The Origin of 'Two-Spirit' & The Gay Rights Movement
The Strange Story of Harry Hay and Will Roscoe
If you have encountered any academic discussion of LGBT topics in North America, you will almost certainly have heard the phrase ‘Two-Spirit’ - sometimes included in the acronym as ‘LGBTQ2S’, or some variant thereof. The most crude explanation for the term is something like ‘a gay Native American’, but it has a much more complex and subtle origin. Regardless, the implications and the cultural usage of the term amounts to a differentiation in the way Native and other indigenous peoples think about and describe homosexuality, gender and minority sexual identities. If you push on this terminology you’ll be told that it was invented by Native Americans as a way to self-define and take control of their own culture. Push further still and you’ll find a particular conference, held in Canada in 1990, which voted to adopt the term. You may also come across two names in particular: Harry Hay and Will Roscoe. As far as I can tell, no-one has looked much further into the murky origins of the term, beyond accepting this conference and its decision. This is my attempt then, in a single article, to dive into the weeds. We’ll cover some truly bizarre and unsettling territory - the Radical Faeries, mythical pederastic Pueblo rites, cross-dressing shamans, Jungian homosexuality and, at the centre of it all, Harry Hay and his obsession with discovering the secret, hidden history of gay spirituality. Let us commence.
What Means ‘Two-Spirit’?
‘Two-Spirit’ is a slippery word to define, since it contains within it an explicit critique of the very thing it tries to explain. Post-colonial activists describe how the condition of colonisation doesn’t just mean the physical loss of land and sovereignty, but also the mental and cultural colonisation which accompanies it. ‘Two-Spirit’ is meant to be a way of defining and describing the experience and identity of gay, lesbian, transgender and other sexual minorities from within the ‘Native American community’, but using the language of modern Anglo-America. If this sounds pedantic and tedious, you may have a point. The embrace of Native American concerns by that strata of academia which uses obfuscatory and confusing language has formed a sort of crust, preventing the wider public from directly listening to Native Americans themselves without this impenetrable terminology.
As I see it, ‘Two-Spirit’ is a simplistic and simple term to describe how Native Americans apparently thought about homosexuality and transgenderism, I say ‘apparently’ because I’m deeply sceptical of the proposition. Almost all Native cultures have terms and ethnographic descriptions of gay men, men and women who cross-dressed and performed tasks meant for the opposite sex. How they understood these aberrations is unique to each culture and language-group, but the term ‘Two-Spirit’ is meant to capture what is different about the ‘Native perspective’ versus the Western. The phrase refers to the dual nature of the person, perhaps containing both a male and female essence. Modern Western culture is brutally materialistic about sexual identities, interested in genes, twin studies and summed up in the slogan ‘Born This Way’. This differs from other parts of the world where homosexuality, like all parts of the human condition, is governed by the spiritual world.
The famous conference, held in Winnipeg in 1990, was the third meeting of the “Annual Inter-Tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference”. Here the delegates designated an Ojibwe term, niizh manidoowag, to be the official descriptor of indigenous sexualities. This word literally translates as ‘two-spirit’, but crucially, both terms were invented at or around the time of the conference, they have no history within Ojibwe culture or their language. Herein for me was the opening part of the mystery - where did this term come from if it had to be retrospectively created in a Native American language? We will turn to that shortly, but first we have to introduce the main character in our story.
Introducing Harry Hay
Harry Hay is one of the gay liberation movement’s legendary figures. Born in 1912 in Britain and raised across the world, he came from an illustrious and religiously devout family line. His maternal great-grandfather, General James Allen Hardie, was appointed by President Martin Van Buren to West Point Military Academy where he studied alongside Ulysses S. Grant. General Hardie fought in the 1857 war against the Spokane Indians and his son, Francis, served at Wounded Knee, carrying the Third Cavalry flag. He was also distantly related to Oliver Wendell Holmes through a woman called Anna Wendell. This legacy of conflict with the Native Americans would prove crucial to Hay’s later interests and affiliations.
Compared in temperament to General Hardie, Hay was equally a sensitive, emotional and scholarly man. His father, ‘Big Harry, passed down to him a streak of total self-reliance and a fierce inner discipline and work ethic. Hay’s relationship with his parents, in particular his father was tense and difficult. When he finally admitted to his mother in 1951 that he was gay, her response was terse: “Your father knew Cecil Rhodes”, and that was the end of the matter. The family left for Chile at the outbreak of World War One, his father to work overseeing the mining industry, an employment which cost him his leg in an accident. After this the family relocated to California. Hay was an intellectually gifted boy with a photographic memory, studying with children three years older than him in school. By the time he was nine Hay was effortlessly quoting the history of Egypt and listening to Wagner, but in his biography he recalls that this was the period of his sexual awakening with boys. An older boy called Calvin introduced him to oral sex, and they learnt to practice on one another until Calvin was sent away to another school. An incident with his father where Hay contradicted something he said is noted as a fundamental moment in his biography. His father whipped him with a leather cat-o-nine-tails until he recanted, which he did not do. At once Hay realised that not only was his father wrong, but that every authority in his life, from the priest to the police, could be wrong as well.
