The Berdache of Early American Conquest

by Megan Langford

English 341 - Prof. Arnold

May 9, 1998



Methodological Introduction

This paper attempts to link the facet of queer theory that explains gender and sexuality as culturally constructed identities, with the presence of the berdache in the New World at the time of the Spanish conquest. By analyzing the construction of gender and sexuality among the native peoples, in contrast to the ideologies of the Spanish, I found a clash arose which explained, in some sense, the incompatibility of the two cultures. The differences between the two cultures' gender construction established support for the very "un'natural'" or "in'essential'" nature of gender, sexuality, and the body as a means of self-identity. By realizing the issue of power and where it lies within individuals and societies, hierarchical social constructions are revealed to be connected with sexual roles. This dominant/subordinate relationship present in both cultures defines and substantiates the role that power plays in the cultural context. The use of queer theory to elucidate these complicated social and sexual relationships helps to explain the way this power structure maps onto the native people's relationship with the berdache.

This paper will show how the Spaniards mapped their conceptions of power and sexual relationships onto the natives. It will address this conception by carefully analyzing the presence of hermaphrodites in Theodore de Bry's copper etchings. By visualizing the berdache through the eyes of the Spaniard, the concept of sexualizing the foreign natives is revealed to be thickly imbedded in their own gender norms.

This argument is two-fold. First, I will support the queer theory view of gender construction by using the native berdache as an example. Second, I will show how the de Bry etchings reveal the Spanish conceptions of gender and how this worked to further alienate them and lead to an irreparable conflict between these two cultures. The clash of gender identity existing between these two cultures led to misrepresentations of the natives by the Spaniards.

It is also necessary, before diving into the concepts of this paper, that I elucidate the terms which I will be using, as they are easily confused. Gender, in the context of this paper will describe the sets of culturally prescribed behaviors, actions, and functions assigned to a particular sex. Sex, when used as an adjective, will refer to the biological or "chromosomal" physical identity which separates males from females. Sexuality, like gender, will be used to define individuals on the basis of their cultural/social role within society, but not as an unchangeable feature of a person's identity. It is important to distinguish the meaning of these terms because as they are commonly used, they are usually considered synonyms in some way. By separating and elucidating their meanings, I hope to further press the queer theorist argument that gender and identity within one's sexuality are deeply imbedded in social influences.

The Berdache of Early American Conquest

The Spanish encountered many things upon treading their first steps onto the soil of a new and mysterious continent. The natives were a group so foreign, the Spaniards questioned whether they were even human. This experience of contact, then conquest and colonization "introduced chaos in the order of things such as the Europeans imagined it in their own cosmogony, moral code, and ideas on the origin of man" (Bucher, 143-4). As the Spaniards gradually became familiar with this new race, they found differences in sexual practices that could not be explained as anything other than straight from the mouth of the devil itself. By examining Theodore de Bry's copper etchings, it is possible to observe the presence of a person who dressed and acted like a woman but who was in the physical sense, a biological male. In the eyes of the conquering Spaniard, this group of people fit into preconceived notions of sinners, evil-doers, and sodomites, because of their European conceptions of sexuality, gender, and function in society. The berdache present in early American conquest is an historical case in point that supports the queer theorist argument that gender and sexuality are socially constructed identities

Queer theory focuses on sexuality and gender as socially constructed identities and it concerns itself with the concepts of social control that maintain those norms. It is through the issue of social construction of gender and sexuality that issues of biological, innate, or "natural" parts of sexual identity are debunked. Queer theory predicates itself on notions denying any essential, physical, or emotional traits that limit social and sexual relationships to define categories as moral or immoral. Michel Foucault, philosopher, historian, and literary critic, has played an integral role in establishing a place in academia for the study of sexuality; he has identified many of the basic concepts crucial to the queer studies body of theory. "Foucault's contention that desire is socially constructed, rather than inherent or natural, became a foundational truism of much of the queer theory that followed" (Kowalsky-Wallace, 327). Foucault begins his The History of Sexuality by attempting to encompass the vast idea of sexuality and its origins as a concept, and its relationship to identity. Foucault writes of his work,

. . . it was a matter of seeing how an "experience" came to be constituted in modern Western societies, an experience that caused individuals to recognize themselves as subjects of a "sexuality," which was very accessible to very diverse fields of knowledge and linked to a system of rules and constraints (Foucault, 4).

