Native Americans/Gay Americans 1528-1976

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Adappted from Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: Crowell, 1976)


These documents on male and female homosexuality among American Indians present years of testimony from a wide variety of observers: military men, missionaries, explorers, trappers, traders, settlers, and later, medical doctors, anthropologists, and homosexual emancipationists; in a few rare instances the voices of gay Indians are heard.

The sources quoted tell as much, and often more, about the commentator's sentiments about Native homosexuality than they do about its actual historical forms. The commentator is briefly characterized in the introduction to each document, to suggest what particular group interest may lie behind each observation.

Documents are presented here chronologically, according to the date of the event referred to, or, alternatively, if such date is unknown, according to the time during which the writer traveled or lived among the people observed, or according to the document's date of composition or publication.

The intention of this arrangement is to suggest a sense of the change in types of commentators and commentary, and to begin to set both in historical perspective.

This arrangement separates material referring to the same tribe and geographic location in favor of a general historical overview of the topic.

This chronological presentation has the effect of focusing as much on the observer as on the subject of observation, a historical perspective which, for example, locates anthropologists as simply one among the groups in the sequence of outside observers of Native American life. In this perspective the particular value judgments of anthropologists emerge almost as clearly as the more overt judgments of those early observers who made no pretense to objectivity.

Documents not originally in English are translated, but, when possible, the foreign word referring, to same-sex sexuality is included.

The materials gathered here are limited arbitrarily to those referring to tribes living in the area that become the mainland United States.

A variety of American Indian homosexualties are documented. That most commonly described involves reversal of the customary sex roles-cross-dressing, crossworking, cross-speaking-as well as homosexual activity. This Native American individual is the often-mentioned "berdache," originally the French name for these Indians. The Native words for such people varied with different tribal languages, suggesting the possibility of very different tribal responses to such people.

The focus of many of the following documents exclusively upon the berdache phenomenon may well have less to do with its incidence than with the fascination of heterosexual white observers and their lack of knowledge of less immediately obvious types of Native homosexuality. If, for example, uninformed anthropologists today made field trips to New York's Greenwich Village, among the native gay population they would surely first notice the most obvious "queens." Those outsiders who observed Native American customs may well have been guilty of exactly this error of perception. Suspicions as to this skewing of accounts is aroused by the failure, of virtually every report of a berdache to discuss the homosexuality of the berdache's non-cross-dressing sexual partners. Tribal, attitudes toward and the-character of this non-berdache partner are passed over in silence.

Although many of the earliest accounts quoted refer only to cross-dressing, later, more informed and detailed observations suggest that homosexuality was often another aspect of the phenomenon in question. A few of these early reports suggest that a male berdache was available sexually to women as well as men, although details are not pursued; some references may describe a heterosexual or bisexual transvestite; some berdaches were probably exclusively homosexual. Other documents associate the berdache with a lack of heterosexual potency. Some reports connect cross-dressing and sex role reversal with alleged physical anomalies, although these reports are often confused: early observers repeatedly use the term hermaphrodite to refer to an individual who would today be identified as a homosexual transvestite; later documents indicate that physical malformations were not actually indicated.

Interestingly, the physical characteristics, occupations, and activities of the "effeminate" male homosexual of Native societies do not correspond with the stereotype of the "effeminate" male in white, Anglo-Saxon society; the Native male berdache is often described as big, husky, strong, a fast runner, and a fighter. These documents concerning the Native berdache do raise interesting questions about the relation between sex role reversal (especially cross-dressing and cross-working) and homosexuality.

Some documents here hint at the existence of homosexual relations between two apparently "normal" males. These reports refer to "special friendships" and a "blood brotherhood" -- especially intimate relations between two males, often of a lifelong character,and often described so as to emphasize their sensual, deeply emotional aspect. Other documents suggest the existence of homosexual relations between adults and youths. A number of reports suggest that homosexuals often performed religious and ceremonial functions among their people; the exact character and meaning of these roles is often not detailed. Tribal attitudes toward various types of homosexuals apparently varied, although these documents suggest that, before the inroads of Christianity, homosexuals sometimes occupied an institutionalized, important, and often respected position within numbers of Native groups. In some cases, they seem to have been stigmatized.

