glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy





social sciences

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-E  F-L  M-Z

Indigenous Cultures  
page: 1  2  

In societies where "transgenderism" is not in evidence, same-sex sexual expression can be viewed as a similarly expedient solution to a social problem. Among the Sambia in the central New Guinea highlands, young boys were traditionally compelled to submit to ritual oral insemination by their elders for a period of years as part of their initiation rites into manhood. These relationships, often violently coerced at the outset, were structured so as to cement bonds between rival households and villages in order to mitigate the possibility of future conflict by allowing otherwise socially distant men to play a key role in the rearing of male youths.

A Function of Desire? The Sexual Motivations of Indigenes

The above examples are highly functionalist arguments. They claim that what may appear to be an innate, individualized sexual desire or gender identity is in fact a consciously instrumental action that has its end elsewhere, in a need to access land or to minimize conflict.

Sponsor Message.

While comparably instrumental explanations of homosexual behavior arising from changing social circumstances have been proposed for European contexts, the focus on individual sexual desire and its role in determining sexual identity has remained paramount for researchers working on modern, Western societies. It is perhaps curious, then, that social researchers have not typically cultivated a similar interest in the individual erotic inclinations of the subjects whom they observe engaging in such behaviors outside the West.

Explanations in this vein run the risk of denying sexual subjectivity to non-European subjects and returning anthropological study of sexuality to its earlier foregone conclusions about human behavior rooted in geography and in race. Perhaps more fundamentally, in their assertion that "homosexual" and "transgender" behavior is principally about maintenance of "natural," complementary gender differences, scholars who advance such explanations have failed to challenge the pervasive gender inequality that renders women (and those persons with an ascribed female status) subordinate to men in virtually every society on the planet.

Yet discourses that have attempted to align "indigenous" homosexualities and transgenderisms with European (and increasingly global) ones without any kind of qualification--stating unequivocally, for example, that the Sambia boy-inseminators are "gay," that the Indian hijra and the Albanian sworn virgins are "transgendered"--serve to efface cultural specificity even as they advance a political end.

Recognizing the differences between these persons is necessary in order to advance understanding of the myriad ways in which human gender and sexual relations are constructed worldwide, to understand the interrelation of gender and sexual relations, as well as to avoid stripping or warping a cultural legacy in order to cultivate a beneficial sexual politics.

A very misleading yet widely held belief is that and are all but absent in societies with legitimately "indigenous" homosexual or transgender roles. Not only is this belief frequently untrue, but it also presumes that discrimination against sexual minorities in Western contexts is somehow justified because an "indigenous" homosexual role does not exist in the West.

Yet we should remember that societies with European origins are no less "indigenous" than any others. While the origin and function of such roles may be disputed, European societies also have social roles that encompass and accommodate same-sex sexual behavior and gender role nonconformity, even if they do not always achieve this accommodation in ways that are appealing, humane, or politically aware.

Matthew D. Johnson

  <previous page   page: 1  2    

Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about Social Sciences

   Related Entries
social sciences >> Overview:  Africa: Sub-Saharan, Pre-Independence

With reports from hundreds of sub-Saharan African locales of male-male sexual relations and from about fifty of female-female sexual relations, it is clear that same-sex sexual relations existed in traditional African societies, though varying in forms and in the degree of public acceptance

literature >> Overview:  African Literatures

The treatment of same-sex relationships in African literatures has been influenced by the traditional belief systems of various African societies, the imported views of Christianity and Islam, and the political and legal legacies of European colonialism.

social sciences >> Overview:  Anthropology

Anthropology, the first of the social science disciplines to take sexuality--and particularly homosexuality--seriously as a field of intellectual inquiry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has achieved a new impetus in the post-Stonewall era.

social sciences >> Overview:  Cultural Identities

A growing body of scholarly and other work on Cultural Identities challenges the "naturalness," and even the political necessity, of a unitary gay and lesbian identity.

literature >> Overview:  Ethnography

Ethnography, the description of indigenous non-European peoples by Euro-Americans, has been a safe way for writers to discuss homosexuality as a normal, non-pathological behavior.

