When I write and speak about the commonalities between the spiritual roles often taken by same-sex loving and gender-fluid people in traditional cultures around the world and also in pre-Christian Europe I tend to feel like I am delivering ‘news’, releasing a perspective little known in the world. However it is no new discovery I am offering – I am repeating an observation that has been made ever since the European explorers of the 16-18th centuries set out around the world. Why is it taking so long for the implications of this to become clear?
The modern LGBTQ+ movement was born in a secular age, but Coming Out is a SPIRITUAL step on the journey of Self Awareness, Discovery and Realisation. Life is not a secular experience, but humanity has become so cut off from the spiritual levels of existence that many believe we are material beings having a temporary experience. I was atheist when I came out aged 21: nine years later I was facing a serious decline in health due to HIV, with AIDS and death looming. As I prepared myself to leave the planet my soul came online and woke me up: it is entirely possible that humans are not material beings having a spiritual experience, but actually spiritual beings having a time in materiality. But how can we know this, when the true priests, priestesses and priestexes are prevented from doing their work of keeping human consciousness connected to the other dimensions, or even knowing that this work exists, and has long been part of the spiritual life of communities around the planet.
Malidoma Some of the Dagara Tribe of West Africa said in 1993: “The modern world was built by Christianity. They have taken the gods out of the earth sent them to heaven, wherever that is. And everyone who aspires to the gods must then negotiate with Christianity, so that the real priests and priestesses are out of a job.” In his tribe there are no gay people – instead there are gatekeepers, their role is spiritual and their sexuality is considered magical and private.
Early European explorers in the Americas recorded the presence of both same sex couples and transgender people in many tribes. Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca’s spent five years in captivity among the natives of Florida, from 1528 to 1533, stated:
“During the time that I was thus among these people I saw a devilish thing, and it is that I saw one man married to another, and these are impotent, effeminate men [amarionados] and they go about dressed as women, and do women’s tasks, and shoot with a bow, and carry great burdens, … and they are huskier than the other men, and taller..”
Also in Florida, Juan de Torquemada‘s reported male natives marrying each other in ‘Monarchia Indiana’, which he began in 1609. He called these men ‘mariones’ (effeminate men), and wrote that they dressed like and did the work of women, comparing these Indian customs to those of the French and Greeks.
Everywhere they went, the Europeans found that these queer beings were seen as having spiritual powers. Spanish conquistador Cieza de Leon wrote a chronicle of his time in Peru, recording, in 1554 that:
“Every temple or chief house of worship keeps one or two men, or more, according to the idol – who go about attired like women, even from their childhood, and talk like women, and imitate them in their manner, carriage, and all else.”
Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette‘s account of his first voyage down the Mississippi in 1673-77 declares:
“I know not through what superstition some Illinois, as well as some Nadouessi, while still young, assume the garb of women, and retain it throughout their lives. There is some mystery in this, For they never marry and glory in demeaning themselves to do everything that the women do. They go to war, however, but can use only clubs, and not bows and arrows, which are the weapons proper to men. They are present at all the juggleries, and at the solemn dances in honor of the Calumet; at these they sing, but must not dance. They are summoned to the Councils, and nothing can be decided without their advice. Finally, through their profession of leading an Extraordinary life, they pass for Manitous,-That is to say, for Spirits;-or persons of Consequence.”
