What is Your Spirit Gender?

Osh-Tisch, left, a Crow warrior and spiritual leader and a Boté, a transgendered Native American, with his wife. Courtesy, photographer John H. Fouch, printed in the journal, Montana: The Magazine of Western History

I ran across a most fascinating story about the Native Americans. It seems that Native American tribes in the New World recognized the transgender being.

Pearson McKinney published a timely and thought-provoking article in the Bipartisan Report, entitled, Before European Christians Forced Gender Roles, Native Americans Acknowledged 5 Genders. Certainly we can all agree that the three Abrahamic religions are adamantly opposed to a female being anything but a female and a male being anything but a male. But I will look at the backlash from the Christian point of view, since only it was address by McKinney.

In fundamental and evangelical Christianity, sexual identity is firmly defined. CBN, or the Christian Broadcasting Network, has published an unattributed article, entitled God’s Truth About Gender, which highlights the writings of Dr. David E. James IV, in his book, God’s Truth About Gender: Unraveling the Lies of Modern Human Sexuality, Behavior and Identity. Drawing on the bible verse, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…male and female, he created them” (Genesis 1:26,27 KJV), the unnamed writer notes, “When God created people, gender was a basis for which we were to bear his likeness. Apart from the obvious differences in the physical nature of gender (man and woman), he also gave the concepts of spiritual gender—the way we feel and behave in response to stimuli—to correspond to the man and the woman he created. When we speak of the terms ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity,’ we are referring to these feelings and behaviors. Men are expected to be masculine and women are expected to be feminine, though it is also possible for men and women to possess qualities characteristic of the opposite gender. However, their primary spiritual makeup will be in line with their physical gender.” James goes on to state that, “Heterosexuality and homosexuality are personal choices each person makes with his or her sexual capabilities [my emphasis]. Contrary to what is frequently and erroneously stated in the media, there is no scientific or psychological proof that homosexuality is anything other than a behavior pattern that manifests itself in certain individuals for a variety of reasons, including psychological, social, environmental, behavioral, and genetic predispositions working together to produce the homosexual persona.” James’ descriptions put males and females in their corresponding boxes without any grey areas and appears to vilify anyone who does not identify with the gender to which they were born.

However, in a scientific vein, Mark A. Yarhouse wrote the article Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon for Christianity Today, or CT. Rather than just writing a book based on his own experiences and opinions, as did David E. James IV, Yarhouse and Trista L. Carrs published their study on 32 transgendered Christians in 2012 in the peer-reviewed Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, entitled, “MTF (Male-to-female) Transgender Christians’ Experiences.” In the study, Yarhouse and Carrs looked at “the experiences of 32 biological males who identified as Christian and transgender.” One of the participants described herself as such: “I am walking wounded, dry bones, defeated, tired of the struggle for normalcy or acceptance.” In order to maintain their faith, many of the participants felt they could not show their faith community who they really were. Yarhouse and Carrs wrote, “Participants tended to either report a past conflict or the decision they made to stay closeted to keep their gender-identity conflicts to themselves so as to avoid interpersonal conflict.” Most experienced rejection by their faith-based communities.  A minority of participants found acceptance in their communities. One person noted, ““I go to a very evangelical church … where I transitioned. I am accepted by the people, and indeed was baptized by immersion there several years ago as my new self.” However, this was not the dominant outcome. One of the conclusions that Yarhouse and Carrs found was that “Participants shared a strong personal faith, and they often reported a strong and meaningful connection to God (with some notable exceptions), but where they struggled was with the local religious community. They struggled most with the people who represent that religious faith in local communities.”

True to form in the fundamentalists and evangelical Christian communities in the United States, generally, those who think for feel differently that the standard, heterosexual, patriarchal gender roles are vilified, with the Christian community rarely seeking to accept them.

The Native Americans seem to have had a much more open and accepting society before the Western, patriarchal society overtook the New World. Author Will Roscoe, in 1990, published, ‘”That Is My Road”: The Life and Times of a Crow Berdache,’ in the peer-reviewed, Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Roscoe introduces us to a member of the Crow Nation, Osh-Tisch, whose name means “Finds Them and Kills Them.” He was also known among the westerners as “Woman Jim.”

Although known in the Crow Nation as a boté , the French called him a Berdache. According to Roscoe, “Berdache (derived from the Arabic bardaj, or male concubine) was the term used by French explorers and traders to describe Indian men (and sometimes women) who pursued activities of the other sex. Berdaches were once common throughout North America; their presence has been documented in over 130 tribes. Often they combined the roles of men and women rather than simply switching genders. This is implied, for example, in the translation of boté as “half-man, half- woman.” Recent investigators have characterized berdache status as a third gender.”