social sciences >> Overview:  Ethnography

Beginning in the 1960s increasing numbers of ethnographers have conducted research on glbtq issues, spurred by the premise that studies of diverse sexualities are crucial to understanding human behavior and culture.

social sciences >> Overview:  Etiology

The earliest etiologies--or theories of causation--of homosexuality date from European antiquity, but the search for a universal etiology has intensified as homosexual behavior has come under the scrutiny of science.

social sciences >> Overview:  Homosexuality

The term "homosexuality," coined in 1869, with "heterosexuality" as its opposite, has led to a binary concept that oversimplifies the complexity of human sexual behavior.

social sciences >> Overview:  India

Indian thought towards same-sex eroticism and gender variance was more tolerant in the past than it is today.

social sciences >> Overview:  Indonesia

A great range of non-normative sexualities and genders can be found in the Indonesian archipelago, but the concepts gay and lesbi are Western terms that have been transformed in the Indonesian context.

social sciences >> Overview:  Native Americans

A social role for individuals who crossed or mixed male and female characteristics was one of the most widely distributed institutions of native North America.

social sciences >> Overview:  Pacific Islands

Sexual and gender diversity is widespread throughout the three zones of the Pacific Islands.

social sciences >> Overview:  Transgender

"Transgender" has become an umbrella term representing a political alliance between all gender variant people who do not conform to social norms for typical men and women and who suffer political oppression as a result.

social sciences >> Berdache

Both male and female berdaches (or two-spirit persons), common among Native American tribal cultures, were characterized by gender variation sanctioned by supernatural dreams and visions.

social sciences >> Hijras

The Hijras--men who dress and act like women--have been a presence in India for generations, maintaining a third-gender role that has become institutionalized through tradition.

literature >> Thesiger, Sir Wilfred

Although there is some question as to whether travel writer, explorer, photographer, and cult figure Sir Wilfred Thesiger can be labeled as homosexual, his most powerful emotional ties were with the young male companions of his famous journeys.


Blackwood, Evelyn, ed. Anthropology and Homosexual Behavior. New York: Haworth, 1986.

_____, and Saskia E. Wieringa. Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices across Cultures. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Bleys, Rudi C. The Geography of Perversion: Male-to-Male Sexual Behavior outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination, 1750-1918. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Carrier, Joseph. De los otros: Intimacy and Homosexuality among Mexican Men. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Carrillo, Hector. The Night is Young: Sexuality in Mexico in the Time of AIDS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Elliston, Deborah A. "Erotic Anthropology: 'Ritualized Homosexuality' in Melanesia and Beyond." American Ethnologist 22.4 (1995): 848-67.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. "Sexual Inversion among the Azande." American Anthropologist 72.6 (1970): 1428-34.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume One: An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Gutierrez, Ramon A. "Must We Deracinate Indians To Find Gay Roots?" OUT/Look: National Lesbian and Gay Quarterly 1.4 (1989): 61-67.

Herdt, Gilbert H. Guardians of the Glutes: Idioms of Masculinity. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

_____, ed. Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. New York: Zone Books, 1994.

Hinsch, Bret. Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Kulick, Don. Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Lewin, Ellen, and William L. Leap, eds. Out in Theory: The Emergence of Lesbian and Gay Anthropology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia. 1929. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.

McIntosh, Mary. "The Homosexual Role." Social Problems 16.2 (1968): 182-92.

Murray, Stephen O. Latin American Male Homosexualities. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

_____, and Will Roscoe, eds. Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

_____. Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Nanda, Serena. Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1990.

Parker, Richard. Beneath the Equator: Cultures of Desire, Male Homosexuality, and Emerging Gay Communities in Brazil. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Pflugfelder, Gregory M. Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Prieur, Annick. Mema's House, Mexico City: On Transvestites, Queens, and Machos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Robertson, Jennifer. Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Roscoe, Will. The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Towle, Evan B., and Lynn M. Morgan. "Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the 'Third Gender' Concept." GLQ 8.4 (2002): 469-98.

Trexler, Richard C. Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Weston, Kath. Long Slow Burn: Sexuality and Social Science. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.


    Citation Information
    Author: Johnson, Matthew D.  
    Entry Title: Indigenous Cultures  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated June 22, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


This Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc. is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.