In 1724 Jesuit Father Joseph-Francois Lafitau published, in French, a massive work named ‘The Customs of American Savages Compared to the Earliest Times’ in which he wrote about des Amities porticufieres, or ‘special friendships,’ among the male Native Americans:
“the Athenrosera, or special friendships among young men, which are instituted in almost the same manner from one end of America to the other, are one of the most interesting sides of their customs, since they entail a most curious chapter of Antiquity, and serve to reveal to us what was practiced in that regard, particularly in the Republic of the Cretans and in that of the Spartans…They are highly ancient in their origin, highly marked in the constancy of their practice, consecrated, if I dare say as much, in the union which they create, whose bonds are as close as those of blood and nature, and cannot be dissolved, unless one of the two makes himself unworthy of the union by acts of cowardice that would dishonor his friend, and is compelled to renounce his alliance, as several Missionaries have told me that they have seen examples. The parents are the first to encourage them and to respect their rights…”
Lafitau also recorded that:
“Among the Illinois, among the Sioux, in Louisiana, in Florida, and in Yucatan, there are young men who adopt the garb of women, and keep it all their lives. They believe they are honored by debasing themselves to all of women’s occupations; they never marry, they participate in all religious ceremonies, and this profession of an extraordinary life causes them to be regarded as people of a higher order, and above the common man. Would these not be the same peoples as the Asiatic adorers of Cybele, or the Orientals of whom Julius Fermicus speaks, who consecrated priests dressed as women to the Goddess of Phrygia or to Venus Urania, who had an effeminate appearance, painted their faces, and hid their true sex under garments borrowed from the sex whom they wished to counterfeit?
“The view of these men dressed as women surprised the Europeans who first encountered them in America; as they did not at first guess the motives for this species of metamorphosis they were convinced that these were people in whom the two sexes were confounded. To be sure our old Relations called them no other than hermaphrodites.
“Although the religious spirit which made them embrace this state causes them to be regarded as extraordinary human beings, they have nevertheless really fallen, among the savages themselves, into the contempt into which the priests of Venus Urania and Cybele were held of old.”
In 1775 Don Pedro Fages, third in command of the 1769-70 Spanish Portolà expedition, wrote an account of the first European land exploration of what is now the state of California, in which he said:
“I have submitted substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing and character of women – there being two or three such in each village – pass as sodomites by profession…. They are called joyas, and are held in great esteem.”
Also in 1775 Thomas Falkner in his ‘Description of Patagonia’ (1775), said that among the south Americans:
“The wizards are of both sexes. The male wizards are obliged (as it were) to leave their sex, and to dress themselves in female apparel, and are not permitted to marry, though the female ones or witches may. They are generally chosen for this office when they are children, and a preference is always shown to those who at that early time of life discover an effeminate disposition. They are clothed very early in female attire, and presented with the drum and rattles belonging to the profession they are to follow.”
French writer Perrin du Lac‘s report of his travels in Louisiana and among the Natives of Missouri, Ohio, and the bordering areas (1801-03), mentions “men dressed in women’s clothes,” who, along with prisoners, perform the “humiliating task” of serving at Native ceremonies.
This was not only the case in the Americas:
Jesuit leader Francis Xavier, in the mid 16th century complained that the Buddhist ‘bonzes’ of Japan: “.. are inclined to sins, abhorred by nature. They even confess it and don’t deny it. It is visible and public to all, including men and women, young and old, none of whom think much of it nor despise it as it seems to be a common habit indeed.”
Portuguese Jesuit Joao dos Santos wrote in 1625 that the ‘chibados’ of southwestern Africa were: “attyred like women, and behave themselves womanly, ashamed to be called men; are also married to men, and esteeme that unnaturale damnation an honor.”
Antonio Cardonega, in the 17th century, mentioned that sodomy was: “rampant among the people of Angola. They pursue their impudent and filthy practices dressed as women.” He also stated that the sodomites often served as powerful shamans, were highly esteemed among most Angolan tribes and commonly called “quimbanda.”
19th century British explorer Richard Francis Burton found homosexual and cross-dressing practices common around world, and recorded they had “been adopted by the priestly castes from Mesopotamia to Peru.”
A 1904 study of Shamanism in Siberia by Polish anthropologist Maria Antonina Czaplicka (1884 – 1921) recorded the discoveries of earlier explorers, including the frequent association with gender-fluidity:
“As to the people of Siberia, the ‘change of sex’ is found chiefly among Palaeo-Siberians, namely the Chukchee, Koryak, Kamchadal, and Asiatic Eskimo. Even the earliest travellers record instances of this phenomenon. Krasheninnikoff in 1755, Steller in 1774, Wrangel in 1820, Lüdke in 1837, and others. They do not give complete accounts, but merely mention the fact. It differs, however, in their description from ordinary homosexualism in that there is always reference to shamanistic inspiration or evil biddings.”
