Many ancient societies accepted and celebrated a broad spectrum of gender experiences, according to UC-Berkeley professor of anthropology Rosemary Joyce.
“A two-gender model is relatively recent,” Joyce says. “Today we assume that sex is binary, and that has led some to believe that transgender experiences are novel. However, archeologists have found that gender has always been diverse.”
Joyce, who has conducted social archaeology in Honduras since the 1970s, will discuss her findings in A Question of Gender: One, Two, and Beyond at the Houston Museum of Natural Science tonight. Presented by Archeology Now, Joyce’s lecture discusses the cultural roles of gender and sexuality in ancient Mesoamerica.
“Drawing from the long history of the Aztec, Zapotec, and Maya, Dr. Joyce feels that the Maya understanding of gender was as performance, not merely biology,” says Becky Lao, executive director of Archeology Now, a Houston organization that promotes awareness of world cultures through archeology.
Ancient burial sites, buildings, and artwork have revealed that Mesoamerican citizens experienced gender fluidity and same-sex attraction, Joyce says. Certain societies, such as the Maya, allowed folks to live openly and without oppression, while others (like the Aztecs) enforced cisgender roles and ostracized those not in reproductive relationships.
When Spanish missionaries arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century, they interrogated and criminalized indigenous people who confessed to having sexual encounters that violated the male/female binary. Gender non-conforming individuals and folks with same-sex attractions began living in secret to avoid repercussions.
Joyce believes that modern-day America is still fighting against the two-gender binary once enforced by European colonizers. She hopes those attending her lecture will realize that humans have always experienced gender and sexuality on a spectrum.
“The fluidity of sex and gender is not new,” Joyce says. “Humans have the capacity to live in a wide range of ways. This is something that we need to accept about ourselves and our history.”
What: A Question of Gender: One, Two, and Beyond with Dr. Rosemary Joyce.
When: 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, February 5
Where: Houston Museum of Natural Science
More info: houstonarchaeology.info