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Tuesday, August 25, 2009


An understanding of sexuality/gender assignment that is based on a mere duality, especially one that is enforced by the culture, will always end in conflict, destruction, and suffering. This insistence on duality comes from an intolerance of ambiguity that results from an over-coded society that always wants to know exactly what IS and how much it’s WORTH because they’re afraid of being fooled by an impostor or sold a bill of goods. How can they enforce laws if they don’t know how to define exactly what’s happening? They don’t want to admit that there are things outside their experience -- maybe FAR outside.

When I was working at Multnomah County Animal Control in the late Seventies, there was no law that addressed b*sti*lity -- that is, sex with animals -- because the nice people who wrote out the law had no idea such things happened. When the police were asked to shut down a performer who had an act with Great Dane dogs, they called us to see if they could use the animal cruelty law. We were reduced to asking them about the expression on the dogs’ faces. A woman called to beg us to take away the family cat because her husband would only make love to it instead of her. We wondered about the man’s anatomy but told her she needed a counselor because there are LOTS of cats. He’d just get another one. These are sexual problems that are only problems if they interfere with human life. Mammalian sex, when anatomically possible, is a bigger category than human sex, but no human has sex that isn’t at least half mammalian.

But this is going to be a book review on a much higher philosophical and sociological plane and I’m sure you’re relieved. “Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality and Spirituality” is an anthology edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang. I mentioned it to Alice Kehoe at last Friday’s Piegan Institute seminar (She's in it.) and got a quick lecture on why the title is no good. But the questionability of the title is part of the point of the book. Words always interplay with the reality of the phenomena in question, esp. when webcrawlers are involved, which is why I spell some words with stars to fool the software.

Early “penetrators” into the cultures of the North American people were shocked, SHOCKED to discover that some of the things that Euros thought were disgraceful were quite taken for granted and calmly dealt with in NA tribes. Euros are always inclined to be Latinate and to “conceive” of things in terms of thesis/antithesis -- in this case without synthesis. So they assigned “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” as opposed and mutually exclusive. But the nice thing about Latinate words is that you can build your own: “omnisexuality,” “ur-sexuality,” “meta-sexuality,” or as Fritscher does, “homomasculinity,” or “hypermasculinity” with, of course, female equivalents across the divide. And then there’s “intersexuality” which isn’t used later in this blog to mean sex across the genders but rather people genuinely and medically not assignable on one side or the other. We're talking identity, not partner preference.

But first, the book called “Two-Spirit People” was meant to address BOTH the vocabulary and the divvying up of territory involved in both the reality and the derived descriptions of non-Euro NA tribes before the missionaries told them what their positions ought to be.

Some people became enamored with the word “berdache” which was in part was Alice’s bone of contention. (I can’t help the puns. My subconscious does it.) It’s a very Euro word. Here’s the historiography in a nutshell: “The earliest use of the term Jacobs could find when doing research for “Berdache: A Brief Review of the Literature" (1968) was in the Jesuit Relations (from the 1700’s) where such individuals were condemned. ‘The word originally came from the Persian bardaj [barah], and via the Arabs [bardaj] spread to the Italian language as bardasso [berdasia] and to the Spanish as bardaxa or bardaje [bardaja] by the beginning of the sixteenth century. About the same time the word appeared in French as bardache . . .[and] refers to the passive homosexual partner.” Since these people included “kept boys” or what the Brits call “rent boys,” other people who were homosexual but adult and NOT kept or for sale, did not like the term. “Two-spirit” also has problems since it clings to doubleness.

This set of essays is operating on three levels. The highest level is trying to open-mindedly understand how any one set of folks figured out how to think about their gender inclinations -- not just sex, but for instance who does the dishes, who does the hunting, who does the gardening, and what do they wear? The second level is about terminology: what do you call a dignified, functioning man/woman? Or woman/man? Or is that different? What’s anatomy and what’s occupation? Can there be compromises? Can people move back and forth? Things can be very complex.

The third level is accounts of what a set of rules can do that doesn’t fit an individual, forcing them to suffer and struggle, whether just in their self-image or in significant economic ways like getting a job or making a supportive alliance with someone else that's NOT based on sex.

When I was doing my chaplaincy in a big regional Illinois hospital, over a ten week period, there were two babies born who were between the sexes. At that time there was no book like “Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes” by Gerald N. Callahan, which has been skillfully reviewed in Ms. magazine. The reviewer, Leanne Mirandilla suggests “not only are there more than two genders, but the argument could be made that there are as many genders as there are stars in the sky.” She says “Around 2,000 children per year in the U.S. are born intersexual due to a variant set of chromosomes (not simply XX or XY), or various enzyme or hormone deficiencies.” (I would add “excesses.” There are other matters, such as the uterine environment.)

What I would like to see next would be more articles like “Saga of the unshaven armpit – skins and feminists.” By Gyasi Ross

(“Skins” is inside Indian slang for Native Americans. Don’t use it if you didn’t know what it meant.) This blog is a little mini-lesson about the difference between “matriarchal” and “matrilineal” interwoven nicely with an account of what economics can do to gender roles in a family. Even so do political opportunists and oddballs leap upon anthropological ideas to confirm their own life desires. So who can believe their categories?

Economics rules. You don’t fit your culture, you starve. Therefore, you sham. Which hurts. Wouldn’t it be better to create an economic scene that let everyone eat?

Those two babies? They were surgically and medicinally altered to force them into one gender or the other. That was 1980. Might not happen today.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

Certainly the human story has many dimensions. We cannot take blame or credit for how we are constructed, just how we choose.

Currently the furor is over an African runner who is competing as a woman but looks suspiciously masculine and runs faster than a typical woman runner. The assumption seems to be the runner is perpetrating fraud and a hoax to win trophies. But what hasn't been mentioned is, what if this individual is actually an intersex person? In the U.S. such babies are assigned a gender, and manipulated to conform physically ("cut") and hormonally to fit into that box (see, I am afflicted by puns as well). I don't think many poor Africans have that medical option.

Be that as it may, the final test is in reproduction. If the genes involved can be passed on through either direct sex by intersex individuals with whatever conventional gender, or each other, than we have a definite "other" gender. Or if conventional genders pass on the intersex trait like they do for single vs twin births, then again, we may have a genuine "other" gender(s).

But if it is only a chance mutation, not passed on by genetic selection as such to create a new gender option for human beings in a sustainable way, then it is not a genuine gender, no more than the tragic Elephant Man was not a new genuine "race" of human being.

Ah, but life is full of tragedies and mysteries, isn't it?

I saw this book yesterday by Emily Wilson: "Mocked With Death: Tragic Overliving from Sophocles to Milton": "...there is a central thread in the tragic tradition that is concerned not with dying too early but with living too long..."