At age 11, Hay knew he found boys attractive. A reference in a book entitled The Intermediate Sex, by Edward Carpenter, introduced the term ‘homosexual’ into his vocabulary and mental map of the world. Carpenter’s unique and risky book described a class of men he called ‘Uranian’, gifted scholars and artists like Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Whitman. He called them ‘homogenic’ and lit a fire in Hay that such a breed of men were set aside and destined for some special task in society. He was hooked. As Carpenter wrote:
The instinctive artistic nature of the male of this class, his sensitive spirit, his wave-like emotional temperament, combined with hardihood of intellect and body; and the frank, free nature of the female, her masculine independence and strength wedded so thoroughly to feminine grace of form and manner; may be said to give them both, through their double nature, command of life in all its phases, and a certain freemasonry of the secrets of the two sexes which may well favor their function of reconcilers and interpreters.
We must note in this passage the emphasis on the double nature of the homosexual, it was this idea that grabbed Hay and forever kept him under its sway - a gay man is someone who unites both the male and female spirit, to become a creative and artistic soul.
When Hay was 13 his father sent him to Nevada to work on a ranch, possibly he sensed in his son some affliction which could be cured by hard, physical work and the company of tough men. Unfortunately for him this proved to be the final seditious nail in the coffin. Hay was introduced and integrated into the network of socialist and communist labourers who worked seasonally on the ranch. They gave him pamphlets of Marx, taught him union songs and captivated his mind with tales of the Haymarket Massacre, the 1887 Railroad Strike and the martyrdom of Joe Hill - Harry Hay left that summer a Wobbly in his heart. Just as importantly perhaps, Hay was also introduced to a legendary Native American figure, although he didn’t know it at the time. The Paiute prophet Wovoka, known as Jack Wilson in later years, was the ‘Ghost Dance Messiah’ of 1889. The Ghost Dance movement which swept across the Plains, led directly to Wounded Knee. He would learn of this connection later in life and felt it to be fateful, given his family history.
Not long afterwards Hay had his first full sexual experience with an older sailor called Matt, who told him that ‘people like him’ existed in secret all around the world, as a kind of brotherhood. Hay described this experience later in life:
When in later years he told this favorite coming-out story, he referred to it ironically as his “child molestation speech,” to make the point of how sharply gay life differs from heterosexual norms. “As a child,” he explained, “I molested an adult until I found out what I needed to know.” He recalled that Matt’s promise of a new world and a future served as a life raft during the isolated period of high school. Far from being an experience of “molestation,” Harry always described it as “the most beautiful gift that a fourteen-year-old ever got from his first love!”
After graduation Hay’s father pushed him into a career in law, working for an LA firm for a year. During this time he discovered the ‘cruising scene’ and was mentored in the art of gay pick-up culture. In 1930 he enrolled at Stanford University to read International Relations. Informally he discovered acting and the stage life, meeting cross-dressers, openly gay actors and he immersed himself in the lifestyle of rebellion against his strict upbringing. A sinus infection in 1932 led Hay to drop out from university, never to return, but he continued with his acting career, much to the disgust of his father. It was through performing that he met a famous actor of the era, Will Geer. Geer was the man to fully lead Hay away from his Edwardian life into the world of serious political activism. Strikes, union conflicts, anti-racist and anti-fascism demonstrations, eventually being hidden by friends when he threw a brick at a policeman’s head. Geer led Hay to join the Communist Party and the two became lovers. For Hay, Geer’s boundless optimism and fundamental belief that human nature could be changed for the better was a heady brew, but he came up against reality when he realised that the Communist Party was strictly and institutionally homophobic. Out of desperation and fear, and on the advice of friends and a psychiatrist, Hay decided to marry a woman, to show his commitment to the Party. He chose Anna Platky, a Party member from a working-class Jewish family. He failed to find happiness and solace in this arrangement however, and after many years of drifting through jobs and activism he decided in 1948 to found his own, explicitly homosexual political group - The Mattachine Society.
The Mattachine Society & the Great Project
Hay’s inner world was consumed with ideas and visions of this secret, spiritual brotherhood, and he was forever reading and making notes about pagan ceremonies, medieval folk festivals, fools, jesters, lepers - anyone and any affair which turned the normal order on its head. He discovered the term ‘mattachine’, which refers to a 16th century phenomenon of secret societies in Europe, dedicated to dance, satire and clownish rebellion. The Mattachine Society became a fixture in Hay’s mind:
the Mattachine troupes conveyed vital information to the oppressed in the countryside of Thirteenth to Fifteenth century France and perhaps I hoped that such a society of modern homosexual men, living in disguise in Twentieth century America, could do similarly for us oppressed Queers.
The Mattachine Society was born out of Hay’s belief that homosexuals in America were an oppressed class, but one which should naturally ally with the Left and be capable of determining and lobbying for their own political agenda and future. For a group of people accustomed to living in secret, Hay’s provocative and public approach was radical and some found it threatening. He wrote a manifesto, ‘Androgynous Minority’, which he shared with his lover at the time, a man called Gernreich. Gernreich warned him with the story of the Magnus Hirschfeld, and his Institute for Sexual Research, which had been obliterated by the Nazis. Determined anyway, Hay pushed forward and founded the Mattachine Society, a group modelled on Alcoholics Anonymous and enthused by the recent Kinsey Reports books. The Society ran like a kind of Leninist Freemasonry, with oaths of loyalty, secrecy, cells and five layers of membership.