The fact that relatively few documents refer to Native American lesbianism seems no true indication of the prevalence of lesbianism in Indian society but is more likely on index of what whites were ready or willing to hear about, investigate, and discuss. A new interest and research in Native lesbianism will probably uncover additional sources. That such sources may exist is suggested by early references to lesbianism among South American natives.

Loreo Hoyle's survey of a large collection of the erotic Peruvian pottery (dating to A.D. 100-200) that survived the systematic destruction by missionaries shows that 1 percent depicts lesbian relations. Francisco Guerre's research into the sexual life of South and Centre! American natives uncovered other early references to lesbianism. Guerra quotes Bishop Las Casas (1542) on the punishment for lesbianism among the Aztecs:

If one woman committed sin with another they died strangled in the some way[as those brothers who committed incest with their sisters].

A Mexican confessionary written in 1565 by a Franciscan friar refers to lesbianism, as well as sodomy between men. Another confessionary, written in 1599, also refers to lesbianism. Gregorio Garcia, writing in 1604, says

it was the law that those who committed the nefarious sin should die. The Indians of New Spain kept this law, without missing one point, and they executed it with great severity; they hod the some penalty with the woman who laid down with another, because it was also against nature.

A confessionary of 1634, and one of 1697, ask about lesbian relations. A work on Mexican native history (1698) says that the lows of pre-Conquest Mexicans declared that "the man who dressed like a woman, or the woman who dressed like a man were hanged...."[1]

Documents mentioning the existence of lesbianism among Native Americans appear to increase in more recent years as sexual relations between women become a more mentionable subject in heterosexual white society. Most of the documents here suggest that Native societies were highly polarized along sexual lines; a strict sexual division of labor seems to have been common, although not universal.

Some documents also suggest the subordinate position of women in Native cultures. Knowledge of the relative status and condition of women and men and the tribal division of labor and roles is essential for understanding the character of homosexuality among Native Americans. In studying these documents, the extent of white, Christian influence on Native cultures is also on important question to keep in mind, as are questions concerning the structure and character of Native families and the nature of mores, especially those relating to all aspects of sexuality. Those wishing to understand any particular form of Native homosexuality in depth will find it necessary to study the original sources of the documents excerpted.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, pioneering researchers have attempted to bring together information and documentary accounts and to sum up what is known about homosexuality among Native Americans. Hubert Howe Bancroft's five volumes on The Native Races of tile Pacific States of North America (1875) is an amazing early collection of footnoted documentary sources which does not shy away from the explicit discussion of sodomy.

Edward Westermarck's two-volume historical analysis of The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas (1908) contains a chapter on "Homosexual Love" with numerous primary references to Native American homosexuality.

One product of the early German homosexual emancipation movement was Ferdinand KerschHaack's research and writing an homosexuality among native peoples, collected in 1911 in Dos g/eichgeschlechtliche Leben der Naturvolker [The same-sex life of primitive peoples], still a major collection of source materials on the subject.

Also in 1911, pioneering English homosexual emancipationist Edward Carpenter began to write on homosexuality among native peoples, later collecting these artcles in his Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk: A Study in Social Evolution (1914).

In 1935, .W. W. Hill published "The Status of the Hermaphrodite and Transvestite in Navaho Culture," an early American anthropological journal article attempting to sum up information about homosexuality within one tribe.

In 1940, well-known anthropologist A. l. Kroeber, in a psychology journal essay, declared in a footnote that lithe time is ready for a synthetic work" on homosexuality and transvestism in Native American culture. [Writing in 1976, Katz said:] No major comprehensive work has yet appeared.

In 1950, Don W. Dragoo, a graduate student in anthropology at Indiana University prepared a paper on "Transvestites in North American Tribes."

In 1951, Clellan S. Ford and Frank A. Beach published their often-quoted, influential book, Patterns of Sexual Behavior, with on important chapter summarizing the information on and attitudes toward "Homosexual Behavior" in seventy-six societies, including a number of American Indian tribes.

In 1965, anthropologist Marvin K. Oplar summarized and discussed earlier work on "Anthropological and Cross-Cultural Aspects of Homosexuality."

The following year, anthropologist David Sonenschein wrote on "Homosexuality as a Subject of Anthropological Inquiry," an important "plea for research," and a discussion of methodologies.

In 1968, anthropologist Sue-Ellen Jacobs published "Berdache: A Brief Review of the literature."