Judith Butler, author, philosopher, and queer theorist, believes that many conceptions which are believed to be "natural," or biological, "like gender, sexuality, and the body, have always been defined to serve particular political agendas" (Kowalsky-Wallace, 61).

Much of feminist theory which focuses on social formations of gender, also stresses the political power agenda of the male-based society to control and contain the female gender category. This duality of empowered and powerless individuals as prescribed by society within the context of delegated sexual roles is significant in the Foucaultian theory of desire and is intrinsic to many social relationships. Foucault, in discussing the isomorphic links between sexual and social relations writes,

. . . sexual relations - always conceived in terms of the model act of penetration, assuming polarity that opposed activity and passivity - were seen as being of the same type as the relationship between a superior and a subordinate, an individual who dominates and one who is dominated, one who commands and one who complies, one who vanquishes and one who is vanquished (Foucault, 215).

Eve Sedgwick explains that the purpose of this power strategy present in society, "has been to gain analytic and critical leverage on the female-disadvantaging social arrangements that prevail at a given time in a given society, by throwing into question their legitimative ideological grounding in biologically based narratives of the 'natural,'"(Sedgwick, 28). It is within this dominant/subordinate dichotomy and the engendering of the 'chromosomal sex', that the socially constructed third gender of the berdache finds its way into contemporary queer theory discourse.

The Berdache and The Spaniard

The berdache is defined in various ways by different cultures; in the context of the early American natives, the berdache was a transvested male, who had permanently taken on the dress, language, and mannerisms of the female gender in their particular society. In homosexual relationships, the berdache assumed the position of the passive role. The member of a particular culture "became" a berdache in varying ways, some at a very young age and others, at a later stage in life, possibly following warriordom, when they were no longer capable of fighting effectively (Trexler, 83-96). In all of these instances however, the selection of that person to become a berdache was not linked in any way to the predisposition of that person to behave in ways characteristic of the opposite gender category. For example, a man who enjoyed weaving and had a higher voice was not considered a better candidate for becoming a berdache because of these mannerisms. In some cases, the parents of the given child declared their son or in a few instances daughter, a berdache and immediately they began dressed their child in the appropriate entire and instructed her or him to act in the appropriate manner. This began as early as the day the child was born and frequently, by the time the child reached the age of puberty. Trexler writes,

The mid-seventeenth century report by Fernández de Piedrahita on the Laches of Columbia provides the model and is the most incisive document for such parental shaping of infantile gender. According to this writer, once a mother without daughters had given birth to five consecutive males, tribal law allowed one of them, on reaching one year of age, to be made a berdache. . . (Trexler, 86).

There is also evidence that a family with all female children who wanted a son for hunting purposes, engendered one of their female children as a male and "her parents tied bear ovaries to her belt to prevent her from conceiving her life long" (Trexler, 86).

Those who enter into the life of the berdache upon reaching the age of puberty were also chosen to become so by their parents and, with the support of the community, the child's status was transferred quite easily into this alternate gender. Concerning transgendered children, Trexler writes,

. . . primary sources from these early years do want us to believe that, even as children, native Americans were introduced to homosexual behavior, presumably anal penetration but perhaps fellation as well, and usually in conjunction with their assumption of female clothing (Trexler, 88-9).

This apparent transfer of gender roles among the early American natives reveals a significant amount of mutability in sexual identity among these peoples. This cultural reality for gender transformation seems sufficiently relevant to the cause of the queer theorist. To these native people, there is nothing "innate" that connects one's physical, chromosomal sex with one's gender and sexuality; this would be in direct support of queer theorist perspectives.

For queer theorists, sexuality is a complex array of social codes and forces, forms of individual activity and institutional power, which interact to shape the ideas of what is normative and what is deviant at any particular moment, and which then operate under the rubric of what is 'natural,' 'essential,' 'biological,' or 'god given' (Klages, 3-4).

The function of the berdache within the community is as variable as the societies themselves. Berdaches played a significant part in reaffirming the hierarchical relationships between powerful adults. Richard Trexler explains the situation in the Americas at the time of the Conquests as follows:

The domestic berdache was a projection of military actions, in which young vanquished were taken. Domestically, while enjoying the boys themselves and benefiting from the protection they afforded, some caciques made them available to others in exchange for some price or service, even as they certainly used other men's dependents as "payment" for various services (Trexler, 95).