For Hay this changed everything - he divorced his wife, cut off ties with his respectable friends and advised the Communist Party to expel him for his homosexuality - which they did. The Society grew rapidly, with 100 people comfortably attending each meeting. But the legacy of Hay’s communist beliefs and activities attracted considerable public attention and the leadership of the Mattachines pushed for a patriotic and loyal vision of American homosexuality, eventually pressurising Hay to step down from his position. The Society adopted an official stance of non-confrontation, causing Hay to have an emotional breakdown. Dismayed and upset, Hay turned to his intellectual life, looking for inspiration and ideas from the past, continuing his lifelong search for the history of gay people in human societies.
Hay had always maintained his academic and scholarly pursuit of this subject, building boxes of notes with tens of thousands of comments, margin scribbles, reference cards and indexes. This was to turn into something more concrete, or at least that was the goal - “The Homophile in History: A Provocation to Research,” sketched out from 1953 to 1955. The project was described:
Divided into fourteen periodic sections, it traces homosexual prototypes from the Stone Age through the European Middle Ages up to the “Berdache and the American Scene,” where Hay cited Johnny Appleseed as one example of an “American Fool Hero.” Much of the study for this was expanded from the syllabus of his music classes at the Labor School. The model Harry used for his study was the berdache. A French term applied to cross-dressing Indians found by the European colonists in the New World, berdache sometimes referred simply to an Indian who committed “the abominable vice” of homosexuality. But to Harry, it meant a cultural role.
We will come on to the subject of the ‘berdache’ shortly.
Academically, Hay was decades ahead of the zeitgeist. His study ranged across the entire span of human prehistory and written history, attempting to link together primitive matriarchies, goddess worship, druidism, social deviancy, folk festivals and carnivals, peasant religions, banned calendars, societies of jugglers, clowns, glee-men, itinerant nomads and colonies of paupers, trickster figures, folk-heroes and anything else esoteric and unorthodox which he could weave into his narrative of ‘gay anthropology’. As we’ve seen, Hay was convinced that gay people exist in order to fulfil certain, special social functions, but that these had been suppressed, particularly by Christianity. He wrote several papers on Biblical homosexuality - The Moral Climate of Canaan in the Time of Judges and Christianity’s First Closet Case (unpublished). One particular interest for him was the role of the ‘craft-specialist’ in earlier societies. He was convinced that these were usually gay men, adopting woman’s work but excelling and mastering the craft, elevating it to a civilisational level.
But his core mania was for locating specific references to ‘us’, gay people, and the rites and rituals which were specifically reserved for them. Patient readers may have been wondering at what point does ‘two-spirit’ emerge in this story? The answer is in Hay’s perseverance in tracking down every last reference to gay people in every field of study he could lay his hands on:
Harry unearthed a forgotten document written in 1882 by a former United States Surgeon General Dr. William A. Hammond, while in the field, observed Indians called mujerados, a Spanish term meaning “made women.” This tantalized Harry as a possible type of berdache. Hammond described the mujerados he had found among Pueblo Indians in Northern New Mexico, who were the “chief passive agent in the pederastic ceremonies.” Hay offered a lengthy commentary and roundly protested this paper’s “burial by omission” for nearly one hundred years.
Harry’s long search for the report was not an easy one. He had read references to Hammond’s paper in several turn-of-the-century books. But in 1962 when he decided to look up the original text he ran into trouble. He started at the U.C.L.A. Research Library, which listed in its holdings Volume I of the American Journal of Neurology and Psychiatry, the first publication to print Hammond’s findings. But when Harry requested a copy he found, to his and the librarian’s surprise that the Hammond article had been cut out.
Four more copies of the journal that Harry ordered from other libraries had been similarly mutilated. He surmised that Hammond’s findings may have been repudiated by some government official and censored. After many months, Harry found a copy of the report in a later text by Hammond titled Sexual Impotence in the Male and Female, published in 1887. Over the years, Hay continued to find many other such cases of obliteration of historical references to homosexuality.
At this point it is worth taking a break in our story and turning to the question of the ‘berdache’.
The Berdache in Native American Culture
The term ‘berdache’ is strongly out of fashion today; you won’t find any references to it in modern literature from the late ‘80’s /early ‘90’s onward. The word is French in origin, meaning ‘catamite’ or ‘boy kept for unnatural purposes’, and emerged during the early years of Native anthropology to describe a particular phenomenon observed in some cultures. Typically a berdache describes a man, or less frequently a woman, who breaks with their social expectations and chooses to adopt female clothes and activities. Like all human societies, Native Americans had a binary division of labour, some tasks and roles were for men, others for women. People who intentionally crossed that division were known to anthropologists as berdaches. Confusingly to modern ears, raised on a bewilderingly complex system of parsing out sex, gender, sexuality etc, the berdache was also associated with homosexuality, transgenderism and prostitution. Thus the ‘female man’ was a gay man.
