Two spirits, one soul, one body


In between the historical accounts and free adaptations in the contemporary queer subcultures

Two-spirit concept is a modern roof term for ancient roles with various names (*) that many Native American cultures had for individuals who’s gender identity partially corresponds to the contemporary queer people. This role associated with certain expectations and tasks – two-spirits served as the key spiritual authorities of the tribe.

* Zuni: lhamana, Navajo/Diné: nádleeh, Cheyenne: he'eman/hetaneman, Crow: badé, Mohave: alyha, Apache: ńdé'sdzan, ... and so many others

Divergent history of the "divergent"

The Abrahamic cultures divided the world to two sides - the Good/Light and the Evil/Dark one. The world of terms and concepts was divided subsequently. The procreative heterosexuality has become a norm, everything else considered a sin. It took millennia of persecution and murdering, until during the age of enlightenment, with new scientific methodology, the others were considered in terms of natural variation, inherent features, identity. If before the male/female gender was associated with certain gender stereotype and role (how to dress, what characteristics to develop and which ones to suppress, what function to serve in household or society, who’s on top and who submits) and sexual behavior (procreative sex with the other gender) – the science has divided the gender body characteristics, the gender roles and stereotypes, sexual orientation. This has given us more combinations – e.g. male/female, gay/straight – and of course all those in-between. This shift in perception has happened even thanks to the research of the anthropologists, conducted among the Native American tribes.

Instead of combining sex and sexual orientation, some of the Native American tribes dealt with the natural variance through defining more than two genders. The third and fourth one belonged to the people, who in some characteristics intersect with today’s gays, lesbians, bisexuals, intersex, transgenders, or gender queers. The 3rd and 4th gender was a complex identity that encompassed specific characteristics and social role. In the native’s perspective, these genders were understood not only as being in between man and woman, but actually possessing a spirit of both a man and a woman in one body. This anomaly therefore corresponded to a different esteem of such individuals.

It is noteworthy to mention that the increased number of genders still represented a normative institution. Each gender had prescribed models of behavior, expectations – and the benefit of the whole (whether the tribe or a bigger picture of creation) was at times put above the individual liberties. The gender system they have devised may look relatively better than the Abrahamic one – even inspiring for the contemporary queers - but still not as liberal as the (post-)modern approach. Male were often expected to become fierce warriors - represented by certain tools, skills and attitudes - and women dominated other crafts and spaces. If a child did not profess inclination towards the games (that always prepare one for the adult tasks) matching his gender of birth – what we called in modern times a "sissy" or "tomboy" – a test might have been ordained. The result of this ritual could assign the young person to the 3rd and 4th gender. This meant raising him perhaps a bit more resonant with his nature, but also preparing him for the specific tasks expected of the two-spirit person.

The gender construction collides with the history and mythology of those particular tribes – particularly some significant characters in the creation myths. As the 1st and 2nd genders were not free of role expectations – e.g. "straight male warrior" and "straight female cook" (in a very simplified example for the sake of clarity) – they developed different sensitivities, behavior tendencies and one-sided perspectives, that we can parallel to the contemporary "war of sexes". To a part maybe natural, to a part culturally instilled. Having both male and female spirit in one person presented a unique outlook at life – that could be harvested also in bridging the epic differences among prevalent average male and female personalities and to improve the harmony in the gender fabric of the society.

Standing in between 1st and 2nd gender, two-spirits extrapolated the intermediate position even further – becoming the mediators between the material world (and that of humans) and the immaterial real of spirits. They have claimed the role of healers, rite preservers, masters of ceremonies, teachers - simply memory, wisdom and culture keepers. That did not necessarily coincide with tribal heads – which is a hierarchical role desire more by the competitive folks. Two-spirits were odd but key figures of the tribes, to some extent self-defined by their unique characteristics. It was often believed that the tribes/cultures would face extinction if the two-spirits were to be lost. Which has unfortunately happened as predicted – the white colonizer’s fundamentalist’s priests were eager to replace the native cultures with Christian one and zealous to eliminate the "perverted" individuals who’s common presence bewildered them. It’s not clear which one conditioned the other one.