In 1971, a few references to homosexuality among Natives of what is now the United States were included in Dr. Francisco Guerra's documentary anthology, The Pre-Columbian Mind: A Study into the Aberrant Nature of Sexual Drives, Drugs Affecting Behavior, and the Attitudes 'Towards life and Death . . . .

In 1975, Donald A. Forgey discussed “The Institution of the Berdache Among the North American Plains Indians." Forgey comments in passing that "a thorough, comprehensive investigation" of the berdache among Native Americans is still lacking. The present historical survey attempts to show that documentary materials for a large-scale study do exist.

The intention here is simply to present in one place and in historical order some of the major and varied types of historical source materials referring to Native American homosexuality. Years of additional research, study, and analysis will be required to come to a clear, reliable understanding of these documents, to realize their hidden meanings and implications, to more fully understand the place of homosexuality in Native American life and history.

The existence of homosexuality among the people who originally inhabited the United States will no doubt hold a certain special fascination for those lesbians and gay men who are today beginning to repossess the national and world history of their people, part of their struggle for social change and to win control over their own lives.

One fact that emerges clearly here is that the Christionization of Native Americans and the colonial appropriation of the continent by white, Western "civilization" included the attempt by the conquerors to eliminate various traditional forms of Indian homosexuality -- as part of their attempt to destroy that Native culture which might fuel resistance -- a form of cultural genocide involving both Native Americans and gay people. Today, the recovery of the history of Native American homosexuality is a task in which both gay and Native peoples have a common interest.


  1. Francisco Guerra, The Pre-Columbian Mind: A Study into the Aberrant Nature of Sexual Drives .. . (London: Seminar, 1971), p. 23,162,206,237,238,239,256.

Contents: Native Americans/Gay Americans 1528-1976


De Vaca's "I saw a devilish thing", 1528-36

De Alarcon's "Men in women's apparell", 1540

Laudonniere's "Many hermaphrodites", 1562-67

De Morgues' "Hermaphrodites", 1564

Pareja's "Confessional", 1593-1613


Marquette's "They pass for Manitous", 1673-77


Liette's "The sin of sodomy prevails", 1702

Lafitau's "Men Who dress as women", 1711-17

Charlevoix's "Effeminacy and lewdness", 1721

Loskiel's "Unnatural sins", 1750

Bossu's "Most are addicted to sodomy", 1751-62

Font's "dedicated to nefarious practices", 1775-76

Palou's "Abominable vice will be eliminated", 1777


Henry and Thompson's "Cannot persuade him", 1801

Biddle's "Men Dressed in Squars Clothes", 1804-10

Schaeffer's "Kutenai Female Berdache", 1811

James and Say's "Sodomy is commonly committed", 1819-20

Keating's "Numerous stories of hermaphrodites", 1823

McKenney's "What they call a man-woman", 1826

McCoy's "His presence was so disgusting", 1828

Tanner's "those who make themselves women", 1830

Catlin's "Dance to the Berdashe", 1832-39

De Smet's "A woman dreamt she was a man", 1841

Parkman's "Romantic friendships", 1846

Devereux's "Case of Sahaykwisa", 1850-1895

Denig's "Biography of Woman Chief", 1855-56

Trumbull's "Brothers by adoption", 1876

Stevenson's "Death caused universal regret", 1896-97

Holder's "A Peculiar Sexual Perversion", 1899


Jones' "They Played the Harlot with Each Other", 1901-02

Simms's "He compelled these people to wear men's clothing", 1902

Lowie's "One surviving berdache", 1907-12

Westermarck's "Homosexual Love", 1908

Lowie's "She eloped with her sister-in-law", 1909

Carpenter's "Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk", 1911

Karsch-Haack's "Same-Sex Life of Primitive Peoples", 1911

McMurtrie's "Legend of Lesbian Love", 1914

Spier's "Transvestites or berdaches", 1930

Forde's "Casual secret homosexuality", 1931

Gifford's "Kamia origin story", 1931

Gifford's "Female transvestites", 1933

Hill's "Transvestites among the whites", 1943

Leighton and Kluckhohn's "Hermaphrodites or homosexuals", 1947

Ford and Beach's "Homosexual Behavior", 1951

Legg's "Berdache and Theories of Sexual Inversion", 1959

Honigman's "Male and female homosexuality", 1964

Waltrip's "Elmer Gage", 1964

Gengle's "GAI wants to get other groups started", 1975-76

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