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Berdache and Sodomite: Language, Gender and Sex

This is the second in an eight-part series of interviews with Michael Bronski about the A Queer History of the United States, this year's Lambda Literary Award winner for LGBT Nonfiction. The interviews were conducted by Richard Voos. Listen or read below to learn about how Europeans applied their language and beliefs to the "Two-Spirt" Native Americans they encountered.
Enter to win a copy of A Queer History of the United States or one of Beacon's other LGBT titles in our Pride Month Giveaway. For more information, visit beacon.org/queervoices.

Listen to Queer History Podcast Episode 2: Berdache and Sodomite


"Among Mamitarees if a boy shows any symptoms of effeminacy or girlish inclinations he is put among the girls, dressed in their way, brought up with them, and sometimes married to men." Nicholas Biddle, original journals of the Lewis and Clark expeditions

"Their garments consist only of skins; the women are always clad very modestly and very becomingly, while the men do not take the trouble to Cover themselves. I know not through what superstition some Ilinois, as well as some Nadouessi, while still young, assume the garb of women, and retain it throughout their lives. There is some mystery in this. For they never marry and glory in demeaning themselves to do everything that the women do. They go to war, however, but can use only clubs, and not bows and arrows, which are the weapons proper to men. They are present at all the juggleries, and at the solemn dances in honor of the Calumet; at these they sing, but must not dance. They are summoned to the Councils, and nothing can be decided without their advice. Finally, through their profession of leading an Extraordinary life, they pass for Manitous, — That is to say, for Spirits, — or persons of Consequence." From the journals of Jacques Marquette, 1673-1677

"Among the women I saw some men dressed like women, with whom they go about regularly, never joining the men. . . . From this I inferred they must be hermaphrodites, but from what I learned later I understood that they were sodomites, dedicated to nefarious practices. From all the foregoing I conclude that in this matter of incontinence there will be much to do when the Holy Faith and the Christian religion are established among them." Franciscan Pedro Font's diary

The use of the word "gay" really arose in the 1920s or '30s, but there was all sorts of different language in the previous four hundred years. Take us back to some of the earliest descriptions and usages of terms to describe queer people in the Americas.

Language can be very tricky, so when we're looking at language and how it's describing people, we have to realize that sometimes other people do the describing. So, before the Europeans even came here, we had many Native tribes and groups of people who exhibited behavior such as cross-dressing, same-sex relationships for both women and for men. Each of the tribes had their own language for this. When the Europeans came here, they used the French word berdache--which was a pejorative word essentially meaning a pedophile--for these people, completely inaccurately. Yet it's a word that continues to be used by anthropologists even today.

George Catlin (1796-1872), Dance to the Berdache. Drawn while on the Great Plains, among the Sac and Fox Indians, the sketch depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person.

There's a mix in the behaviors and attitudes that you're talking about among the Native Americans, around both same-sex sexual behavior but also around breaking gender boundaries.

Certainly breaking gender boundaries for the Europeans, who were quite shocked when they came here. So the language that we have, which is used to some degree now, is the European terminology. Which I think we find repeatedly throughout the history of America. America was here before the Europeans came, they brought over the language, another word that they brought with them was "sodomite." Which is a theological term, meaning a person who has committed a sin of sodomy. Used rather broadly about anybody who transgressed accepted gender or sexual behaviors. And yet, a word that's used today, even in the general sense of the sodomy laws which are defined in various different ways. So from the earliest Colonial times, we did not have "homosexuals," we did not have "gay people," we had people who were accused of committing the sin of "sodomy" and were "sodomites."

And so both of those terms--"berdache" and "sodomite"--were really pejorative.

Completely pejorative. The first, by social implication, although considered a sin. The second explicitly, theologically, a sin. So it's important to realize that most of our laws emanate to a large degree from canon law in Europe, and were translated from the church into the state.