The multiple gender roles still presented certain norms, limits and imperatives. Those extended even into the romantic and sexual sphere. First-gender (for simplicity: straight men) were not expected to (inti)mate with each other and certainly they were not even inclined to do so (as straight men). They were coupling with women and sometimes even with two-spirits. This was considered gender-wise correct – and thanks to superstitions, it was believed that two-spirits were powerful creatures and bonding with them assured a good luck. Likewise, two-spirits did not couple among themselves either - they considered it akin to incestuous behavior ("among sisters"). They set up their own families (with first or second gender), but also served the whole community as helpers, caretakers, surrogate parents.

Facts and fiction

It may not be easy to determine where the two-spirit historical realities - differing from a tribe to tribe - end and where the contemporary queer retelling start. For the people from the Abrahamic culture, this somewhat queer-positive myth presents as a bright example in the gloomy history – and a strong case for the possibility of incorporating non-heterosexuals into the society. Not just as a suffered oddity, but as a valid natural/cultural variation with a meaning and purpose. (Which present another problematic debate of subject-object interactions: if a person's worth lies in his use to the others and the function he plays in the tribe - or does he have an intrinsic human value without a need for justification?)

The two-spirit concept has been to some extent borrowed from the Native American context – for some even appropriated from the contemporary Native Americans who identify as the two-spirits - and freely interpreted, even mystified by the boarder western queer audience. Though this may not be such a malicious process as it is sometimes seen by the post-modern cultural-authenticity police. Even the Abrahamic culture comes from the Middle East. The legends are always as much eclectic as they are important to humans. Western straight society has its core mythology too - with some possible historical references and a lot of confabulation. Virginal conception, talking burning bushes, parting of the seas, resurrection and miraculous apparitions. The role of myths is to inspire, draw the better out of men, present values, feed us with allegories and parables, give a sense of meaning to human life. The myths do not need to be accurate. As such, they can't be taken at face value. The myths can overreach from the cultures of their origin and transform on the way – across regions and time periods. Christianity (based on a peculiar selection of ancient letters) was invented and adjusted by the first followers, early and later church figures, folk, powerful of the day and generations in between, blending with the older local beliefs. The same life of its own may happen to the two-spirit-inspired mythology - significant to the contemporary queers living within the existing cultural conflicts.

Accepting the unclear border between ancient two-spirit realities and more recent fantasy realm, the life of its own to the myth - we may employ it to perform its work: to serve the soul that lives in stories, adventures and interactions of archetypal deities. A missing piece in the syncretic spirituality puzzle. Two-spirit concept as a myth offers quite a lot of connection points with contemporary life experience of the queer people, particularly filling in some (essential and spiritual) gaps in the modern queer identities.

Fingers touching across times and cultures

1.These new self-constructs developed within the culture – as a balance of resistance and compliance – into more than just mere combination of gender + sexual orientation. Speaking for gays - straight-acting, toxic masculinity, internalized homophobia are pandemic. While for the majority, the effeminacy is the most triggering aspect of queerness, for many gays searching for majority approval it is a matter of shame that those queens bring on the community. In the least case, it is undesirable feature in mating – gays are often attracted to the classical masculinity (both natural attraction and cultural expectations come in play), mostly found only in straight men - who are off limits. Invention of the gay identity, whatever brave and revolutionary step on the way to liberation it was, forced us into a mating ghetto - where we have to search partners among each-other ("among sisters"). In order to attract each-other, we have to play "men". Emulating sexy masculinity – regardless of to what part it is biological and to what part artificial. Two-spirit concept proposes a teasing alternative – being comfortably feminine, in between, while having access to the attractive "straight men".

2. As men, we often we "pass" unseen through the exclusive male environments, hearing the "male pals talk" - but thanks to our "effeminate" sensitivities, we easily acquire trust of the female friends (not "wanting anything", not posing a threat, not being that hopelessly macho in thinking, interests and taste) as well. We move freely between those to worlds, we have insight into both, we see their epic misunderstandings. We change gender expression and viewing points as convenient – with allusion to the "changing" attribute - characteristic to the two-spirits. We have first hand experience of inhabiting the male body, but can easily look through "female eyes". That reach towards both sides is a precious asset. We could use it as a skill and provide a valuable service to the one-sided ones, if we were not that busy with acting their troublesome stereotypes.

