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Joseph Francois Lafitau: "Men Who dress as women," 1711-17

Lafitau's Customs of the American Savages, Compared with the Customs of Ancient Times, is based on his own experience as a Jesuit missionary in French Canada (1711-17). It is also based on his readings in the literature which had appeared previously on native peoples of both hemispheres, as well as on comparative material drawn from ancient Greek and Latin sources.

Unlike many other merely descriptive chronicles, Lafitau's important work includes analysis, interpretation, and historical comparisons.

In a section on "Men Who Dress as women" among the Native peoples of the Americas, Lafitau writes:

If there were women with manly courage who prided themselves upon the profession of warrior, which seems to become men alone, there were also men cowardly enough to live as women. Among the Illinois, among the Sioux, in Louisiana, in Florida, and in Yucatan, there are young men who adopt the garb of women, and keep it all their lives.

They believe they are honored by debasing themselves to all of women's occupations; they never marry, they participate in all religious ceremonies, and this profession of an extraordinary life causes them to be regarded as people of a higher order, and above the common man. Would these not be the same peoples as the Asiatic adorers of Cybelc, or the Orientals of whom Julius Fermicus speaks, who consecrated priests dressed as women to the Goddess of Phrygia or to Venus Urania, who had an effeminate appearance, painted their faces, and hid their true sex under garments borrowed from the sex whom they wished to counterfeit?

The view of these men dressed as women surprised the Europeans who first encountered them in America; as they did not at first guess the motives for this species of metamorphosis they were convinced that these were people in whom the two sexes were confounded. To be sure our old Relations called them no other than hermaphrodites.

Although the religious spirit which made them embrace this state causes them to be regarded as extraordinary human beings, they have nevertheless really fallen, among the savages themselves, into the contempt into which the priests of Venus Urania and Cybele were held of old. Whether they effectively attracted this contempt upon themselves by subjecting themselves to shameful passions, or because the ignorance of Europeans as to the causes of their condition caused shameful suspicions to fall upon them, these suspicions so entered into their [the Europeans'] minds that they imagined the most disadvantageous things that could be imagined. This imagination so kindled the zeal of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the Spanish captain who first discovered the South Sea, that he put a large number of them to death by setting wild dogs upon them, which those of his nation had used to destroy a large part of the Indians.[1]

In another section of the some work Lafitou writes on Des Amities porticufieres, or "special friendships," among the Natives of America. This section includes a long comparison with homosexuality among the Greeks.

The excerpt here focuses on Lafitau's references to the Native Americans,

the Athenrosera, or special friendships among young men, which are instituted in almost the same manner from one end of America to the other, are one of the most interesting sides of their customs, since they entail a most curious chapter of Antiquity, and serve to reveal to us what was practiced in that regard, particularly in the Republic of the Cretans and in that of the Spartans...

These bonds of friendship, among the Savages of North America, admit no suspicion of apparent vice, albeit there is, or may be, much real vice. They are highly ancient in their origin, highly marked in the constancy of their practice, consecrated, if I dare say as much, in the union which they create, whose bonds are as close as those of blood and nature, and cannot be dissolved, unless one of the two makes himself unworthy of the union by acts of cowardice that would dishonor his friend, and is compelled to renounce his alliance, as several Missionaries have told me that they have seen examples. The parents are the first to encourage them and to respect their rights...

These friendships are bought by presents which the friend makes to whomever he wishes to have as a friend; they are maintained by mutual tokens of benevolence; they become Companions in hunting, in war, and in fortune; they have a right to food and lodging in each other's cabin. The most affectionate compliment that the friend can make to his friend is to give him the name of Friend: last of all, these friendships age with them, and they are oftentimes so well cemented that a heroism is encountered such as that between Orestes and Pylades...

I have also read in one of our Relations" that among some prisoners who had been brought to Onnontague, there were two so powerfully united in friendship that when one had been condemned to the stake, and the other spared, the one who had been spared was so grieved that his companion had not been pardoned as well that he could not hide his sorrow, and his threats and Iamentations compelled those who had adopted him to deliver him to execution: both of them were then put to death, and the Missionary who tells the story observes that he was quite happy to administer Baptism to them, and to see them die in a condition of great piety, by which the Iroquois were no less charmed than they had been by the zeal of the Missionary himself.

In one of the Missions, the Missionaries suppressed attachments of this kind on account of the abuses which they feared would result from them...[2]


Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: Crowell, 1976) pg. 288-290.

  1. Joseph Francois Lafitau, Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains, comparees aux moeurs des premiers temps, 2 vols. (Paris: Saugrain, 1724), vol. I, p. 52. Note omitted. I wish to thank Warren Johansson for translating this text.
  2. Lafitau, vol. I, p. 603-04, 608-10. Note ": Relation de ce qui cest passe de plus remarquable aux Missions des Pere de la Compagnie de Jesus. En la Nouvelle France, les annees 1669. & 1670 (Paris: Sebastian Mabre-Carmoisy, 1671), chap. 7, p. 246.

    Reference to ritual Native abductions of boys by men is also apparently made by Robert Beverley in The History and Present State of Virginia . . . By a Native and Inhabitant  (London: printed for R. Parker, 1705). Other notes omitted. I wish to thank Warren Johansson for translating this text.