Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Word of the Gay: "Berdache"

A "berdache" is a member of a Native American tribe who lives and dresses as the opposite sex.


T. R Xands said...

Eh, an almost coincidence (as in not really) we talked about this term in my anthropology class not too long ago. My professora said it was more or less synonymous with the "two spirit" group, is that correct?

T. R Xands said...

I should add that I understand it to be derogatory (?) so...I guess it's not really synonymous. Huh.

Phil said...

My understanding of berdaches is along the "two spirit" line, and is a more historical term than a modern one. I also learned about them through anthropology research, and it to be a term for persons of the tribe whose roles, rather than dress, were traditionally those of the opposite sex. Boys who shied away from traditionally male activities frequently helped with home life and child rearing, while girls who showed more interest in that which was traditionally male might be trained to hunt and help with other male tasks.

I could be completely wrong, of course, and chances are that each tribe had a different name for the two-spirit members of the tribes.

Queers United said...

From what I understand it is synonymous with Two-Spirit, I have not heard about it being derogatory though. I agree with Phil it may just be a different tribal regions word for trans behavior?

Harlan Pruden said...

As a Native person and a co-founder and councilmember of the NorthEast Two-Spirit Society (, I'd like to comment on the term ‘Two Spirit’.

In traditional Native communities, the term 'two-spirit' did not exist - we had our own words in our own languages (approximately 165 documented cases.) The term 'Two-Spirit' came into existence at an international gathering for LGBT Indigenous people in 1990, in reaction to the oppressive and misleading term of 'berdache.'

‘Berdache’ is a derogatory term imposed on us by colonizers.

The term ‘berdache’, a French term, is roots are found in the Persian word “bardaj” that was picked up by the Italians “bardasso” and also the Spanish as “barbaxa” or “bardaje” by the early 16th c. And about that time the word appeared in French as “Bardache.”

At the core of this word it meant “A young man or boy who serves another’s succubus, permitting sodomy to be committed on him.” or the “passive homosexual partner.” (Williams 1986) French missionaries used berdache to label the people that challenged their own rigid binary gender view of the world.

In our own Native traditional settings, the concept of 'two-spirit' was not about sex but one’s covenant with one's community (i.e. one’s gender). In some cases 'two-spirit' was conceived as a blending the masculine and feminine spirits and in other cases it was a gender that was completely different that of men and women. To claim a 'two-spirit' identity/gender was to accept a certain role and responsibility within one's community – sex was peripheral to this identity – but do not get me wrong – for traditional ‘two-spirit’ people did engaged in same-sex relationships – albeit with heterosexually identified partners – not with another ‘two-spirit’ identified person.

Today in the 21st c., two-spirit carries to meanings. One is LGBT Native Americans, a sexual orientation and racial identity, and the other is similar to our Native traditional concept of one’s role/covenant/responsibility to one community, a gender identity.

Harlan Pruden

T. R Xands said...

Thanks for the information Harlan! Makes sense now.

Phil said...

Thanks, Harlan! My history was a little rusty, so I appreciate the clarification. Now that you've reminded me, I remember reading that a 'two-spirit' person (I suppose that's the better term to use, and one that I find fascinating) might provide companionship to a married tribesman, perhaps at a point when a wife was unable to, due to childbirth or other circumstance.

What strikes me now is that it's interesting that a French term was used when, if I remember correctly, it was the Spanish who were colonizing and sought to change the Native way of life.

Harlan, thanks again for the clarification. I've added your site to my bookmarks and look forward to learning and communicating more!

Harlan Pruden said...

Phil & T.R. Xands,
You are most welcome. As you can see from NE2SS’ mission, engaging in dialogues just like one of the reasons why we exist.

Good question about the Spanish and French. Basically the first Spanish colonizers were ‘explorers/robbers/exploiters’. The next wave of Spanish colonizers was a militia-class. Yes, we two-spirit were targeted by the Spanish. There is a lithograph in the NYC public library titled “Balboa's Dogs Attacking a Group of Panamanian Sodomites” depicting two-spirit being ripped apart by the Spaniard’s dogs.

The French got involved because of the missionaries (that’s who started to use the term of ‘berdache’) – you know those folks that were charged with ‘bring the love of ‘their’ God’ to the un-believers (Native Peoples) at the expense of our traditions, ways and beliefs.

This cultural war still continues today in many Native communities – between the traditionalists (who are still accepting and honoring of us two-spirit people) and the christian Indians (the same homophobic and narrow-minded lovers of christ that make up the moral right).

As a point of reference, all reservations were divvied up, with the help of the then fledging american government, you know the european-american tribe, between the protestant and catholic churches. Along with this fight for our souls these churches also ‘got’ our lands on our reservations. And if that was not enough, these same churches open boarding schools, which were funded by the european-american tribe, to educate our Native children. And by education, I mean Native children were used as cheap labor to work the land of these churches and at the same time had their ‘Indianess’ beaten out of them!

Doug Walker said...

"Berdache" is a derrogatory term which in short, refers to a "young male concubine" who may be engaging in this activity willingly or not. Some in the anthropological circles have used it to refer to the "Two Spirit" people of North America. The cultural context relating to the berdache and that of the Two Spirit people are vstly different. One is arguably a dreg of society and the other were cherished as unique, holy, and with mystical gifts for the tribe. Referring to these people (or anyone else for that matter) is an insult in my opinion.

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