Berdache as a term is certainly outdated, and even without political sensitivities in the academy it is too broad brush a description. Each culture had its own understandings of sexuality and gender roles and its own cosmology to explain how some people came to act like the opposite sex. Where the crossover between the European gay rights movement and Native American anthropology occurred was precisely in the confused descriptions of the berdache as having a special spiritual role and position within Native cultures. We’ll see more of this as we continue, but it is worth establishing here that this belief cannot be justified in the light of rigorous anthropology.
Hay & the Radical Faeries
At this point in his life Hay was all in on the search for the historical homosexual. He began corresponding with a number of academic and scholarly figures, including Robert Graves, the writer, critic and translator of historical myths. Hay was convinced that Graves knew a great deal about Greek homosexuality, but was reticent to divulge it. He wrote to him, hoping to gain some insight and information. Graves responded with a diplomatic take on the subject:
Homophilia as a natural phenomenon is respected in most societies—and by me ... Homophilic careerism and Homophilia indulged in for kicks are what I hate… An alliance of Goddess worshipping Heterophiles with natural Homophiles makes sense to me. The literary and art world is so full of irreligious and perverted messiness. You should purge your ranks! Yours v.s. Robert Graves.
He also attended an extremely strange private lecture series by the English savant, mystic and historian, Gerald Heard. Heard gave a number of talks about homosexuals (he called them ‘isophyls’) and how they were the next stage in human evolution, due to their prolonged youthful nature and historical ability to organise into secret brotherhoods. According to Hay’s biography, Heard remarked to Hay that such an organisation still existed:
Heard kept hinting at a sort of hidden ‘Illuminati,’ or secret, Sufi-type brotherhood with initiates in each generation down through the centuries. At our fourth session, he asked if our group was willing to make a commitment to study this brotherhood and hinted at our joining it.” Harry was fascinated with the idea of studying with the great scholar, but felt extremely reluctant to re-involve himself in a secret, gay group. “I did not think it was historically correct to go back underground. What Heard wanted were adepts”
Frustrated with this and other dead ends, Hay took to the road, aiming to track down for himself some of the Native American rituals and rites he believed had been forced underground. His experience with the Pueblo people and his studies on the enigmatic mujerados made them an obvious choice. Managing to befriend a local Pueblo man by the name of Enki, Hay finally thought he had stumbled upon the evidence he was missing. Enki took him to out to a number of ruins, one in particular called Tsankwe, where he told Hay that ‘this is where your people lived’. Hay learnt from Enki the term kwidó, which Hay believed to be the word for berdache or homosexuals. Elated at the prospect of finding some ‘authentic’ evidence, he would repeatedly return to Tsankwe with friends and lovers, proudly pointing to the place he believed linked them to some ancestral past.
In point of fact, the term kwidó is not a well understood term. In her article Is the “North American Berdache” Merely a Phantom in the Imagination of Western Social Scientists?, gender scholar and anthropologist Sue-Ellen Jacobs refers to her arguments with Hay over the correct spelling of kwidó, but also her inability to confirm its existence among the Tewa Pueblo. She laments that “I was told on several occasions that I had misunderstood. They had “never had any people like that here”. I was also told that people “like that” had learnt such ways from white people.”. It seems obvious in retrospect that Hay was simply confirming his own beliefs. Convinced that homosexuality had been suppressed, any ambiguous evidence merely supported his convictions.
Hay moved to San Juan Pueblo in 1971, committing himself to a number of projects, including Albuquerque’s first Pride parade and a fight to prevent a dam being built over the Rio Grande. Here his deepest desire for a brotherhood of men imbued with ‘gay consciousness’ finally came into being, for a short while. The Radical Faeries was established in 1979, the aim being to create ‘Faerie circles’ of gay men who could live a certain way. It was a mish-mash of New Age ideas, hippy aesthetics, western style shamanism, Jungian psychology, drugs, the carnival and riotous dance atmosphere of Hay’s dreams. He implored people to “throw off the ugly green frogskin of hetero-imitation to find the shining Faerie prince beneath”.
Some 200 men turned up to the first circle:
The workshops were on such varied subjects as massage, nutrition, local botany, healing energy, the politics of gay enspiritment, English country dancing, and auto-fellatio. Those assembled took part in spontaneous rituals, providing invocations to spirits and performing blessings and chants, with most participants discarding the majority of their clothes, instead wearing feathers, beads, and bells, and decorating themselves in rainbow makeup. Many reported feeling a change of consciousness during the event, which one person there described as "a four day acid trip – without the acid!".
The Dionysian frenzy which took hold of the participants at the first gathering would be savagely condemned today as denigrating Native culture and role-playing of the highest order. They rolled in mud, built a giant earth phallus, crowned one another in laurel leaves, howled at the moon and experienced a group vision when a huge black bull entered a drum circle at the moment of greatest crescendo. The testimonies afterwards are full of ecstatic language, allusions to baptism, renewal, spiritual cleansing and a heightened sense of gay consciousness. Many would come to adopt pseudo-native monikers, like Crazy Owl and Morning Star.
