Native Cross Dressers -Transgenders - Foil AIDS Information.
I commend Judy Bishop, the author of two of the articles that appeared in December 29th issue of The Arizona Republic, and basis for this series. In particular, the one which covered the “transgender issue” that brings about basic differences in the beliefs concerning the roles of males and females between the White Christian society and some Native American societies.
The lead in Ms. Bishop’s transgender story states “In most of the world, gender is an either/or option. You’re either male or female.”
That is not necessarily the case in Native American and other indigenous societies. “That makes it difficult for HIV/AIDS workers to advocate safe sex because men who don’t label themselves ‘gay’ don’t connect with the educational materials distributed in the White world.”
Part of the difference is “terminology”, the other part is “attitude” according to Wesley Thomas, A Navajo who is co-author of the book “Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality and Spirituality” and an assistant professor of anthropology and international studies at the University of Indiana.
“Sex, like male/female, defines biology. Gender, man/woman- masculine/feminine defines social roles. Native Americans are flexible about letting people choose gender roles not necessarily based on their sexual identity”
In a White, Christian society the issue is cut and dried, you are either a man or a woman, there is no in-between. In the Native American world of moveable gender lines, the “gay label” for men who have sex with men does not always apply. If a Native man has sex with a male – a transgender - who is dressed as a woman and presents himself to the world as a female – that man may not refer to himself a homosexual having sex with a man. As a result, these men do not relate to a White population that distributes HIV/AIDS prevention materials with the attitude. “What does this stuff have to do with me, I’m not ‘gay’.”
Historically, many Native American tribes looked upon homosexuals, lesbians, hermaphrodites, and cross-dressers as “spiritually gifted” people. Their roles were outlined in the creation story, and identities evolved out of tribal religions. They were placed on pedestals often in religious roles as medicine men or women – the old-world type “shamans”. .
“The appearance of Christianity and Western education eliminated the gender flexibility among Native populations, Thomas said. “The goal was to make native people think like Westerners. It gave permission to eliminate these people and many were killed in the name of the Bible, for the sake of the cross.”
Jim 31, a Navajo, was born a male. “But it didn’t fit,” he says. “In pre-school I knew who I was, I played with the girls.”
Old friends use the female pronoun to describe Jim. Her hair is long and flows down her back or is tied up in a knot. She hasn’t changed her sex in a surgical manner. She’s a transgender male but presenting herself as a woman. By age 12 she was an alcoholic and for years had risky sex and still worries someday about testing positive for AIDS.
Sober for six years now, she is a health educator for the Navajo Aids Network. She goes to bars setting up information tables, passing out condoms to promote “safe sex”, information about the AIDS virus and how it is transmitted.
She does understand that men who sleep with transgenders are at a great risk for getting infected with HIV and can carry HIV home to their wives. The bottom line, here, is the increasing number of AIDS cases now appearing for all genders in Native communities worries health care professionals. The spread of the disease to women signals the start of a problem whereby there is the risk AIDS may be passed on from mother to child.
The Indian Health Service is now asking all pregnant Native women to take an HIV test. They fear a time bomb may explode which will have a devastating effect on the Indian populations of our country.
For clarity – here are some DEFINITIONS:
Gay/Lesbian/Homosexual – A person sexually attracted to members of the same sex.
Bisexual – A person sexually attracted to members of both sexes.
Hermaphrodite – A person born with ambiguous or both male and female sex organs.
Transgender – A person of one sex who presents him/herself as another, i.e. a man who dresses, acts and lives as a woman.
Transsexual – A person who has surgically changed his or her gender.
Transvestite – A person. not necessarily gay, who dresses in clothes of the opposite sex.
Bobbie Hart O’Neill