She recorded also that : “Effeminate sorcerers and priests are found among the Sea-Dyak of Borneo (Capt. Brooke, Schwaner); the Bugis of South Celebes (Capt. Mundy); Patagonians of South America (Falkner); the Aleutians, and many Indian tribes of North America.”
Finnish philosopher and sociologist Edward Westermarck (1862-1949) wrote in his study ‘The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas’ that:
“the change of sex was usually accompanied by future shamanship; indeed nearly all the shamans were former delinquents of their sex.”
He wrote also:
“There no indication that the North American aborigines attached any opprobrium to men who had intercourse with those members of their own sex who had assumed the dress and habits of women. In Kadiak such a companion was on the contrary regarded as a great acquisition; and the effeminate men, far from being despised, were held in repute by the people, most of them being wizards.”
The 19th century brought the first ‘gay rights’ pioneers in western Europe, who resisted the new medicalisation of – and even the very term – homosexuality: proposing instead not only that same sex and gender fluidity is natural, but that they have a vital role to play in the evolution of humanity.
Seeing gayness as a medical or mental issue was, for these self-aware men who loved men, a continuation of the prejudice promulgated over the centuries by both Church and state authorities. These writers were well aware that certain pre-Christian pagan cultures held gay love in high esteem, and they followed the example of de Torquemada in the 17th and Lafitou in the early 18th century to reveal the common association of same sex eroticism with the spiritual realms both in ancient Europe and in indigenous tribes around the world.
German writer and campaigner Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) came out in 1862 calling himself an Urning, which became Uranian in English, in reference to the Greek Goddess Aphrodite Urania, who was born from the testicles of Uranus, with no female involved, and considered a patron of love between men. Oscar Wilde famously said:
“To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble—more noble than other forms.”
English philosopher and socialist Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), in a book called ‘Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk ‘, published in 1919, explored the link between homoeroticism and the sacred in ancient religions of Europe and elsewhere, including the Samurai of Japan, drawing comparisons with ancient Greece. He concluded that certain:
“…classes of men and women, diverging from the normal in their sex-customs and habits, became the repositories and foci of new kinds of learning and skill, of new activities and accomplishments Thus the foundational occupations of human life – such as fighting, hunting, child-rearing, and agriculture having been laid down by the normal sex types, it was largely the intermediate types who developed the superstructure The priest or medicineman or shaman was at first the sole representative of this new class, and we have seen that he was almost invariably, in some degree or other, of Uranian temperament.
“His work, to begin with, was prophetic or divinatory; but this soon branched out on the one hand into rude poetry, drama, dance and song – what we should call Art – and on the other into elementary observation of the stars and the seasons, medicine and the herbs – what we should call Science. The temples became centres of learning and of the development of the arts and crafts. And a god who combined in some degree the attributes of both male and female was commonly worshipped in their courts.”
English poet and writer John Addington-Symonds (1840-1893), felt the spiritual power in his love for other men, opposed the scientific mind’s attempts to replace religious and legal prohibitions with medical diagnoses, and dreamed of the love of man for man changing the world:
“The new school of anthropologists and psychological physicians study sexual inversion partly on the lines of historical evolution, and partly from the point of view of disease. Mixing up atavism and heredity with nervous malady in the individual, they wish to substitute medical treatment for punishment, lifelong sequestration in asylums for terms of imprisonment differing in duration according to the offence. Neither society nor science entertains the notion that those instincts which the laws of France and Italy tolerate, under certain restrictions, can be simply natural in a certain percentage of male persons… Society lies under the spell of ancient terrorism and coagulated errors. Science is either wilfully hypocritical or radically misinformed. Walt Whitman, in America, regards what he calls “manly love” as destined to be a leading virtue of democratic nations, and the source of a new chivalry.” (A Problem in Modern Ethics, published 1896)
German anthropologist Ferdinand Karsch-Haack in 1911 published ‘Uranismus oder Päderastie und Tribadie bei den Naturvölkern’ [Uranism, or Pederasty and Tribady among Primitive Peoples].