Crucially for our story, this gathering was the first time a man called Will Roscoe met Harry Hay. In tracing the origins of ‘two-spirit’, this encounter between the young Roscoe and the veteran Hay is central. Roscoe would go on to turn Hay’s jumbled and eccentric boxes of research into fully fledged books and scholarly works, infused with the Faerie-spiritually gay ethos. Roscoe stayed close to Hay after the gathering, becoming involved with a possible land purchase for the Faeries and keeping his friendship with Hay after the Faeries splintered and collapsed in the early 1980’s.
During this visit Harry’s gay historical research had the dust shaken off it. “One night after dinner,” Roscoe recalled, “while making some point about gay people in the history of civilization, Harry made a sweeping gesture toward a dark corner of the room and said, ‘Of course, if you really want to know about this you’ll have to get into that: He was referring to a haphazard pile of cardboard file boxes crammed with thousands of pages of notes from the Fifties.” When Roscoe returned to San Francisco the next Autumn, he took four boxes of the notes with him to index and copy. He found Harry’s notes impressive in their scope and detail… Roscoe was intrigued by the fact that Hay had started with the North American Indian berdache, and then researched the history of civilization as he looked for specific manifestations of that role. Roscoe decided to take up where Harry had left off and develop full empirical studies
Roscoe, Jung & Gay Indians
With the Faeries collapsing and splintering, a new group was founded in 1982 - Treeroots. This was led by two ‘gay pyschologists’, Mitch Walker and Don Kilhefner. Both were interested in using Jungian theory and ritualistic practice to explore gay consciousness. This particular technique rests on Jung’s belief that men possessed an ‘anima’ - an unconscious feminine aspect which can be explored through therapy. In one sense gay men being attracted to Jung has an obvious logic, with his emphasis on duality and the a female aspect to man, as well as the negative consequences of this, self-hatred and projection. But we can trace here an explicit connection between Jung’s archetypal ‘two-spirit’ and the later development of a Native American spiritual category of ‘two-spirit’.
There is a much larger critique to be made one day about how Jung himself, who visited Native Americans in Taos, made use of 'primitive’ religious thinking in his work and how this ultimately contributed to the appropriation and development of his philosophy by ‘gay psychology’. But this article is long enough already. Suffice to say that the tributaries of ideas which fed into this psychological movement already included severe mischaracterisations of Native American religion by both Jung and Hay. A modern example of this phenomena can be found in the ‘work’ of Aaran Mason, the author of such papers as The Gay Male Goddess and the Myth of Binaries: A Queer Archetypal Meandering. A recent discussion of his work explores this muddled cross-over of ‘Native’ and Jungian thought:
While at Pacifica, research led Mason to the work of Will Roscoe, who writes about Native American “two-spirits”—a term used to describe “non-binary gender roles among Native American tribes.” Roscoe’s writings also introduced Aaron to research on the “Galli” cult: ancient groups of men who worshiped the Great Mother Earth Goddess, Cybele…
Armed with these kinds of ideas to provide context and understanding, Mason realized that drag is a “trickster type of process,” that it relies on the trickster energy. In some Native American tales, for example, Coyote would dress like a woman to get what he wanted. In other tales, he would do other outlandish things such as removing his own genitals, getting caught in traps, or enacting outlandish or bawdy schemes…
On that note, Mason told me about a documentary film he discovered called “Two Spirits” in which a Navajo man, Wesley Thomas (who identifies as a two-spirit himself), relates a Navajo origin myth about four genders… Instead of “black and white thinking” where one thing is pitted against the other, when the binary is enlarged to four, an individual might identify as a feminine female, a masculine male, a feminine male, or a masculine female.
Aaron recognized that this concept might also be symbolized by a quaternal mandala, which has a place in Jungian psychology as a sacred circle, encompassing a whole with four equally contributing parts. It also offers the opportunity for the feminine to enter into the Trinity, and for us to view the feminine through two pairs of two binary figures (potentially reunited): Mary mother of Jesus paired with Mary Magdalene and Eve paired with Lilith (the temptress), Aaron suggests.
For Roscoe, Walker, Kilhefner and others involved in the genesis of ‘gay psychology’, the intellectual and emotional power of the Faerie circles and gatherings was the raw material to be fashioned into more serious and institutional products. Roscoe was both the conduit and sculptor of Hay’s decades long project into the history of gay personhood. He did not disappoint.
In the years following the Stonewall riots (1969), a small but significant exodus began to take place. A number of Native Americans, attracted by the gay liberation movement, travelled to San Francisco and started identifying with the Anglo-European scene of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and cross-dressers. It has proved extremely difficult to track down exactly how this happened, but in 1975, two Native Americans - Randy Burns, a Paiute, and Barbara Cameron, a Lakota - founded the Gay American Indians (GAI). The relationship between this group and Will Roscoe is murky, but somehow he ended up becoming the Project Coordinator for the Gay American Indians History Project (1984) and editor for the Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. The records and papers related to this time period are held by the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco (the Will Roscoe papers and Gay American Indians records). These have yet to be digitised and surely contain the story of how Roscoe, a non-Native, came to be embraced and placed in a leadership position by the GAI.
