Updated: Mar 30
Three things are apparent in the available sources of information about homosexuality in the pre-colonial Americas; one is that while the modern LGBTQ+ community was largely established in the mid-twentieth century, queerness existed in the Americas hundreds of years ago. Two, homosexuality is intrinsically linked with the diverse gender structure of the native tribes. Three, this information has been colonized, with most resources being biased through the lens of the colonial powers that first came into contact with the native populations of the continents.
The use of gendered language, as well as the word queer, are for clarity purposes. Still, it is important to consider that these concepts do not adequately describe indigenous cultures as they are euro-centric ideas. With that being said, this article will attempt to establish a partial picture of the queer cultures that flourished hundreds of years ago.
Indigenous Tribes of the Modern-Day United States
The Diné (colonized as the Navajo) is an indigenous tribe in North America. Dating back before the colonization of the land by European powers, the Diné had a multi-gendered society structure incorporating four genders, women, men, feminine Nádleehi, and masculine Nádleehi.
Nádleehi genders were determined as a person grew up and were typically not a birth assignment. A child in these cultures discovered how they wanted to express themselves based on their interests or “gifts” and partook in society in ways that suited them individually. We may find similarities in the Nádleehi to non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals. Tribe members of this gender were highly regarded and often held high social positions.
Other tribes had similar concepts with genders, like the Lhamana (Zuni) and Asegi (Cherokee). A modern blanket term to describe these alternative genders is ‘two-spirit,’ and while it is commonly used in writing, it is not universally accepted. It is estimated that 155 tribes across North America embraced a multi-gendered culture. The expanded conceptions of gender in these societies seem to have overshadowed sexuality. While sexual relationships between two people of the same biological sex were common and praised alongside two-spirit identity, homosexuality was not inherent.
In particular, the stories of the civilizations in modern-day Mexico are almost exclusively accessed through a colonized perspective. The Spanish burned the libraries and destroyed much of the resources that would have provided access to objective truth.
The Culhua-Mexica (colonized as the Aztecs) held a vast empire that incorporated many different ethnicities and cultures. They had a complicated relationship with homosexuality acceptance, particularly of the practice of sodomy. The levels of acceptance varied by region and ruler.
It has been suggested that the laws banning homosexual behavior in the empire were a tactic by the Aztecs to separate conquered peoples in the region from their previous cultures and religions. These opposing people often had feminine shamans, who we might refer to as gender non-conforming. This implies that the Culhua-Mexica empire was not homophobic but trying to strip others of their rich, queer past. The Inca empire reportedly held similar views on homosexuality, yet both societies realistically failed to enforce these laws on a widespread basis.
We know that homosexuals and two-spirit people were prevalent because of encounters between Hernan Cortés and the native people of the regions he explored. Cortés remarked in a letter to his King, “we know and have been informed without room for doubt that all practice the abominable sin of sodomy.” Bernal Diaz del Castillo, another conquistador, also quoted Cortés as saying, “...young men must cease to go about in female garments, to make a livelihood by such cursed lewdness.” While this is indicative of male homosexuality, there is no mention of female homosexuality. However, we can (reasonably) infer that these relationships took place given that the Mexica region also embraced an expanded gender foundation like the tribes to the north, which encompassed marriages and relationships of women.
Information regarding South America is not sufficient enough to establish how civilizations operated in terms of gender and how they understood homosexuality. It is essential to consider that given the nature of homosexuality in North America, there may have been a similarly established culture of homosexuality and gender expression. This, however, is purely speculation.
These societies had unique gender roles and sexualities that presumably developed entirely independently of the established gender binary in the Euro-colonized world. Much like the crusades of the middle ages, the invaders eradicated opposing cultures and demonized their practices.
Dine Equality is a group working to undo hundreds of years of queer erasure and uplift LGBTQ+ natives to heal the damage in their community. You can find more information on their website: www.equalitynavajo.org.