This subordinate power position relationship, between the male berdache partaking in the passive role and, as a result, being the subordinate in hierarchical social relationships lends a legitimizing position for the feminist and queer theorist perspective on the dominant/dominated role in sexuality being mapped directly onto the societies' reaffirmation of their hierarchical status.

Trexler accounts an experience of Hernando de Alarcón in 1541 among natives in lower Colorado which depicts the importance of the role they played within their society. In this scenario, there were four Berdaches living in a village. As soon as one of them died, the next born son was assigned the "function of women." S/he wore women's clothing, and was prohibited from having sexual relations with women. "They received no compensation for this work of prostitution from the people in the region, although they were free to take from any house what they needed for their living" (Trexler, 87). In many early American societies, the berdache's role was in the religious realm. The berdache served as a passive sexual partner to religious leaders. Homosexuality was deeply rooted in temple activity. Trexler cites an example of homosexual behavior in the Inca empire:

It is true that, as a general thing among the mountaineers and the coastal dwellers [Yungas], the devil has introduced his vice under the pretense of sanctity. And in each important temple or house of worship, they have a man or two, or more, depending on the idol, who go dressed in women's attire from the time they are children, and speak like them, and in manner, dress, and everything else they imitate women. With them especially the chiefs and headmen have carnal, foul intercourse on feast days and holidays, almost like a religious rite and ceremony (Trexler, 107).

This apparent and intrinsic relationship between homosexual relations and their religious activity was deeply troubling to the Spanish conquerors. It added to their beliefs that the natives were devils, and it caused an even stronger gap to separate the two groups. Because sodomy was present in the religious realm of the natives, Trexler argues that in their contemporary legal view, "sodomy or male homosexual behavior, however, did bestow a right to conquer, if it could be demonstrated that it was widespread and tolerated by indigenous civil authority" (Trexler, 83-4). The punishment of the "sodomites" by the Spanish is well documented and is clearly revealed in de Bry's etching of "Balboa's Dogs Attacking a Group of Panamanian Sodomites."

"Balboa's Dogs Attacking a Group of Panamanian Sodomites" (Figure 1)

It is clear in the passages used by Trexler above, that the information available for current analytical purposes has been collected from what was written down by the Spanish and has been preserved and translated. In this context, there is most definitely a slant on what has been documented and as such is not entirely reliable as ethnographic fact. There is, however, valuable information to be attained by appreciating the information that is available in light of its tainting. Although impossible to gain untainted accounts, the slant put onto the stories that have survived are important in analyzing the reaction of the Spanish conquerors to what they encountered. Although not revealing the intentions or the culture of the natives, the information can be used in a comparative analysis to reveal their interactions, and they reveal important things about the Spanish conceptions of sexuality and gender.


de Bry's Image of the Berdache

As indicated above, the Spanish conquistadors were familiar with berdaches as they were an integral part of many native societies. It is necessary, therefore, to approach the subject of this transgendered figure as it was experienced by these colonizers. De Bry's copper etchings provide an excellent example of how the berdaches were perceived.

In the three de Bry etchings included in this web page (figures 1,2, and 3), the berdaches have identifiable characteristics which separate them, not only from the Spanish, but also from the native men and women with whom they are interacting. The "hermaphrodite" or berdache in de Bry's works is depicted as having long, curly, blond hair, a masculine body and face, and wearing the traditional female skirt of Spanish moss (Bucher, 153). Bernadette Bucher, in her book Icon and Conquest, notes the apparent connection between the "hermaphrodite" in these etchings, with the traditional medieval image of the "sodomite":



Their curly, uncombed hair hangs to their shoulders in a way recalling the medieval image of the "sodomite, as Chaucer depicts it in the person of the Pardoner,

This pardoner hadde heer as yelow as wex
But smoothe it heeng as dooth a tricke of flex
By ounces henge his lookes that he hadde,
And therwith he his shuldres overspradde.
But thynne it lay, by colpons, con and con. . .
[Prologue of the Canterbury Tales] (Bucher, 153)



The connection the Spaniards saw between these men who dressed and behaved like women and their conception of sodomites is also elucidated in de Bry's etching of Balboa's dogs attacking a group of Panamanian "sodomites" (figure 1). These people being attacked because they are "sodomites" are portrayed in the identical manner as the "hermaphrodites" in the two other works (figures 2 and 3).


