Monday, August 30, 2010

“Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: The Case of Cross-Gender Females” and “Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body in American Culture”

Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: The Case of Cross-Gender Females” by Evelyn Blackwood is one of my favorite feminist/queer articles ever! In it, Evelyn Blackwood recounts pre-colonial Native American histories of gender that look very different from what we in the current USA imagine as "normal." She gives examples of several indigenous communities that allowed for children born a particular sex to follow the gender path they gravitated towards which was not always what their sex might predict. In several indigenous cultures female children rejected "girl" activities in favor of "boy" activities and these leanings were not discouraged. Community rituals marked these females as men in their adult life, giving them the opportunity to marry and assume all other duties of men in their societies. Part of the ease of these arrangements was connected to a non-hierarchal way of relating to gender, family, and money. Having a subsistence level economy and equal status for men and women in community made marriage less rigid and sexual activity independent of gender and marital status. You could sleep with who you wanted regardless of gender or marital status. Unfortunately, colonization by white settlers affected these beliefs, with traditional ways being suppressed by Christian ideas about monogamous marriage, male supremacy, fixed gender roles and heterosexuality. Cross-gender females were all but eliminated by the mid 19th century. This text shows the diversity of societies and the possibilities of people to think and live beyond rigid binaries.

Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body in American Culture” by Siobhan Somerville explores the connections between the racist science of the 19th and 20th century and the naming of "homosexuals" as a particular kind of degenerate person. She maps a similar process of examining the physical body for racial difference by scientists that is then used to look for sexual difference and determine who is "homosexual" or "inverted." Large clitorises and other genital "abnormalities" were used to prove the differences between whites and blacks and heterosexuals and homosexuals. Mixed race bodies became the templates for discussing the pervert body. Somerville's work stresses the importance of talking about race and sexuality together as the language used to talk about each, informs the other. She cautions against gay rights advocates desire to prove the biological nature of homosexuality, as the biological nature of queerness is connected to this scientific racist past, that ultimately does not work in favor of LGBTQ community because it assumes pathology.

Both articles remind us that sex, gender, and sexuality are understood through a historical and social context. People living in what we understand to be the United States, just a few hundred years ago, had completely different ideas about gender and sexuality than we have now. It has been a process to create the seemingly fixed ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality that we have now. If it was made, perhaps it can be unmade again.

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