European missionaries to distraction with their matter-of-fact, “shit happens” ways of looking at sex and death. Hard to use such anxieties as spiritual handles on people when they just think you’re prurient and morbid, eh? We’re seeing now how much effort has gone into whipping up these fears, though. At least for me, part of kicking the bums out of my head involves putting this kind of thing in perspective. That is part of what I was getting at with the “close up a goose, a fox, a turkey, a bear, a deer, a timber rattler, a catfish, and a mountain lion together in a sack” analogy in the Gender, sexuality, identity, and binaries post. There are an awful lot of other things going on in most people’s inner (and outer!) lives, and finding some balance there is a good plan.

As the Tsalagi person I quoted in the last post put it, “I am of one spirit, but that spirit is many things…I would be who I was born to be, and that is that.” Of course, each person has to find a way of looking at things that works for them, and this won’t describe everybody’s experience.


* One I had to giggle at, representative as it is, from The Strange Case of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, Part Two (emphasis mine):

It appears that, along with gunpowder, advanced metallurgy, brandy, syphilis, and the Bible, aggravated homophobia was a European introduction to the Americas. Evidence of accepted homosexuality and lesbianism has been found among numerous New World tribes, including the Maya, Ojibwa, Sioux, Iroquois, Cheyenne, Omaha, and Aleut. The Iroquois may even have had explicitly homosexual ceremonies; in 1776, a French Jesuit wrote, “There are men unashamed to wear women’s clothing and to practice all the occupations of women, from which follows corruption that I cannot express. They pretend that its usage comes from their religion. These effeminates never marry and abandon themselves to the most infamous passions.”

Whether the priest was accurately describing sacred rites or had simply stumbled upon a good party hardly matters; the Iroquois were in any event more tolerant than the authorities of New Netherland.

A lot of historical primary sources were about as free of conflicts of interest and religious bias as the Jesuits. It really is hard to sort out what they’re describing from their assumptions, in so many cases.

A little further perspective, from Barbara Mann’s The Tainted Gift: The Disease Method of Frontier Expansion, which I just finished reading:

In woodlands cultures, jobs are gendered. Warfare is gendered male, for instance. This does not mean that women cannot sign up to fight, for they can and do. It just means that, for the duration of the hostilities, such women are honorary “men.” Similarly, the positions of judge and negotiator are gendered female. This does not mean that men may not become judges or negotiators, but just that, for their tenure in such jobs, they are honorary women. When the Lenapes came into the League, it was on the understanding that their appointed function was to act as judges and negotiators, that is, as official women. Their high position as the Grandfather Nation was expected to ensure that all comers would listen to their words with respect, and all woodlanders did.

Unable to grasp the distinction between woodlands job-gendering and European sex-role stereotyping, the British were beside themselves over the supposed perversion of Lenape men’s dressing, acting, and speaking as women.78 Not only did these speakers look like cross-dressers to the British, but the fact of their official position as women prevented them from taking up arms in war, thus paring down the number of allied Lenapes the British could call up as reinforcements. Especially with the inception of the French and Indian War, the British needed cannon fodder. To render the Christianized Lenape men able to fight, Johnson ended a 1756 council by “taking off from the Delawares the petticoat,” that is, remaking them men eligible to fight.79 The British thereafter crowed that the Lenapes were again “MEN,” but this alien interpolation was humored by the Native nations rather than taken seriously.80 Among the woodlanders, the Grandfather Nation was still expected to act the part of peacemaker.

A relevant note:

78. From the inception of their interaction with woodlanders, Europeans had been beside themselves over what they saw as homosexual practices. See, for instance, Lafitau’s hysterical section titled, “Men Dressed as Women [Transvestites],” in Joseph Francois Lafitau, Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times, ed. William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moore (1724; repr., Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1974), 1: 57-58. Some commentators did grasp the political structure of gendered jobs, however grudgingly. See, Heckewelder, History Manners, and Customs, 56-57.

** This also applies to my neurological setup and other disability-related stuff. I don’t find it useful to think of myself primarily as a gimpy autistic person, either, though those things have also shaped who I am as a person.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2010 1:58 am

    In a really egalitarian society, there is nobody who is weird enough not to be accorded rights, respect, and dignity. … Gender-variant people aren’t going to look much, if any, stranger than, say, musically-inclined people or people who have proportionately big noses. Until and unless you start putting value judgments on certain differences, lumping people into prescriptive categories, and deciding who deserves a full measure of respect based on this.

    Very true.

    Also, I gave you the Versatile Blogger Award! Feel free to ignore the goofy meme associated with it; I just thought that if there’s going to be an award for good writing about lots of different subjects, you certainly deserve it.

    • urocyon permalink
      October 5, 2010 12:27 pm

      Thanks! While goofy, the meme looks kind of amusing.

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