Where the transgendered person in the present religious organizations in the United States is feared and vilified, the boté  in the Crow Nation was treated with respect. Roscoe notes, “Third-gender status enabled Crow berdaches to assume special roles in religion as well. In the Sun Dance ceremony, for example, a special lodge was constructed around a tall central pole. This pole, a symbolic conduit between the dancers and the Sun Father, had to be secured by individuals who were themselves intermediary between the community and the supernatural-‘threshold figures,’ in anthropologist Victor Turner’s terms.” But when the western figures entered the native’s lives, hatred towards the revered transgendered person was introduced. According to Roscoe, “In 1889, when A. B. Holder reported his observations of berdaches made during his assignment as a government doctor at the Crow agency, he concluded: “Of all the many varieties of sexual perversion this, it seems to me, is the most debased that could be conceived of.”10 In the twentieth century, anthropologist Robert H. Lowie described Crowberdaches as ‘pathological,’ ‘psychiatric cases,’ ‘abnormal,’ ‘anomalies,’ ‘perverts,’ and ‘inverts.'”

Unlike other westerners, Major General Hugh L. Scott, according to Roscoe, was fascinated and curious about “Woman Jim.” Roscoe presents conversations with the Crow boté, written by General Scott . One of the conversations went like this:

Scott…asked Jim why he wore women’s clothes. “That is my road,” the berdache replied. How long had “she” acted as a woman? Since birth; he “inclined to be a woman, never a man.”Had anyone, a medicine person, perhaps, told him to become a berdache? “No.” Did he ever dream about it? “No.” Did any spirit ever tell him to do it? “No! Didn’t I tell you-that is my road? I have done it ever since I can remember because I wanted to do it. My Father and Mother did not like it. They used to whip me, take away my girl’s clothes and put boy’s clothes on me but I threw them away-and got girl’s clothes and dolls to play with.” When Scott asked if there were any other berdaches in the tribe, Woman Jim replied that he was the last. ‘There were three others recently but they are dead.” In his lifetime, he had know of eight, adding, ‘They have always been far back in history.” Again Scott asked if a spirit or vision directed individuals to become berdaches. “No, it was just natural, they were born that way.” What sort of work did he do? “All woman’s work.”

Interestingly, the fear seemed to resonate from Woman Jim’s family, not her society, though other boté were accepted and revered by their own family members.

Will Roscoe compiled his findings into a book published in 1998, called Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. 

Changing Ones
Courtesy, Amazon.com

His book was reviewed by Gilda Frantz article, entitled, “Carrying the Opposites within Oneself,” published in 1999 in the peer-reviewed, The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal. Frantz, writing after the gay hate crime death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, noted, “It would seem that being homosexual is still punishable by death in many parts of our country, and that despite much cultural interest in the possibilities of diversity, being different is frequently perceived as an insult to the rest of society.”

Frantz’ words still ring true eighteen years later, since Omar Mateen gunned down 49 men and women at Pride night club in Orlando June 12, 2016. Mateen’s victims, members of the LGBTQ community, as well as the straight community, were all targeted by Mateen, a Muslim. In this direction, Frantz notes that as she read in Roscoe’s book about the acceptance of what we would term as Native American members of the LGBTQ community, “…the more rage surfaced in me, not just at the injustice directed toward gay people, but regarding what we have historically done to our Native American brothers and sisters who were able to go way beyond the Europeanʼs limited understanding of human ways. Alongside their loving attention to native animals and plants, Native Americans learned also to observe men and women, and they understood people on many levels, better than we do today.”

Almost two decades later, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters continue to fight for their right to live and continue to battle patriarchal, homophobic themes imbedded in our most fundamentalists and evangelical religious institutions. Why would the Native American cultures not be threatened by the LGBTQ members in their midst centuries ago, but the evangelical and fundamentalist in the three main Abrahamic religions are so fearful that just the mention of the LGBTQ community sends them into a tailspin, quoting Leviticus 18-22?

As an atheist, I am more inclined to gravitate to the spiritual world of the Native American, rather than listen to the hateful drivel that fundamentalists and evangelical Christians, Muslims and Jews spew at our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. It is precisely these homophobic, paternalist attitudes that caused me to question to the very core, the religion that I was brought up to believe was complete truth.

How many additional Orlandos will the homophobic rage embrace in the name of religion?

In “This is My Road…,” Roscoe writes, “Finds Them and Kills Them died on January 2, 1929, at the age of seventy-five. Having outlasted and outwitted efforts over the course of three decades to change his ‘road,’ his story can be counted as one of the personal triumphs of American Indian history.”

Maybe so many Americans who call themselves religious need to look at their own road–and ask themselves why their religion teaches to them to love one another, but fear and vilify LGBTQ members.

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