3. The extrapolation of the in-between-er identity is not that arbitrary as it may seen. It’s almost a universal storyline – a sensitive gay kid, rather subject than perpetrator of bullying, playing with dolls or some other unmasculine toys, caring for the plushies, being rather gentle, having more intellectual or artistic inclinations, not seldom fascinated by the other gender’s items. This may sound as a cliché, but at least to some part the non-conformism and sensitivity represent a iconic feature of queer youth. We may enhance or suppress it thanks to external pressure and inner shame or need to fit in, belong, be loved. Even many grown gay men usually consciously struggle to act against the cliché (though to be invented by straights) and prove they can be firefighters or swimming race winners or police constables. Nevertheless, despite the pressure and "want", they almost unexceptionally express some feminine qualities. Without the "proving" incentive, they avoid aggressive sports and occupations, do not fall that easily for the trap of "this side"/"that side" "with us"/"against us" "right"/"wrong" battlefield logic, have some perspective on the competitions for the sake of competitions. Warrior, soldier, policeman, thug, professional team sport player - are occupations favored by straight men – of course with exceptions. Queers prefer (or inhabit with more natural skill) those creative, care-taking and gentler professions. Less killing - more helping, less technical – more humanist, less construction – more communication, not so much competition – preferably cooperation. Doctors (and scientists) correspond to healers, caretakers of the warriors to therapists, historians and anthropologists and sociologist and psychologists and teachers to wisdom carriers, artists to the masters of ceremonies – and even the high incidence of not-so-straight priests (whatever self-loathing) references to the ritual leaders. All these inclinations represent a tendency to care, help, serve, share, mediate – instead of competing, fighting, winning, conquering, dominating – in the stereotypical straight mind. Sensitive boys make the world more beautiful, cohesive, safe – rather than partitioning it, winning it, owning it.

4. Being a two-spirit and thanks to that odd gift, thanks to the unique perspective at world, thanks to the painful and beautiful life experience – having a purpose (in a good, non-objectifying sense) – is a very significant difference from what the modern gay identity offers. That is – consuming male bodies, gay lifestyle items, facilities and venues. That ancient identity means more than just merciful approval, fragile tolerance of our inconspicuously lead lives, at the whim of the societal weather. Being integral and irreplaceable part of the society, being valued. The spirit of such identity is radically distinct, it has a spirit, it connects with spirituality. A transcendence that straight peers seek in religions that excluded us on purpose, as a tool (subject-object), to make them feel righteous. It gives us an alternative to living as spiritual outcasts (or worse: scapegoats), atheists, materialists. It reclaims the depth for us. Something, that may be more natural to us at the end.

Two-spirit - inspire - in spirit

It is undeniable that faerie founding mothers found this two-spirit term, piece of history and inspiring myth - instrumental in imagining the nascent community. In the times anxious about cultural appropriation, let’s not think of "stealing" someone else’s costume. Think rather of drag – that does not merely copy a life of another person, but creates a new performance and experience. We still should remember that those ancient fixed gender roles, even if more diverse than ours, were still a bit rigid, perhaps somewhat tight for those who tried to live up to the ideal. We do not attempt to adopt them, but adapt them. Straight people have myths and gay may have them too - not important how real they are, or who they belong to - but because of the impact on everyday life of the individuals and the society.

Grey zone is simply that archetypally queer realm. In between men and women, edge and center of the society, material and spiritual self-understanding, historical realities and engaging myths, in between facts and fiction we shake hand with of our ancestors and role-models, perfecting their and our own dreams. We interpret their experience non-literally, playfully – as a metaphor and inspiration.


Outstanding anthropology studies and popular writing:
William Roscoe: Changing Ones
William Roscoe: Zuni Man-Woman
Walter L. Williams: The Spirit and The Flesh
Brian Joseph Gilley: Becoming Two Spirit