What is the issue with using Indigenous genders as “evidence”?
Note: Since this question concerns a nuanced topic with a great deal of ignorance around it, we invited a guest author (K2) to add a third perspective. We're greatly appreciative of their time in helping us write this post.
Q: Hi! I just stumbled across your website an hour ago via Ask a Manager, and I really like it so far! I was curious about something you said that I hadn’t heard before, though. In your response to the historical fiction writer who wanted to write trans characters, K mentioned in passing that they “strongly encourage people to stop” “pointing toward Indigenous genders as evidence non-binary people have always existed”. Could you elaborate on why this is a problem?
K: Sure! To start with, I do want to be clear that not every Indigenous culture has/had more than 2 genders or ways of being, that Indigenous gender systems are individual and complex, that different cultures had/have different ways of viewing and understanding gender and societal roles, that there isn't perfect language to talk about them all in a general way, and that I'm going to try to keep it general anyway.
Basically, gender and gender roles are socially and culturally constructed. Different cultures have different ideas about what gender means and what that means for how someone moves through the world. Gender diversity has existed probably as long as culture has existed. There are dozens and dozens, probably hundreds of genders (many that aren’t even Indigenous) that have existed beyond some version of "someone who was assigned a woman or man role in society grows up and performs that role." People who point towards Indigenous cultures as evidence that non-binary people have always existed seem to be trying to acknowledge this, but where it becomes an issue is that they view these genders (or ways of being) through the lens of the gender system they grew up in. A gender system which, for many people, is a colonial imposition.
This is a problem for several reasons. The first goes back to what I said at the beginning, gender is culturally constructed. In Hawai’i, we have a third way of being called māhū. Some consider this a gender, but it is maybe more accurate to call it a way of being. It tends to roughly get translated to mean “in the middle.” Many outsiders try to describe māhū alternatively as trans men, trans women, and non-binary people, but none of those are right. In "Portraits of Gender and Sexual Identities in the Hawaiian Community" by Jade Snow for MANA Magazine, Kekuhi Kanaka’ole describes māhū as: “Māhū is the expression of the third self. It is not a gender, it’s not an orientation [...] It is simply an expression of the third person as it involves the individual. When you find that place in yourself to acknowledge both male and female aspects within and accept the capacity to embrace both, … that is where the māhū exists and true liberation happens.” Translating Indigenous ways of being and assimilating them in the colonial gender system strips them of their cultural context in order to render them intelligible to outsiders.
The second is that non-binary is not just a descriptor that means "anyone who does not exclusively identify as a man or woman." Non-binary is a term from the colonial gender system meant to encompass everyone in this system who does not identify as men or women part or all of the time. The colonial gender system is not universal and it is not the default. So, the first reason is that it strips Indigenous genders/ways of being of their cultural context, and the second relates to that in that it assumes the colonial gender system is a default system that has no cultural context (which, read about how whiteness does that if you need to learn more about why that's bad) and therefore can apply to everything and everyone.
Additionally, we should keep in mind that while genocide was always part of colonialism, there was an intentional and specifically targeted genocide of gender diverse Indigenous people. Indigenous people were and continue to be punished for not adhering to the colonial gender system and its expectations (for example, even outside of gender diversity, the treatment Native boys have experienced for having long hair in schools). Non-binary people and gender diverse Indigenous people don't have a shared history. I am personally uncomfortable with the idea that our histories and cultures can be used to validate non-binary identities. When people point to Indigenous genders to say "non-binary people have always existed!" I feel like they do not take the time to understand our histories, what was lost and destroyed due to colonialism, what was done and continues to be done to us, and just sees how we can be useful to them, how we can serve them. This is particularly frustrating when it comes from white non-binary people who already benefit from our colonization and genocide, and now are trying to use us to prop up their own legitimacy.
Lastly, I want to add that some Indigenous people might identify both as trans and/or non-binary AND an Indigenous gender from their culture. Gender is complex and people don't need to stick with just one label.
Hope that helps!
S: To keep this post centering Indigenous voices, I'll just share this quote from Trans Bodies, Trans Selves (2022 edition, p. 46). Please remember that this represents one person's experience within their culture and should not be generalized beyond that.
"Being bi and nonbinary in a culture that strongly emphasizes the duality of the female and male (with gendered partner dances, strongly defined gender roles--including dress--both in secular and ceremonial life, and much more) can sometimes be frustrating, especially when the predominantly non-native LGBT+ community loves to talk about how "native american cultures recognize more than just male and female" and "binary gender is a western concept." It's true that some native cultures had roles beyond male and female, and in general I've seen my indigenous community try to be inclusive of LGBT+ people, but they're learning just as much on any other group, and the intense focus on the male/female binary can be alienating (for example, our heritage language, which we're trying to revitalize, has an unavoidable gender binary built into the kinship terms, so one cannot, for example, be a child or sibling or parent, but must be a son or a daughter or a brother or a sister or a mother or a father)."
K2: I can think of a couple reasons why this is problematic. First, it’s not only Indigenous cultures who recognize or have recognized more than two genders. The spread of Christianity, as well as Islam, changed cultures’ ideas of masculinity and femininity while also effacing any other genders recognized within a culture. Naturally, the cultures in the so-called “Old World” were converted (often violently) centuries before the Indigenous cultures in the “New World.” Pointing immediately to Indigenous genders is a matter of convenience, and perhaps a failure to do additional research that goes further back into history.
Second, the idea that “gender” and “sexuality” are mutually exclusive is a fairly modern one, even within the context of LGBTQ history in the US. As previously noted, this is also a foreign concept to many Indigenous cultures. For example, the Mexica, now commonly known as the Aztecs, recognized the gender “patlache.” The modern Eurocentric or Western equivalent to a patlache could be a trans man or a lesbian–someone born as a “girl” who assumes a “masculine” role in society. The patlache’s existence does not prove that the Mexica recognized non-binary people, or trans men, or even lesbians. It simply means that the Mexica recognized more gender roles than “women who partner with men” and “men who partner with women.” But even these two gender roles differed from their contemporary European equivalents in terms of appropriate and expected behaviors, and both differ from their modern descendants’ cultural gender roles.
Third, using Indigenous genders as “evidence” follows a legacy of colonialism and racism. Those who are familiar with Edward Said’s Orientalism will recognize that othering, whether it uses the trope of the “noble savage” or the “brutal savage,” falls under a single discourse that considers another culture as fundamentally different from and unequal to one’s own. Early anthropologists (who were almost always white) unfortunately exemplified this orientalism, using their own cultural lenses and biases to document other cultures they considered at risk of extinction due to the actions of other white people. These anthropologists at times romanticized and at times disparaged the Indigenous cultures they studied. Few took action against the cultural and/or biological genocide their “subjects” faced. When modern white LGBTQ people point to Indigenous genders as “evidence” of gender diversity, but other white people have tried or are still trying to wipe out those genders, it’s an uncomfortable echo of this anthropological orientalism. Worse, many of us face prejudice or a lack of recognition within our own Indigenous communities due to the legacy of colonialism.
And finally, a not-insignificant number of people who use Indigenous genders as “evidence” don’t even know any Two Spirit/third gender Indigenous people. We aren’t a prop or a TikTok factoid, so please don’t treat us like we are!