The dynamics here are exceptionally complicated. For Roscoe, Hay and many gay-identifying Native Americans, the anger and aggression shown towards gay Native Americans by other Natives has its origin in the Christianisation of their culture. Roscoe became the ‘expert’ who could claim and ‘prove’ that previous generations of Native Americans were not only tolerant of gays, third-genders and transgender people, but that these people were celebrated and even worshipped for their spiritual powers. However, and this gets to the heart of the problem, much of this research, and the claims that flow from it, are simplified, distorted and propagandised images of pre-Columbian American life. Roscoe went on to write dozens of books and articles about the existence and reverence for homosexuals and third-gender people in numerous indigenous and traditional societies - including Islam, Christianity, African and Native American groups.
“Why Was the Berdache Ridiculed”
So if patient readers have followed along, they might be asking what exactly is wrong with this definition of two-spirit if Native Americans themselves have adopted it? Native history and control over it has become an essential part of the progressive cosmology since the 1960’s, in particular making use of it to fortify a vision of a world where a patriarchal, dominant Christian colonial state wiped out a peaceful, matriarchal, ecologically-friendly and egalitarian society of hunters and farmers. Almost everyone has seen this form of propaganda, the Noble Savage doomed to extinction, and with it the earth suffers. The specific question of the ‘berdache’ and how Hay’s acolytes and companions managed to distort history certainly deserves to be told, and hopefully I have provided the reader with some background here which explains how this new image of the ‘two-spirit’ came into being. But let us turn to the problem of what exactly was distorted.
Scholarship on the historical ‘berdache’ is overwhelmingly biased in one direction or another. Progressive activists and scholars are correct that earlier anthropologists were horrified by some Native culture’s acceptance of what they saw as deviance and perversion, which created a false picture of reality. But equally the push-back from Roscoe and co is overrun with mistakes. I want to point to several key criticisms:
In converting ‘the berdache’ to the ‘two-spirit’, Roscoe and co are guilty of exactly the same offence as earlier anthropologists, of homogenising Native cultures, many of which had no such thing as a ‘berdache’.
The foisting of the modern gay movement’s notion of ‘queer’ onto Native cultures is both anachronistic and degrading.
Roscoe and co minimise historical evidence for ridicule, dislike and hostility towards ‘berdaches’ and overstate the case of their sacred and divine nature.
The first of these is the least controversial and most commonly discussed. Internet articles such as “what were the five Native American genders?” are guilty of straight up falsehoods. Even within the enormous ‘culture zones’ of North America, such as the Pacific Northwest, there is a vast amount of cultural differentiation and each people dealt with the topic of gender, cross-dressing and sexuality differently. For many groups, most famously the Iroquois, there is no evidence at all for a ‘berdache’ phenomenon. From the detailed 1983 paper, The North American Berdache:
We might add that Loskiel's (1794:11) report of homosexuality among the Delaware and apparently the Iroquois (Katz 1976:290) did not describe berdache behavior. The case for the absence of berdaches among Iroquois cultures is strong. Kehoe points out that Miller (1974) reached a similar conclusion
In a pretty damning comment by Carolyn Epple, on her work with the Navajo ‘nadleehi’ :
It appears that Roscoe, Williams, and others have frequented the shrine of The Perpetual Homosexual and, in so doing, not only have overlooked the cultural boundedness of sexuality as a concept but also subsume nadleehi (and possibly others with similar characteristics) under the principles of present-day sexuality classification—an unfounded inclusion… thus they attempt to "demonstrate that preindustrial societies are more 'tolerant' ... or'accommodating' of erotic diversity and gender variation than 'the West'". The benefits of identifying with "preindustrial" societies are many, thus, for example, Williams looks to "the American Indian concept of spirituality to break out of the deviancy model to reunite families and to offer special benefits to society as a whole" (1986:207). And Roscoe adds, "I have no difficulty imagining the rationale and rewards of specializing in a work otherwise considered female. My own consciousness has thus absorbed the berdache"
Although both authors acknowledge differences between Euro-American and Native American meanings of gay, they clearly conflate the meanings for their political and personal purposes. It is little wonder that Jaimes, a Native American woman, objects to such perspectives: "Particularly offensive have been non-Indian efforts to convert the indigenous custom of treating homosexuals (often termed 'berdache'by anthropologists) as persons endowed with special spiritual powers into a polemic for mass organizing within the dominant society"
Epple’s remarks on how Roscoe and Williams have made use of Native culture to help fight their own struggles - “an unfounded conclusion” - have been echoed by many others over the years. Attacks on the concept of ‘two-spirit’ often emphasise how radically different Native conceptions of sexuality, kinship and spiritually were, and still are. Some, like the Dene, believe a child can be born with the soul of a dead relative, but this in no way affects their sexuality. Many now question how this terminology was pushed onto them, such as the Mohawk poet James Thomas Stevens in his paper Poetry and Sexuality: Running Twin Rails:
Speaking of constructed identities —enter the Twin-Spirit. Since the mid-1970s, and the founding of GAI (Gay American Indians), those interested in sociosexual and anthropological/cultural research have taken up terms such as berdache, Winkte, double-sex, Nadle, Hwame, and Twin-Spirit… Twin-Spirit is too often used as a pan-Indian term for queer-identified Native peoples, even where no such terms existed before.
