Sex, gender, and the two-spirit

If you are biologically male does that mean that you are a man? And if your biological sex is female does that make you a woman? Most people would unhesitatingly answer yes to both questions. But are they right to do so? Perhaps the key question is this: does an individual’s (biological) sex determine that individual’s gender?

Trying to answer that question inevitably leads into hotly-contested scientific, political and social debates—a lot rides on how we view the relationship between sex and gender. Gender essentialists (or determinists) maintain that fundamental differences between the biological sexes are responsible for the gender differences between men and woman: women are wired to like pink, are more nurturing, more passive, less spatially aware, etc.; men are wired to prefer blue, are less emotionally aware, more aggressive, better at reading maps, etc. Whether the different wiring between men and women is biological or evolutionary is less significant than the broader point essentialists make: men and women are different in ways that simply cannot be got around. And from that potentially follows arguments as to why women are better suited for, say, caring professions or parenthood, while men make, say, more natural engineers or leaders. Although not an inevitable consequence of gender essentialism, the theory has proved convenient to those who wish to justify ‘traditional’ gender roles and, in some cases, gender inequality.

Social constructionists, on the other hand, argue that gender is socially and culturally constructed rather than biologically determined. The overwhelming majority of gender differences, in this view, have nothing to do with biology and a lot to do with social and cultural influences: upbringing, family, social conventions, media, and so on. Are women biologically wired for parenthood in ways that men are not? No, answer constructionists: if we give baby dolls as presents to girls and toy cars as presents to boys, if advertising, films and television tend to present women as homemakers and men in roles of action out in the world, then men and women are being socially and culturally conditioned to assume certain roles which are then mistakenly thought to be natural.

The debate may well elude a definitive verdict. For example, the question of why girls ‘prefer’ pink and boys blue has received some attention in recent years, with evolutionary reasons suggested as an explanation: our female ancestors needed to be proficient at gathering berries; men were hunting under blue skies. This does not account, however, for the conventional belief a century ago that pink was a more suitable colour for boys and blue for girls. Nor does it account for the findings of other research suggesting no colour preference can be detected in children under the age of two.

As Natasha Walter has pointed out in a thoughtful critique of essentialism in Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (London: Virago, 2010)—within the context of her wider and intelligent analysis of and attack on the pervasiveness of sexism—what is particularly interesting about the debate is the way the media tend to seize on evidence that lends support to the essentialist argument, while largely ignoring research supporting the constructionist position. The mainstream and popular media (not, of course, immune to sexism—Page 3 of The Sun being only the most egregious example—and, like the worlds of politics and science, largely male-dominated) may well have too much invested in a theory of fundamental, essentialist gender differences to countenance any other possibility. And perhaps it is for this reason that more widely it is often regarded as simple ‘common sense’ that men and women, whether through differently-wired brains or hormonal differences, are fundamentally different, even to the point that they begin to resemble alien species, as the title of John Gray’s best-selling and specious Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (1992) has suggested. Gray’s book and his many follow-ups are almost certainly the best-known and most popular example of gender essentialism.

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We-Wa, a Zuni two-spirit, weaving

It may be ‘common sense’ to think in terms of binary categories—male/female, men/women, masculinity/femininity—and to assume that the first of those categories (biological sex) determines the other categories, but that does not make it right. Our attachment to binary categories may reflect not the ‘truth’ but rather a society for whom there is an investment in such a form of categorization. A comparison with other societies may raise doubts about these ‘common sense’ notions. In particular, native American culture, at least prior to much of its obliteration, challenges modern, western assumptions about sex and gender. Not only did gender roles within many tribes run counter to the division of the sexes familiar to European settlers, but in the figure of the two-spirit, found in the majority of tribes, was embodied an even more radical departure from traditional western thinking about sex and gender.

The two-spirit (also known as the berdache, although this term has increasingly fallen into disfavour) was an individual who combined the biological characteristics of one sex with the ‘spirit’ of the other. Thus, a male two-spirit had male biological characteristics but was considered to have the spirit of a woman; a female two-spirit had female biological characteristics but was considered to have the spirit of a man.

One way of thinking about the two-spirit is either as a woman within the body of a man, or a man within the body of a woman. In traditional western thinking about sex and gender the word ‘trapped’ is often applied to this notion, as if something has gone wrong with nature: an individual has been born into a body with the wrong biological characteristics. Gender identity disorder, or gender dysphoria, is a specific diagnosis according to the 5th edition of the standard reference work, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013). Gender reassignment, a medical process designed to align biological sex with an individual’s gender, for all its potential value to the life experience of those who undergo it, nevertheless confirms the sense that a misalignment of sex and gender is problematic. Both transgenderism and transsexualism remain the focus of prejudice and misunderstanding.

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Squaw Jim (1854-1929; a two-spirit from the Crow Nation) and his Squaw

Another way of thinking about the two-spirited individual is in terms of a third, or even fourth, gender, upsetting traditional binary notions about sex and gender. One of the striking features of native American culture is that the two-spirit seems not to have been thought of as ‘unnatural’ or as a deviation from the norm. Male two-spirit (i.e. biologically male but with a female spirit) would wear women’s clothes and perform female roles; female two-spirit would wear men’s clothes and perform male roles. In both cases there was full acceptance within the tribe without any prejudice. Moreover, the two-spirited individual often occupied honoured positions within their tribe: as, for example, healers, shamans, specialist craftspeople, and the focus of ceremonial dances. It is also worth noting that two-spirit might have relationships with either sex. Thus, for example, a male two-spirit may marry a man or a woman, but it would be inappropriate to apply the western (binary) concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality in this context: the concepts make little sense within the more fluid understanding of sex and gender within native American culture.

dance to the berdache

George Catlin, Dance to the Berdache, 19th century

The two-spirit suggests that native American culture had concepts of biological sex, gender and sexual relations radically different from those within Euro-American culture. Indeed, for European settlers they were typically regarded as evidence of the abnormality, perversity and homosexuality of native Americans, and hence ran counter to Euro-American morality and laws. Subject to moral and legal impositions, as well as native American acculturation (the process of one culture changing, and adopting the thought, customs and institutions of another culture) stemming from these impositions, the two-spirit gradually became an individual not to be honoured but to be deemed unworthy of respect, even to be despised.

Although the concept of the two-spirit may raise questions about the supposed ‘truth’ of the binary categories familiar within western culture, it does not itself constitute an alternative ‘truth’. The two-spirit may best be seen as an example of the way sex and gender are socially and culturally constructed. It may well be that a scientific truth of sex and gender will forever remain elusive, since the way these concepts are thought about are deeply entangled within their social and cultural context.


Further reading

Sabine Lang, Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures, trans. by John L. Vantine (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998)

Beatrice Medicine, ‘Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories’, Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 3.2 (2002)

Walter L. Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Cultures (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986)