There has long been a tendency for scholars studying Native American history and culture to conceive of their subjects as static and unchanging, whether as brute savages easily overwhelmed by the onslaught of European “civilization” or as romanticized noble savages living in perfect ecological harmony with nature but unable to resist the cruelty and greed of the European invaders. In recent years much scholarship has pointed out the many problems with this perspective, often termed “essentialist,” regardless of what specific agenda it is being used to advance. One area in which there has until very recently been relatively little literature either putting forth or debunking this sort of essentialism, however, is sexuality and gender. This is in some respects unsurprising, since there is quite little information to start with on precolumbian gender and sexuality, and what information there is in colonial sources is both scanty and obviously biased, so there is little foundation to base any sort of analysis on. On the other hand, sexuality and gender are such key elements of any society that it certainly seems like there should be something to say about them, despite the problems with the evidence, and indeed some have tried. Many of the most notable efforts, however, have had definite ideological preconceptions that have tended to lead to an overly romanticized picture.
Such, at least, is the contention of Richard Trexler in Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas. Trexler’s focus is the berdache, an enigmatic figure found in nearly all known Native American societies. The berdache (the word comes from the Arabic bardaj, meaning an enslaved male prostitute or catamite) was a biological man who permanently took on the clothing, attributes and roles of a woman. This culturally condoned transvestism has made the berdache a key figure for modern homosexual activists, who now prefer the less offensive term two-spirit, and this has led to many scholars interpreting the presence of berdaches in tribes as indicating a societal acceptance of homosexuality and gender ambiguity, a powerful weapon for an argument that modern western gender conceptions are not universal throughout all societies. Berdaches in this view are seen as respected members of their communities who freely chose to change their outward gender, associated not just with standard feminine gender roles but also, in many cases, with magic, divination, and other spiritual practices.
Trexler, however, thinks this is yet another example of romanticism and wishful thinking applied by modern scholars to “exotic” peoples. He argues that, rather than valued members of their societies who freely chose to transvest, berdaches were, at least in precolumbian times, primarily sex slaves whose primary purpose was to be raped and exploited by powerful men to establish and confirm their power. He depends almost entirely on textual evidence from early Spanish observers, with occasional forays into other times and places to find parallels to illuminate conflicting or obscure accounts in the texts. He is well aware of the obvious biases, in various directions, of the Spanish sources, and seeks to counteract them by opening with a detailed examination of homosexuality and attitudes toward it in the ancient and medieval Mediterranean in general and the late medieval Iberian peninsula in particular. Through this he shows that, whatever their protestations of shock at encountering homosexual behavior in America, the conquistadors would have been well aware of the practice in their homeland. This then provides a baseline for him to examine the specific accounts they give of native sexual practices and attempt to deduce what the roles of berdaches really were in these societies.
What he finds, in many different accounts from throughout Latin America but primarily the best-attested areas, Mexico and the Andes, is that berdaches were indeed primarily young adolescents (thought their exact ages are generally impossible to determine, Trexler thinks they generally attained their status around age twelve) used for sexual purposes by the other men of their society. He connects this to a general horror of femininity and thirst for power among men, both European and Indian, that leads them to try to acquire as many dependents as their power will allow, both women and men, and to penetrate them sexually to demonstrate that power. He makes a big deal about the distinction between passive and active homosexuality, and shows (convincingly, I’d say) that the passive role was much more universally derided, at least among Europeans, for being “weak” and “feminine,” while the active role was just seen as a man doing what men do: penetrate. Indeed, he rejects the use of the term “homosexuality” at all for this time period, since he sees it as anachronistic for societies with this attitude toward sexuality, so different from our own. He contrasts this view, which is based on an elaborate theory of the formation of social structures based on the primacy of warfare and masculinist ideology, with what he sees as the wishful romanticism of those scholars who have tried to show that Indian societies were more comfortable with gender ambiguity than our own. Indeed, he sees a male propensity for sexual violence against weaker members of society, whether male or female, as more or less universal, and the main difference between the European and American manifestations of it with regard to male victims as being the fact that it was only in America that this violence was associated with lifelong transvestism.