Queer is an especially grating term to use to describe Native sexualities. As a word which arose in the Anglo-European context of a ‘liberation’ movement, queer is specifically defined as ‘deviant’, ‘non-normative’ and ‘perverse’. Conceptually this is nothing like the documented ‘berdache’ of Native anthropology, and whilst they can be disliked, marginalised and mocked, the ‘berdache’ existed within an accepted social framework, often with explicit rules of who they could and could not have sex with. In a paper entitled Dance to the Two-Spirit: Mythologizations of the Queer Native, Marianne Kongerslev takes aim at Roscoe’s depiction of North America as “the queerest continent on the planet”. She notes:
Two-Spirit does not signify queerness, as many tribal cultures did not conceive of their non-binary members as outsiders or contrary to traditions. The western notion of queerness here is inaccurate and insufficient for understanding the term. Two-Spirit people served central purposes within their nations and cultures, and are thus not ‘queer’.
Whilst I disagree with the use of the phrase ‘two-spirit’ to describe all Native cultures, something she discusses herself in the paper, the point is clear. Likewise in her article, Epple insists that the Navajo view gender as the primary cleavage of nature, everything can be divided into male and female categories. Thus even the ‘nadleehi’ third-gender cannot ‘queer’ or deviate from this.
Everything, as any Navajo will tell you, can be divided into male and female.... Kluckhohn points out that chants, rivers, plants, and other items are arranged as male and female... Matthews makes a similar observation: "There are many instances in Navaho language and legend where, when two things somewhat resemble each other, but one is the coarser, the stronger, or the more violent it is spoken of as male or associated with male; while the finer, weaker, or more gentle is spoken of as female, or associated with the female"
I don’t want to bombard the reader with an endless series of quotes, so I shall end this critique section with just one more. Although the ‘berdache’ is often institutionalised in Native cultures, what Roscoe and co have done in presenting their existence as both ‘queer’ and spiritual is to invert the documented dynamic. It is true that some tribes viewed them as possessing spiritual powers, it is also the case that they were routinely shunned, mocked and taunted, sometimes even exiled. There is no paradox here to my mind, the existence of a category of person which has a certain status but is nonetheless disliked is commonplace, a blacksmith being a classic example. To round this section out I will present a definitive quotation from David Greenberg’s 1998 work The Construction of Homosexuality:
Alongside the sources that refer to berdaches as honored or accepted, there are others that describe negative responses. The Papago "scorned" berdaches; the Cocopa "apparently disliked" them. The Choctaws held them "in great contempt," the Seven Nations "in the most sovereign contempt." The Klamath subjected berdaches to "scorn and taunting;" the Sioux "derided" them. Pima berdaches were ridiculed, though not otherwise sanctioned, as were Mohave berdaches who claimed to possess the genitals of the opposite sex. The Apache treated berdaches respectfully when they were present, but ridiculed them behind their backs. Although the Zuni accepted their berdache, "there was some joking and laughing about his ability to attract the young men to his home." In some groups, berdaches' partners were also ridiculed or despised.
She describes the process by which, over a period of years, a young Santee man became a winkta. As a boy, he had preferred headwork and housework to boys' sports. With approval for his transformation coming through his dreams, he adopted female attire and forms of speech. The winkta's transvestism elicited no special response until he began to flirt with and attempt to seduce many of the men in his village. At this point the villagers held a formal ceremony exiling the winkta for life. This was a very severe penalty, greater than that imposed for homicide. Following his exile, the winkta took up residence in a neighboring village. There he was welcomed by the women, who were grateful for his contribution to women's work (male berdaches often excelled in performing traditionally female tasks), and by the men, who were happy to partake of his "hospitality" (not described further, but presumably the reference is to sexual hospitality). Despite this seemingly positive reception, the winkta was persistently subjected to flirtatious teasing
There are many explanations for this behaviour, but one obvious source of tension was the ability for a ‘berdache’ male to avoid going to war by identifying with the occupations of a female. Interested readers can track down the book for a more in-depth discussion of that argument.
The 1990 Conference
Throughout the 1980’s, Roscoe and others worked tirelessly on the topic of the ‘berdache’, rehabilitating the image of a maligned deviant into a powerful and beloved figure which had been suppressed by the colonial state. Roscoe drew on Hay’s work to create a global narrative of where the homosexual fit into numerous cultures, how they were revered and helped the current generation of gay activists feel connected to a deeper and even ‘primitive’ vision of their place in human history. All this work was to lead to the formal adoption of the term ‘two-spirit’ by the delegates in Winnipeg. The details of the conference and the following ‘Two-Spirit’ Movement have been archived at the University of Winnipeg, curated by Albert McLeod. Without these details I can’t present the intricacies of the conference debates and discussions, but it seems almost certain, given the nature of Roscoe’s work, that the term and its implications came from Hay’s and Roscoe’s philosophy. This isn’t to ignore the contributions of the Native delegates and activists, who obviously welcomed and accepted the term, but as we’ve seen, the interpretation of the historical record is paramount.
