Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Two PC Spirits

I recall reading years ago, possibly in some fringe evangelical thing in the late 70's, that Native Americans didn't even have a word for homosexuality, because it was so unknown among them.  That struck me as pretty implausible.  Homosexuality is widespread in the Old World.  Also, there are hundreds of Native tribes, so any generalisation about all of them collectively is almost definitely going to turn out to be a crock.

Not too many years after, I heard from a seminarian at one of our fine New England schools that Native peoples actually honored homosexuals, believing them to have special abilities to contact the spirit world and to be revered as shamans. This struck me as equally unlikely, and for the same reasons: that's not often, or maybe not ever, the case in other parts of the world, and there are still those hundreds of tribes, each with its own culture, to explain around.

Having been a theater major with an anthropology minor, I sized up pretty quickly that there was potential for some serious PC jockeying here. (We didn't call it political correctness then.  I don't know that we called the various advocacies anything as a group.) It wasn't going to be simple and linear, either.  Of course both groups could find a point of initial agreement that white Europeans, especially Christians, had persecuted a world of innocent victims,* but after that it would get more complicated.  I was betting that a lot of tribes might dislike the idea of being thought homosexual-admiring, however much they were going to be praised for it by college professors. I also suspected that there was going to be some overlap between the alt-religion and alt-sexuality crowds that wasn't going to sit well with the gays and Indians who didn't aspire to be especial alt-anything,  'cause they were aiming for mainstream instead. In particular, Cherokees who were also Methodists, or gays who were nonreligious, were going to hold this at arms' length.  My MicMac friend at work assures me she never heard even scandalous rumors about homosexuality among natives until she got out into the national scene.

She can get pretty angry about it, BTW. I'm just sayin'

Well, I remember wondering even then who was going to win this.  There was clearly ground to be captured in any victim conversation here, and who would claim it?  I figured, absolutely wrongly, that the righteous indignation of the anthropology professors would triumph over artists and dancers because of their prestige.  That was ridiculous. The LGTB crowd has much better writers than the Indians.  Even though "Little Big Man" was perhaps my favorite movie, and I thought it rather obvious at the time that the male native taking on the female role was likely some gay-sympathetic writer trying to carve out space for himself or a pal (My gay friends in theater were quite open about using scripts and choice of material for political purposes.  Why would movies be different?), the penny never dropped that this battle was already over.

And it is.  You can read about Two-Spirit folk on Wikipedia, which is as representative a source as to who is winning cultural battles as we've got, and see it all. It takes very little skepticism to note that the academic sources seem to rely largely on each other, and that references to actual historical - pre 1970 - such information about native languages, native culture, native religion, and native sexuality is scarce on the ground.  Fragments are being used to fit into a particular narrative about the flexibility of gender, and as usual, the Indians can't fight back.  You can go over to the Wiki Talk page about this article and it's all there.  Actual natives who say this is unhistorical, linguists who illustrate that the translations of key words are bogus - no matter.  They didn't make the final cut.

The pseudonyms the various contributors use are also a source of amusement.

Notice, as you are reading, that this is supposed to be an academic discussion - but how quickly the agendas, insult, and claims of not being attended to rise to the surface.  Whatever legitimate complaints any group has are not supposed to be the issue.  However, they seem to become the entire issue, and those attempting to keep the discussion fact-based have an uphill climb.

* And ruined everything.


james said...

I thought the 2-spirit thing was kind of bogus, on the grounds that obligations to your ancestors and the need to have some family around to help right now and in your old age both militate against a homosexual lifestyle. Maybe in the South, with big cities, but in the North?

FWIW, in Tribes of the Liberian Hinterlands Schwab and Harley reported almost nothing resembling homosexuality away from the coast (or among people who'd lived on the coast)--IIRC only one instance of something like it and it wasn't obvious exactly what the relationship entailed.

I'm not sure I agree 100% with the local claims that this is entirely a Euro-American import (not many Arabs in that part of Africa), but it seems extremely euro-centric to automatically discount what the natives say. The Europeans may have made it thinkable, or given impulses shape that might have been expressed in other directions, so that it looked like an import.

Sam L. said...

The libs/progs/lefties KNOW they are so much smarter than everyone else, and therefore whatever they say MUST be so. Argument and facts to the contrary will not be brooked!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ james, yes, I should have mentioned. Homosexuality shows up in many places, but nearly always rare. Most cultures carve out occasional escape-hatches for those who are different, but useful. How this plays out is highly variable.

How outside influences affect this seems even more of a wild card.

jaed said...

We should define terms.

Homosexuality, meaning people having romantic and sexual attractions and relationships with people of the same sex, is common, possibly universal, in human cultures. But the relationships are generally either limited to one life stage, or nonexclusive of opposite-sex relationships.

Gayness in the modern sense, however, seem to be limited to this culture. (Meaning the existence of a special, identifiable subset of humanity, which is defined by exclusive or near-exclusive attraction to members of the same sex: gay men and lesbians versus straights as separate categories of human being. That part is new.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Not a distinction I have heard before, but it sounds promising.

jaed said...

I was thinking of the ancient Athenians in particular. There's a line in the Symposium, I think, where Alcibiades is trying to seduce Socrates, who comments to the effect that he's far too old for such goings-on to be appropriate.

And Socrates was married - there's no implication that a relationship between young man and ephebe would or should preclude marriage.

jaed said...

Hmm, I see I'm not the first person to think of this. Foucault wrote about it.

james said...


james said...

Bobbled it touchstone magazine article on language