Over five hundred pages in length, this book gave a comprehensive compilation of primary source materials on male homosexuality among the North and South American Indians, Australian aborigines, Malayans and Melanesians, Eskimos and other Arctic peoples, and Africans. A short section on lesbianism was also included.
Karsch-Haack rejected the new academic term ‘homosexuality’ because of its hybrid combination of a Greek and a Latin root, as well as the term ‘third sex’, which was popularized by Magnus Hirschfeld of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. Instead of these terms, Karsch-Haack mostly used the German terms ‘homoërotische’ or ‘gleichgeschlechtliche Liebe’ that can be translated as ‘homoerotic’ or ‘same-sex love.’ Karsch-Haack sought to dismantle the hierarchy of love-forms, which made hetero superior to same sex love and insisted on the recognition of its naturalness.
German psychiatrist Dr Iwan Bloch (1872-1922), co-founder with Hirschfeld of the Institute for Sexual Science, and known as the ‘first sexologist’ , proposed that ‘primitive peoples’ saw homosexuality as something mysterious and magical:
“This riddle, which despite all our efforts, present-day science has not yet satisfactorily solved, must to the primitive intelligence have appeared even more inexplicable than to us; and a man born with the inclination towards his own sex must have been regarded as something extraordinary, as one of those strange freaks of Nature which among Primitives are so easily accounted divine marvels and honored as such. The by no means scanty supply of ethnological facts on this subject which we possess confirms the above view, and shows in what odour of sanctity homosexual individuals have often stood among Nature-folk – for which reason they frequently played an important part in religious rituals and festivals.“
Not written from a gay man’s perspective, Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941, author of The Golden Bough), in his work ‘Adonis, Attis, Osiris: Studies in the History of Oriental Religion’ attributed the adoption by south Pacific island priests of female attire to the fact that:
“it often happens that a goddess chooses a man, not a woman, for her minister and inspired mouthpiece. When that is so, the favoured man is thenceforth regarded and treated as a woman.”
He added – “These unsexed creatures often, perhaps generally, profess the arts of sorcery and healing, they communicate with spirits and are regarded sometimes with awe and sometimes with contempt, as beings of a higher or lower order than common folk.”
The association of (what we now call) transgender and gay/queer people with the spiritual realms is ancient and universal, yet somehow the memo did not make it into the modern gay liberation movement, which was born in a secular age, when religious attitudes were being overthrown. Liberation, however, is more than a political concept – it has a deep spiritual meaning, and by uncovering the hidden spiritual history of queer people we discover that the suppression of sexuality by Church and state over the centuries has both a suppression of LOVE and a denial of the natural priests of the species.
Same sex love was once deeply associated with philosophy, magic and also, along with gender fluidity, with the spiritual life of the community. In tribal settings queer shamans were highly regarded because their spiritual energy kept the community connected to the spirit of the earth, the ancestors and the Great Mother/Great Spirit. In the pagan civilisations of ancient Europe, queer people had prominent roles in temples, rituals and festivals – and, 1000 years after the Christian Church, hand in hand with armed and brutal political forces, had began its campaign to eradicate queerness from its domains in Europe, when Europeans went out to explore and conquer they found the same phenomenon going on in every part of the world.
IN THE 21st CENTURY IT IS TIME FOR THE QUEER PEOPLES OF PLANET EARTH TO CLAIM OUR SPIRITUAL INHERITANCE.
“Out of the mists of our long oppression,
We bring love for ourselves and each other,
And love for the gifts we bear,
So heavy and so painful the fashioning of them,
So long the road given us to travel them. A separate people,
We bring a gift to celebrate each other,
‘Tis a gift to be gay!
Feel the pride of it!”