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Journal Article

The North American Berdache [and Comments and Reply]

Charles Callender, Lee M. Kochems, Gisela Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg, Harald Beyer Broch, Judith K. Brown, Nancy Datan, Gary Granzberg, David Holmberg, Åke Hultkrantz, Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Alice B. Kehoe, Johann Knobloch, Margot Liberty, William K. Powers, Alice Schlegel, Italo Signorini and Andrew Strathern
Current Anthropology
Vol. 24, No. 4 (Aug. - Oct., 1983), pp. 443-470
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2742448
Page Count: 28
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The North American Berdache [and Comments and Reply]
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Abstract

The status of berdache among North American Indians was filled by persons, usually male, who remained members of their biological gender but assumed important social characteristics of the other gender. Concentrated in western and midwestern North America, berdaches were few. The status tended to disappear after Indian societies came under outside political control. Male berdaches, particularly, combined the social roles assigned to both genders. They could dress like women, combine male and female dress, or alternate modes of dress. Their occupational role permitted a combination of male and female work to achieve exceptional productivity. Gender mixing also characterized their sexual behavior; often homosexual, they showed strong tendencies toward a bisexual orientation. Their transformation often required supernatural validation. The ritual roles of male berdaches, like other features of their status, rested on their definition as nonwomen. Traditional explanations of the berdache status seem based upon misunderstanding of its features. It was not a status instituted for homosexuals; homosexuality was a reflex of assuming the status rather than a factor promoting its assumption, and much homosexuality occurred outside it. Nor was it designed for males who feared the warrior role or the male role in general. We suggest that while women could engage in high-prestige male activities, such as warfare, without changing their gender status, they insisted that males who entered the female occupational sphere assume an intermediate gender status.

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