And, indeed, much of what he argues is convincing. It certainly seems true that, given the similarities in depictions of transvestism and sexual violence in many different colonial sources, the berdache was at least in some places at some times a role filled by victims of rape rather than men of natural homosexual inclination. Trexler is also right, I think, to point out the importance of sexual violence to premodern social structures and the problems with trying to find justification for our current ideas about gender and sexuality in those of past civilizations. It is certainly interesting to think about what the connections might be between his theories about social power being expressed by number of dependents and the much later system of captive exchange, revolving around children of both sexes as well as adult women, in the southwest borderlands described by James F. Brooks.
There are, however, also some problems here. Trexler never really establishes how or why a close look at Spanish sexuality allows him to see through the biases of Spanish observers of Indian sexuality. Indeed, his rather credulous attitude toward Spanish sources makes for a marked contrast with the careful skepticism of John Moffitt and Santiago Sebastián, who even use some of the same sources Trexler does. It is therefore difficult to see how Trexler can put so much faith in the early Spanish sources that document widespread sexual use of berdaches, while dismissing accounts by later mestizo historians claiming that the Aztecs and Incas ruthlessly punished homosexual behavior. I wouldn’t say he’s just accepting the evidence that suits his thesis and rejecting the evidence that doesn’t, since he does at least give plausible reasons for doubting the reliability of the mestizo historians on issues of sexuality, but he is never really able to justify the use he makes of the sources he accepts. If he doesn’t accept the testimony of the Spanish writers, of course, he has no story at all to tell, since there aren’t really any other sources of evidence for precolumbian sexuality. There are later anthropological accounts of berdaches in other areas, especially the western US in the nineteenth century, which are more reliable, and Trexler does use them occasionally to buttress his arguments, while (appropriately) conceding that it is hazardous to use them too much to explain the much earlier situation in precolumbian times, before the dramatic restructuring of the native world in the face of the European threat. Nonetheless, Trexler’s use of his sources is problematic, and tends to inspire skepticism about the validity of the story he tells, plausible though it may be.
An even more serious problem, however, is that, while Trexler sees himself as fighting against romanticization of the Indians, he seems to fall rather deep into essentialism himself. There is little attempt to contextualize any of the sexual behavior he describes, and he instead tends to throw everything he finds into one category, the berdache, no matter how far apart and otherwise culturally distinct the regions his evidence comes from are. Much of his most convincing evidence, for instance, comes from Central America, but it is not at all clear that something attested there but nowhere else in the Americas can be assumed to be a universal aspect of the berdache figure. This doesn’t stop him from assuming just that, however, and the result is a theory that, while plausible, is almost impossibly general and abstract, to the point that it becomes very dubious. Trexler’s tendency to stretch his thin sources this far has the unfortunate result of casting doubt on even his more convincing arguments.
There’s nothing particularly “exoticist” about this essentialism, however. He falls into the same problem when describing European attitudes toward homosexual behavior, where any sort of mention of sodomy in the middle ages gets thrown in to support his thesis, from early Norse epics to late Judeo-Hispanic poetry. His own specialty is Renaissance Florence, and I can’t help but wonder whether the well-attested prevalence of homosexuality there and the resulting societal attitudes toward it have instilled in him a mindset that looks for similar conditions everywhere else (and, of course, finds them).
I would, therefore, be very cautious about using this book to form any conclusions about the subject it addresses. This is not to say, however, that it is totally worthless. It is certainly thought-provoking, and Trexler’s frequent statements that further research should be done on a given issue could well result in more reliable conclusions. The extensive notes, complete with the original text of most of the quotes translated in the body of the book, are also quite helpful in tracing the background of the claims presented, and the sources cited there would be good places to check on some of Trexler’s more dubious arguments.
This is a problematic work, but an interesting one, and while I wouldn’t recommend it to a general audience without serious reservations, it contains quite a bit that could be useful and thought-provoking for those who already have some background knowledge of the subjects covered.