Ties Across the Pond: LGBT Precedents in Indigenous American and West African Cultures
By Josh Inocéncio
Embedded in our history on this continent is a sacred beacon for LGBT Latinas/os and African-Americans to remember their queer ancestors and the vital roles they played in their ancient societies. As presidential candidates and lawmakers spar over granting basic rights for LGBT people, I turn to pre-constitutional roots to gain inspiration for envisioning a 21st-century America where we are not just tolerated, but embraced.
Before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica, muxes, or third-gender individuals, thrived in Oaxaca—and many still do. Near modern-day Mexico City, the Aztecs acknowledged a god, Huehuecoyotl, who represented male lovers. These pre-Columbian cultures integrated gender-nonconforming and same-sex-loving people into their societies, and they often occupied spiritual roles. North of the imperial borders, Native Americans referred to these individuals as “two-spirits,” indicating that they are born with both male and female energies in balance.
As the Cree tribal member and scholar Alex Wilson writes, “In many Indigenous American cultures, two-spirit people had [and still have] very specific spiritual roles and responsibilities within their community. They are often seen as bridge-makers between male and female, the spiritual and the material, [and] between Indigenous American and non-Indigenous American [cultures].” Here Wilson speaks to the multitude of queer identities throughout the Indigenous American world, and how their role as peacekeepers make them a necessary part of society, particularly where conflicts are ripe.
But when the Spanish began colonizing the Americas, they condemned these individuals (and especially the effeminate men who married masculine men) as berdaches, or “sodomites.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, before English and European traders yanked West Africans from their indigenous tribes and forced them into slavery in the Americas, the Dagara tribe also included their version of “two-spirit” people in their communities. In fact, despite the violently homophobic laws that now rule many African nations (instituted by colonial governments, of course), the Dagara continue to accept their same-sex-loving brethren.
While Malidoma Somé, a Dagara tribal member and scholar, rejects the term “gay” (arguing that it is a Western construct), he relates in the interview Gays: Guardians of the Gates that the Dagaras we would think of as gay are “very well integrated into the community.” In the Dagara cosmology, “Earth is looked at as a very, very delicate machine or consciousness, with high vibrational points, which certain people must be guardians of in order for the tribe to keep its continuity with the gods and with the spirits who dwell there.” These “certain people” are the members of the community who choose and/or raise families with same-sex partners while ritually tending to the sustainability of the planet.
In addition to Dagara customs, many West Africans who became slaves carried over the Yoruba religion, Ife, which has mixed with Catholicism and manifested in Cuban santería in Miami and Haitian Vodun in New Orleans—thriving in some of the busiest ports on America’s shores. In Boy Wives and Female Husbands, Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe write, “As among many other African peoples, Yoruba spirit possession (orisa gigun) is primarily associated with women. Most Sango priests are female, and those who are not dress in women’s clothing, cosmetics, jewelry, and sport women’s coiffures when they are going to be possessed.” While it is historically crude to label these people “transgender,” we find there are positive precedents of individuals in West Africa living as the opposite gender of their biology. [They are] better integrated into society than many trans folk here in the United States.
To be queer in these non-Christian societies was, and is, just another way of existing and fulfilling communal duties to ensure the cultural harmony of the tribe.
These two histories—of Indigenous Americans and West Africans from different worlds—became intertwined in our American culture(s) long before the white founding fathers ever arrived. These queer precedents, far from lost, have inspired contemporary American writers such as Xicana essayist Cherríe Moraga and African-American playwright Tarell McCraney, who reclaim their heritage for the purposes of cultural identity and political resistance. For Latinas/os and African-Americans (there are also precedents in other cultures across the world), the recognition of this history can facilitate the coming-out process in a nation heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian values that frequently exclude and even demonize the LGBT community. As Moraga writes in Still Loving in the (Still) War Years, “Perhaps by looking to our own historical models of resistance—to pre-conquest, pre-slave trade, pre-capitalist-patriarchy worldviews—we may uncover a roadmap to being viably queer in the 21st century.”
Right now in the U.S., many Episcopalians and Presbyterians (among other denominations) have made tremendous strides in crafting an inclusive sacred space for LGBT people who cherish their beliefs and yearn for a church community that celebrates their spiritual talents. The Christian denominations that have yet to embrace LGBT spiritual empowerment would do well to consider these Indigenous American and West African models that elevated queer people to completely egalitarian planes in their societies. As Walter L. Williams, author of The Spirit and the Flesh, writes in The Guardian, “Rather than emphasizing the homosexuality of these persons, however, many Native Americans focused on their spiritual gifts. They are honored for having two spirits, and are seen as more spiritually gifted than the typical masculine male or feminine female.” As Williams reveals, there are instances when two-spirits are considered more spiritual than their opposite-sex-loving counterparts. Similarly, Somé mentions that the same-sex-loving people’s energies in the Dagara tribe “vibrate” differently, signifying their role as “gatekeepers” that allows them to be more receptive to the Earth’s needs.
I share this history not to normalize all LGBT Latinas/os and African-Americans under a collective spiritual identity, but to pinpoint how previous and current cultures that produced these two racial and cultural demographics recognized the propensity for LGBT people to serve their communities equally. And to avoid a cultural appropriation mess, the answer is not to merely take on these identities, but to revisit this longstanding global history and realize that homophobia is a Western interruption. We queer people have been around for ages, and contrary to Justice Samuel Alito’s quibble last April in the Obergefell arguments that marriage equality is a recent phenomenon, same-sex partners outside of Western civilizations have been marrying each other and performing their own cultural rites for centuries.
The historical existence of queer people has the potential to reshape the tempestuous culture wars and race conflicts in the United States—and the world, for that matter. To my mind, the correlation between increasing acceptance for LGBT people and the impending crisis of climate change is no coincidence. We are needed now. And as LGBT people are coming out more frequently all over the globe, we see the crucial role we can play as parents for the world’s orphaned children, challengers to strict gender norms that perpetuate gender inequality, and advocates for LGBT people in countries where homosexuality remains criminalized. As the ancient precedents for LGBT people register in mainstream discourse and meet contemporary movements, the quest for full equality becomes even more purposeful when we consider the sacred and social roles that queer people have taken on—and are embracing yet again.
Josh Inocéncio is a playwright and freelance writer. A Houston-area native, he earned a master’s degree in theater studies at Florida State University and produced his first play, Purple Eyes, before returning to Texas last year.