The links between the Gay American Indian movement and its successors with the academic world matters, for it was the patina of legitimacy that activist scholarship supplied which propelled the term ‘Two-Spirit’ into general use. The term appears in academic journals in the late 1980’s and then explodes after the conference, being picked up by advocacy groups, AIDS charities, NGOs, local governments and then the wider media and culture. Today it has become accepted vocabulary, along with its attendant beliefs, such as “Native people had four genders” or “Native cultures worshipped queer and transgender people”, a trope which has become embedded and seems unlikely to disappear.
Hopefully this has been an interesting and illuminating read. Researching this topic led me down many strange rabbit holes and the character of Harry Hay in particular I found both fascinating and repulsive. His obvious intelligence, organisational skills and talents have to, in my mind, be put into the context of his desires and temperament. For instance, Hay was doggedly determined to have the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) included in the general gay rights movement and be allowed to march at Pride with a flag and banner. His views on homosexual love and age-of-consent reveal his consistent belief that homosexuality was not only a distinct biological phenomenon, but brought with it a distinct spiritual nature as well, one which should not confine itself to the views, customs, habits and morals of the heterosexual world. He went to his grave holding out that a boy of 14 should be allowed to ‘molest’, in his words, an older man, to get the information and knowledge he needed. It is this belief in the radical separateness and incompatible moral codes of the gay and straight worlds which I believe fuelled his philosophical and scholarly pursuits. He wanted gay men in particular to have their own cosmos and their own unique place in history.
I have no doubt that his commitment to the Native Americans he lived amongst was sincere, but his obsession with locating the ‘primitive origins’ of homosexuality taints these associations. A most revealing quote from his biography displays this in full:
Despite Harry’s frustrations with his berdache investigation at San Juan, he suspected that a berdache tradition—at least in part—remained beyond the observation of whites. This suspicion was bolstered one afternoon as he watched San Juan schoolchildren debarking from their bus in front of the trading post. “A small boy of about eight was weeping and hiding behind a girl of the same age. I heard her shout at some other boys who were taunting this poor scared kid, ‘Leave him alone! He has every right to act however he wants to, and you know it!’ It was clear she was defending a little sissy.” Harry never got the chance to catch a clearer glimpse of this possibility, but felt that any such tradition would be carefully guarded from outsiders.
He had created a world for himself where, behind every door, was a secret gay rite and ritual. Even in the bullying of a small boy he saw a missed opportunity to prise open the secrets of a culture that was not his.
Ultimately I think that Roscoe and Hay are responsible for creating a mythical Homosexual, what others call the Perpetual Homosexual, and for pushing this into the new activist-led academia and into that crossroads where gay Indians and gay Westerners met. ‘Two-Spirit’ encapsulates Hay’s and Roscoe’s belief in a matriarchal worshipping divine gay man, one who integrates some archetypal binary male/female essence and who is destined for a special role in society and history. Not only do I think this is obviously the fantasy of an introverted and precocious boy, but it is one which has profoundly influenced the modern gay rights movement, in particular the philosophy of transgenderism. But that is perhaps another story, someone else’s to tell. If contemporary Native Americans are happy with the term ‘Two-Spirit’, that is up to them. But my conversations with Native friends suggests otherwise, and so I offer this piece to anyone interested in finding out the origins of these terms and ideas which feel foisted upon them.
Bibliography (not already in text)
The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement. Stuart Timmons. 1992.
Becoming two-spirit: Gay identity and social acceptance in Indian country. Gilley BJ. University of Nebraska Press. 2006.
Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality. Jacobs SE, Thomas W, Lang S, editors. University of Illinois Press. 1997.
Indian Blood: HIV and Colonial Trauma in San Francisco's Two-Spirit Community. Jolivette AJ. University of Washington Press; 2016.
The Zuni man-woman. UNM Press. Roscoe W. 1991.
Islamic homosexualities: Culture, history, and literature. Roscoe W, Murray SO, editors. NYU Press; 1997.
Excellent piece, thank you for taking the time to do this deep dive. I've been curious about the origin of this Two-Spirit term since it became ubiquitous in the Canadian version of the alphabet soup, and skeptical as to it's historical validity given the cultural diversity of American Indian societies, and the implausibility that warrior cultures would afford effeminacy a sacred status. It seems my suspicions were well-founded.
The portrait of Harry Hay was especially revealing. This is a man possessed of rare talents, yet driven by sexual perversion to employ his gifts in service of his appetites. His intellectual project largely served as an elaborate justification for his desires, rather than as a quest for truth; thus, he was vulnerable to self-deception and fabulism, and in the end achieved little more than confirmation bias. Despite this his influence has been immense, since there was fertile ground for his project within a subculture looking to justify its own existence.
Incredible piece! It's fascinating to see how modern progressives often denigrate "religion" while filling the spiritual vacuum in their lives with romanticized ideals of their own world views, whether that takes the form of science worship, blatant hedonism, or in this case the Perpetual Homosexual. Subscribed and looking forward to reading more of your work.