Queer Spiritual Power in Tribal Cultures

Looking at America today, it may be hard to imagine a world where homosexuality sexuality is not only considered normal, but is actually regarded as spiritually powerful. Among pre-colonization Native American tribes and in other cultures, such as the bissu of Sulawesi, homosexuality is constructed in just such a manner. Elevated social roles were the privilege of those who embodied the spirit of man and woman, regardless of his or her physical anatomy.

Perhaps the basis for creating a spiritually powerful social role for homosexuals is the distinction between sex and gender role. Sex refers to the biological and anatomical structures that differentiate males, females, and intersex people. Gender role is a socially constructed set of behaviors, jobs, and functions associated with the men and women of a given culture. Cultures that divide labor across gender lines, which I’ll simply call “men’s work” and “women’s work”, inevitably encounter individuals whose temperament is not in alignment with the tribe’s prescribed duties. What, then, is the tribe to make of this cultural anomaly?

Many Native American tribes identified Two-Spirit people as a third gender… a male with an interest in women’s work could choose to live his life as a woman, dressing in prescribed women’s clothing and performing the tribal duties of a woman, which may or may not include sex practices. In many cases, these two-spirit people were regarded as vessels of supernatural power. Born in the body of a man or a woman… or perhaps with physical characteristics of both sexes, they exhibited the essence of both male and female, the mysterious forces associated with the beginnings of life. In many cases, such as among the Zuni, they were indoctrinated into tribal legends and lore reserved for the shamans of the tribe.

In her article, “Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: The Case of Cross-Gender Females”, Evelyn Blackwood suggests that gender equality is necessary for a tribe to recognize cross-gender people as equal. I believe gender equality is essential for a tribe to elevate the status of a two-spirit person. For if one gender is perceived as superior, then the maintenance of that gender structure makes little room for elevating someone who embodies both genders.

The bissu, the Buginese ritual transvestite priests of Sulawesi, are a beautiful example of homosexuality as being spiritually significant. The tradition of the bissu, which goes back at least 800 years, is one of magic, mystery, and gay sex. The Buginese culture recognizes five distinct genders:

1. calabai – false woman, a biological woman carrying a male spirit
2. calalai – false man, a biological man carrying a female spirit
3. oroane – man
4. makunrai – woman
5. bissu – biological male or female or intersex embodying the meeting place of male and female spirit

In this model, the bissu are at the top of the pyramid, and all other genders are derivative of bissu. A person born with ambiguous genitalia is automatically bissu, while homosexual men and women may become bissu. Interestingly, one of the prerequisites for being bissu is being a sexually active homosexual. A woman or man’s desire for another person of the same sex is considered proof of the other spirit within, for male desires female and female desires male, and from this desire all life came to be. Historically, the bissu performed ritual dances involving blending traditionally men’s and women’s garments as an invocation. They performed at auspicious public ceremonies: before battle, when a prince assumes regency, and when healing is needed during an epidemic. The bissu acted as spiritual mediators for the Buginese.

Today we see homosexuality and cross-gender identity marginalized, certainly not revered. In order to construct a spiritually powerful role for homosexuals, culture must first endow male and female with spiritual significance, as did the cultures discussed here. It must draw a distinction between biology and gender role. (In modern American society, there are very few opportunities open to only one sex. It is in the bedroom alone where gender is defined.) Culture must also accept male and female as equally important. Finally, culture must accept the physical world as mysterious, a world where things are not always what they first appear to be. In this climate, there is space for homosexuals to reflect the fluidity of sexuality and the mysteries of a malleable world.


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