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Two Spirits, Two Sexes, Many Genders


Z Budapest once stirred up strong feelings, ending in a demonstration, by holding a biological-women-only ritual at Pantheacon.  The previous year another group had also excluded trans-women from an all women ritual.  Some people decided it was time to challenge the legitimacy of such practices. It was quite the kerfluffel for a while. I was one of Z’s defenders. 

Since then, more than a little ill-feeling has erupted between some biological women and men and some trans women and men. One group claims only biological women are women and the other that trans-women are as much women as biological women. Representatives on both sides have used abusive language towards the other. It has gotten ugly.

As a straight man, at one level this is not my fight. I am not welcome at either kind of women-only ritual.

But at another it is. It disrupts the Pagan community about which I care deeply, and  reflects what I consider to be a deeply mistaken view of what it is to be a human being, ironically, a mistake with Christian roots.

Native Americans and gender identity

How gender is conceived varies among many different societies.  Amidst this variety, I think we can learn a great deal from Native American societies here in North America.  Many of these societies took a multi-gendered approach to the issues now causing us such difficulties.

Tribal cultures often had members of both biological sexes who felt called upon to take the role of another gender. Unlike our own, they were accepted, and sometimes honored. But acceptance there was different from treating all people as of one gender or another, depending on their personal identification.  I quote from Duane Braboy’s essay “Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders” at Indian Country Today. 

At the point of contact, all Native American societies acknowledged three to five gender roles: Female, male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male and transgendered. LGBT Native Americans wanting to be identified within their respective tribes and not grouped with other races officially adopted the term “Two Spirit” from the Ojibwe language in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1989. Each tribe has their own specific term, but there was a need for a universal term that the general population could understand. The Navajo refer to Two Spirits as Nádleehí (one who is transformed), among the Lakota is Winkté (indicative of a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female), Niizh Manidoowag (two spirit) in Ojibwe, Hemaneh (half man, half woman) in Cheyenne, to name a few. As the purpose of “Two Spirit” is to be used as a universal term in the English language, it is not always translatable with the same meaning in Native languages. For example, in the Iroquois Cherokee language, there is no way to translate the term, but the Cherokee do have gender variance terms for “women who feel like men” and vice versa.

The essay as a whole is worth a read, but for my present purposes what mattered was not your gender identity, but how you contributed to your community. Unlike us, these tribes did not feel constrained to try and fit everyone into two categories. Their thinking was roomier and more insightful.

Today rhetoric on the part of some members of the trans community, who completely identify with the gender into which they have transitioned, has become truly venomous.  At the same time, some biological women and biological men have belittled trans people’s change of gender as skin deep. Writing as a person who knows and respects leading biological women Pagans who deny trans women are ‘really’ women, as well as having some long-term trans acquaintances, and an increasingly good friend who is a trans-man Pagan, let me put what I consider this wise Native American perspective into terms useful for us Euro-Americans.

Complexity times complexity

Masculine and feminine psychological traits (in the broadest sense) exist along a continuum reflecting both innate predispositions and cultural shaping, with no general agreement as to the exact balance of the two.  Whether differences we term “masculine” or “feminine” are environmentally or biologically (or my suspicion, both) shaped, boys grow up with different attitudes than girls. Early socialization is important in shaping how little boys and girls see themselves.

By contrast, biological sex is almost always pretty clearly one or the other. This distinction opens up room for a disjunction between how one identifies psychologically and their biology.

In most cases, being raised as a little girl is very different from being raised as a little boy.  This means a trans-women or trans-man has a qualitatively different set of powerful early childhood experiences shaping them than does a biological woman or man. Being raised as a girl encourages attitudes towards authority, relationships, and their place in society that are very different than is the case with boys. In much of our society this difference is not as great as it once was, but is still far from negligible.

Early feminists spent decades arguing women could be just as good as men, in men’s terms. What I, and many others, call “Second Wave” feminism took this argument a step farther, arguing feminine traits were as good as masculine traits. The first argued women could master patriarchal values as well as men, the second, that those values were one-sided, and feminine values were their equal.

Second wave feminists, who counted among themselves many early women Pagan leaders, focused on supporting women coming into their power as women embracing feminine values.  Many important early covens were Dianic, open to women only. They performed important work in deepening the American NeoPagan community, and connecting it more powerfully with natural processes and the sacredness of the Earth.

Trans women and men have both written about how the dynamics of their interactions changed when they started being treated as their trans gender rather than their original biological one.  On balance men are listened to more than women. Trans-women grew up with male centered expectations, but some of these expectations they once took for granted are now denied due to their change in gender. They are also considered by many biological women as not entirely women, threatening them with life in a place without recognition for who they are.

Perhaps this is why (some) trans-women are attacking biological women who seek to emphasize the distinction between the two whereas, to my knowledge, trans-men, are not making a similar issue about acceptance among biological men.

Energetic issues

I think this difference also extends to some dimensions of subtle energy. Let me explain, before someone jumps down my throat.

I worked for six years in an Afro-Diasporic healing tradition rooted in Brazil, but possessing a significant Buddhist strain as well. The work was basically shamanic- healing through work with spirits as well as with basic forms of energy, or ‘chi’.  Men and women were regarded as equally capable of working with energy and with entities, and the entities themselves manifested as male or female, sometimes without regard to the gender of the person through which they came. One of mine manifests as an old woman, a Preta Velha.

The one difference between work men and women did at the center involved the most intense healings, what some would call exorcisms.  Women were discouraged from deep involvement in such workings. The reason was that, energetically, women were oriented towards taking in energy, such as the spirit of a future child, whereas men were not. Therefore, men were less likely (but hardly immune) to picking up seriously bad energy during such a cleansing.

However, in the absence of a qualified man, women were considered able to do such work. If they did, they were urged to do certain visualizations to protect themselves. The issue here was psychic safety, not the innate ability of women or men.

We KNOW energetic differences exist between people at the individual level, such that many of us will not circle with some people, at least in a small group.  We KNOW energy from a person’s state of mind can impact a group working. Those of us who work frequently with such energy KNOW our focus and emotions shapes the energy we use. It should not be controversial to suggest that biology, childhood socialization, and whether we are shaped to take in energy from elsewhere or not, all can be relevant issues, at least in more specialized rituals.

It follows some rituals are most appropriate for just trans-men or trans-women, some for biological men or women, and some for any other kind of gender mix, depending on its purpose and the energies involved.  This should not seem strange to Pagans with experience in rituals that are more than purely devotional or celebratory.


On a technical note, Max Dashu informed me the Navajo ‘Nádleehi’ refers to men with feminine characteristics, and ‘Dilbaa’ is their equivalent word for masculine women. Nevertheless I think the English term is ideal. As memes, words are alive once they enter the public arena, particularly translations.

As a community, I think we can gain a great deal by learning from many Indian cultures there is nothing sacrosanct about recognizing only two genders.  They have already done the heavy lifting in this regard. Today, I believe no religious community is better situated than we modern Pagans to learn from them, and embrace the full diversity and richness of what it is to be a human being.



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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


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