 "Bringing in Wild Animals, Fish and Other Stores" (Figure 2)


"Hermaprodites As Laborers" (Figure 3)

In the etchings above, "Bringing in Wild Animals, Fish and Other Stores" (figure 2), and "Hermaphrodites as Laborers" (figure 3), de Bry portrays the role of the hermaphrodite as a beast of burden. These people appear to be responsible for carrying the ill and dead on stretchers from the battlefield, and marching in line almost as slaves carrying food for the native women. Their roles as laborers in these contexts may not be far from the truth of their position in society. They were noted to have been responsible for women's functions in the maintenance of the household, but because of their physical strength as biological males, it would not be hard to assume that they did participate in hard labor.

In the etching, "Hermaphrodites as Laborers" (figure 3), these transgendered people are seen with the sick and the dying. In this context, the role of the berdache in the religious realm as well as the realm of women could support the image of them assisting in aiding warriors with injuries, as well as preparing them for religious ceremonies upon their death.

The reality of the de Bry etchings seems to be that they represent the function of the berdache in a basic sense within their society, but they appear in the etchings very differently than the way one would expect a native berdache to look. The photograph below is taken of a nineteenth-century Zuni berdache (Trexler, 120). Although belonging to a different group of people and taken in a much more recent time period, this image of the berdache is unquestionably more similar in physical appearance to those living in the fifteenth-century, than those etched by de Bry.

"Nineteenth-Century Zuni Berdache" (Figure 4)

In this sense, the portrayal of the women in the etchings is significant. They are also seen in appropriate context, but are surprisingly European in appearance; their long, blond hair, round figures, and Caucasian faces give them a familiar appearance to the Spanish observer, but the main difference being their lack of clothing. Because the image of a woman, beautiful, fertile, and hard working was much more easily conceived to the Spanish, in their own conceptions of femininity, the women in the etchings expose these characteristics.

It is also important to realize the way these images would have been symbols which evoked very particular notions to the Spanish viewer. In much of the artwork during this period of conquest, the images which are representative of the New World are very similar. They include voluptuous women with long, curly hair. The women are almost entirely naked except a scant covering around their waists. They are present in scenes with abundant vegetation, sometimes an exotic bird, and their figures and their faces are surprisingly European. These representations were to portray the New World as bountiful, fertile, and inviting. The presence of the berdache in these etchings is extremely significant in these same symbolic ways. The berdache in these etchings are sketched with equal falsity.

The Discovery of America, Jon van der Straet, 1575

The berdaches are similar to the women in figure, minus the perky breasts. They also all have the same manly face, probably to indicate their unattractiveness as well as their contrast to the women. Because they are participating in hard labor in the etchings, and are working for women, it is significant that the Spanish would have seen these men in a very inferior way which is reflected in their appearance and applies to the theory that they are the passive partner in sexual relationships.

The early American berdache played a role in the "otherness" experienced by the Spaniards during their conquest. The berdaches are strong and subordinate; they are masculine and feminine; and they are Old World and New World. These contrasts are present in their appearance in the etchings and are acted upon by the Spaniards. S/he was misunderstood and punished for the role s/he played in the alternate culture. In the context of the native community, the berdache was an important figure who was very clearly gendered by her or his society. This gendering process supports queer theorists argument that gender and sexuality are socially constructed. By analyzing the berdache with queer theory, the misconceptions of the Spaniards and the persecution of this particular group as "sodomites", becomes valuable in defining where specified roles of gender and sexuality are really established.





Bucher, Bernadette. Icon and Conquest. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, (1981).
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Robert Hurley (ed). (New York, 1990).
Klages, Mary. "Queer Theory" [ /queertheory.html] (April 9, 1998).
Kowalski-Wallace, Elizabeth (ed.). Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory. Garland Publishing, Inc.: New York, (1997).
Sedgewick, Eve Kosofsky. The Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press: Berkeley, (1990).
Trexler, Richard C. Sex and Conquest. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, (1995).
Figure 1: Trexler, Richard C. Sex and Conquest. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, (1995).
Figure 2: Lorant, Stefan. The New World. (New York, 1965).
Figure 3: Cumming, W.P., R.A. Skelton and D.B. Quinn. The Discovery of North America. (New York, 1972).
Figure 4: Trexler, Richard C. Sex and Conquest. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, (1995).