I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just get really tired of all the played out stale cultural narratives that we live with. A while ago, I came across the term Two-Spirit, which is the name that many Native American and Canadian First Nation tribes use for their brothers and sisters who embody both male and female spirits. Two-Spirit. How beautiful is that?!
Now before I go any further, I want to stress that I am not a gender expert — just someone easily moved to tears by beauty. Incidentally, I just learned that I’m an HSP — Highly Sensitive Person. If you’re taking the time to read this blog, you could be too! HSPs make up about 20% of the population. If you’re at all curious, you can take the quiz: http://hsperson.com Know thyself and maintain a humble curiosity… that’s my new mantra.
So it is with this humble curiosity that I delve into Two-Spirits. One of the things that I find so profound about this notion is that it can be a metaphor for so many things — reconciling our shadow side with our light. Meeting strength with humility. Think of the classic Myers-Briggs personality types: Introvert/Extrovert, Thinker/Feeler, Perceiver/Judger, and Senser/Intuitive. The whole idea of Myers/Briggs is to ascertain your type and then challenge yourself to move more toward the center in order to achieve better balance. Yoga for your personality. OH! And to try to understand others better, of course. Let’s not forget about that.
At a meeting in 1990, tribes chose to adopt the term Two-Spirit, in order to dispense with the antiquated anthropological and derogatory term berdache. Simply being gay does not make one a Two-Spirit, even though many Two-Spirits identify as LGBTQA+. Most tribes widely agree that in order to be a true Two-Spirit, one must be actively participating in their culture.
Prior to colonization, tribal Elders saw Two-Spirit people as sacred and gifted among all beings and as bridges between the two genders with the power to bring them together. Two-Spirits would often fulfill the roles of medicine people, peacemakers, and mediators. Their dual perspective and orientation made it possible for them to always see both sides, and they were honored and revered for these abilities. Nearly every Native American and First Nation tribe has a word or words in their language to describe Two-Spirits, as well as for multiple genders in addition to male and female.
Under the influence of colonial and Christian influences though, some native cultures and their Two-Spirits went through a dark period, and in some cases, acceptance turned into homophobia. Two-Spirits began to feel less and less integral or even welcome in their communities. Some Navajo point to their creation story in which the first men and first women fought and ended up on opposite sides of a river. There they stayed for some time — the women wanting to prove to the men that they could live without them. It was only with the help of a Two-Spirit that this divide could be mended, through the medicine that bridges the gap between genders.
But now, like a sacred hoop, things are coming full circle and Two-Spirits are banding together across tribal affiliations to celebrate all they have to offer and to support one another. It’s notable that within these cultures it is often believed that actions have effects for seven generations. Many tribe members believe that the absence of Two-Spirits triggered a period of imbalance that is just now beginning to shift.In October, the newly formed Two-Spirit Nation was honored with a official grand entry blessing into the camp at Standing Rock.
“If the sun is male and the moon is female,
then Two-Spirit people are the dawn and the dusk.”
— Sheldon Raymore, Cheyenne River Sioux
It got me humbly curious about some of the other cultures in the world that have the wisdom to honor their two-spirit people in their societies. As you can imagine, there are many variations, and in a way, they can all be traced back to Greek mythology and Hermaphroditus, the two-sexed child of Hermes and Aphrodite.
I found a wonderful story of a the third gender in ancient Indic society. Some versions of the epic Sanskrit poem Ramayana tell the story of Rama, the hero, heading into the forest in exile. At the halfway point, he finds most of the people from his home town of Ayodhya, were following him. He said, “Men and women, turn back,”causing those who were neither men nor women to stay where they were. When Rama returned from exile years later, he discovered them still there and blessed them, saying that there will be a day when they, too, will have a share in ruling the world.
I feel mixed emotions when I pivot to another culture that I first learned about from my Albanian friend, Andamion Murataj. We were both Puglia Film Commission Fellows, where he was working on a feature film about the sworn virgins of Albania. His script, Man of the House, is a poignant tale that stays with you longer after you’ve read it. It was followed up recently with a photographer who went to Albania to shoot portraits of the sworn virgins.
The choice to live as men in this remote region of Albania has more to do with gender roles than any statement of sexuality or asexuality. This tradition goes back to 15th century Balkan tribal law, under which families lacking a male head of household were considered social outcasts. Often times blood feuds wiped out all the men in a family and so the only way to carry on was for a woman to step into the role of patriarch. These women take a vow of celibacy and swear to live out their days as men, gaining the privileges afforded to men only — smoking, drinking alcohol, voting, swearing, carrying a gun — you know, all the fun stuff!
Directly across the Adriatic Sea in Italy, which is always FULL of surprises (See Lucky Number Eight), I learned that in traditional Neapolitan culture, there were men known as the femminielli. These were homosexual males with a female gender expression, who were revered and enjoyed the full support of the community. For starters, the term femminielli unlike berdache, is not derogatory. The femminielli are so highly regarded that they played an important role in traditional and religious events such the matrimonio dei femminielli, where femminielli dressed in wedding gowns and were accompanied by a “husband,” as they traveled through the streets in horse-drawn carriages.
But the real kicker? The femminielli are considered good luck! People want them to hold their newborn babies and participate in games such as Tombola, which is the basis for what we call Bingo. So here’s the part where I call out TIME magazine. In 2007, they published an article attributing Drag Queen Bingo to a woman in Seattle.
“Bingo and drag queens. Where, you might understandably ask, did this ever come from? In the early 1990s, as director of development for the Chicken Soup Brigade, a support organization for people with AIDS, Judy Werle was charged with dreaming up fundraising events. ‘I checked out places where people gathered and spent money, because I figured if you had that, you could redirect the money to a good cause,’ says Werle. That logic led her to bingo halls. ‘They were totally full of obsessed people,’ she says. ‘But it was also extremely boring. So we decided to liven it up in the way that only gay men can.’”
So I must call a FALSE BINGO on TIME magazine, since it’s the femminielli that can legitimately lay claim to the origin of drag queen bingo, or shall we say, Tombolata dei femminielli. If the Native Americans are right about one’s actions having ripple effects for seven generations, then is it possible that the femminielli of the 1800s laid the groundwork for the drag queens of bingo today? Just sayin’. It’s fun to think about anyway.
All I know is that you don’t want to be spanked by a drag queen at bingo.
It happened because I called False Bingo. ROOKIE move! I just got way ahead of myself and overexcited. And boy, did I pay for it. Miss Porsha is not playin’ with that switch. And since I already got my spanking, I feel empowered to call False Bingo whenever I see it. Someone cuts you off on the road?? False Bingo! Not honoring Two-Spirits?? False Bingo. For any rejection of the wisdom that recognizes the special gifts in each of us?? False Bingo, for sure.