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Two-Spirit People: Gays Accepted by Native Americans

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Rather than emphasizing the sexuality of gay and lesbian people, many Native Americans focused on their spiritual gifts. Even today, American Indian traditionalists tend to see a person's basic character as a reflection of their spirit. Androgynous or transgender persons are seen as doubly blessed, having both the spirit of a man and the spirit of a woman, since everything that exists is thought to come from the spirit world. Thus, they are honored for having two spirits, and are seen as more spiritually gifted than the typical masculine male or feminine female. Therefore, many Native American religions, rather than stigmatizing such persons, often looked to them as religious leaders and teachers.

Quite similar religious traditions existed among the native peoples of Siberia and many parts of Central and Southeast Asia. Since the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from Siberia over 20,000 years ago, and since reports of highly respected androgynous persons have been noted among indigenous Americans from Alaska to Chile, androgyny seems to be quite ancient among humans.

Native peoples of the Plains, the Great Lakes, the Southwest and California offer the most evidence for respectful two-spirit traditions. It has been determined that there were male two-spirits in more than 150 different Native American tribes, but there were female two-spirits, as well. With over a thousand vastly different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, it is important not to overgeneralize for the indigenous peoples of North America.

Walter L. Williams, professor of anthropology, history, and gender studies at the University of Southern California, says:

"Some documentary sources suggest that a minority of societies treated two-spirit persons disrespectfully, by kidding them or discouraging children from taking on a two-spirit role. However, many of the documents that report negative reactions are themselves suspect, and should be evaluated critically in light of the preponderance of evidence that suggests a respectful attitude. Some European commentators, from early frontier explorers to modern anthropologists, also were influenced by their own homophobic prejudices to distort native attitudes."

Although being gay has been seen as a "gift" according to many North American indigenous people traditions, influences from Western culture have been attributed to small movements to attack gay Native Americans. Nevertheless, the struggle for equality in America continues.