( 2 ) The Americas
Well-organized civilizations and tribes existed throughout the Americas for thousands of years prior to their discovery by European explorers. Scandinavian Vikings first reached the North American continent in the eleventh century but were unable to establish a lasting presence. Spain’s Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) rediscovered the Americas at the end of the fifteenth century and a flurry of military, commercial and religious expeditions quickly followed. Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England all took part in the massive grab for American land, resources and souls.
Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers were quick to notice the homosexual and transgender behavior unabashedly practiced by many of the American natives. After his exploration of the Veracruz region of eastern Mexico, conquistador Hernando Cortes (1485-1547) informed King Carlos V of Spain: “We know and have been informed without room for doubt that all [Veracruz natives] practice the abominable sin of sodomy.” Fellow conquistador and historian Bernal Diaz del Castillo similarly noted sodomy among the nobles: “The sons of chiefs,” he wrote, “did not take women, but followed the bad practices of sodomy.” Detailed reports written during Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas in western South America (Peru) described crossdressing and homosexuality among native priests as follows: “The devil has introduced his vice under the pretense of sanctity. And in each important temple or house of worship, they have a man or two, or more, depending on the idol, who go dressed in women’s attire from the time they are children, and speak like them, and in manner, dress, and everything else they imitate women. With them especially the chiefs and headmen have carnal, foul intercourse on feast days and holidays, almost like a religious rite and ceremony.” Similar reports of “hermaphrodite” natives among the indigenous tribes of Mexico, South America, Florida and the West Indies evoked great curiosity back in Spain. Eager to investigate, Spanish writer and traveler Francisco Coreal set out for Florida in 1669. Once there, he discovered a class of effeminate boys who lived with the women, made their same handiworks, wore particular feathers and served the native tribesmen in various ways that included sodomy. Coreal wrote: “I believe that these hermaphrodites are none other than the effeminate boys, that in a sense truly are hermaphrodites.”
In the West Indies and much of Central and South America, gender-variant behavior was observed by early Spanish and Portuguese explorers but not well studied, mostly because the native populations were quickly devastated by war and disease. Nevertheless, many descriptions of third-gender beliefs can be found throughout the region, particularly within the Aztec and Maya cultures. All Native American civilizations were polytheistic and worshiped a wide range of gods, goddesses, and nature spirits. Third-gender natives especially honored Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of spring and sexuality, who is associated with same-sex attraction, crossdressing and various types of arts and crafts. In one popular narration, Xochiquetzal transforms herself into a barren hermaphrodite after being raped by Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec god of nighttime and illusion. In another story, the goddess assumes a male form known as Xochipilli, who was especially worshiped by homosexual natives and presided over flowers, art, dance, music, perfume and shamanic trance. Aztec rituals often included homosexual acts as a way of communing with the gods, and Aztec cosmology described four ages—the previous of which was said to be marked by a prevalence of peace, artistry and homosexual relations. Masculine-type lesbians were known as patlacheh and often joined Aztec men in battle. The male warriors were famous for their brutal combat and regularly sodomized defeated soldiers as a celebration of their victory. Prostitution was also common in Aztec society and handsome, teenaged boys were especially valued. Among the Maya, homosexuality was associated with Chin, a dwarfish nature spirit. In Mayan narratives, Chin introduced homoeroticism to the nobles and allowed them to take handsome youths from lower class families to serve as partners for their sons. These early Mesoamerican same-sex unions were a type of marriage among the Maya and recognized under tribal law.
One famous Spanish conquistador, Catalina de Erauso (1585-1650), was actually a woman who left her life as a Basque nun to become a soldier in the New World. Granted permission by the Roman Church to dress as a man, Erauso fought valiantly against the natives of western South America and was celebrated for her heroic military service. The Roman Church launched brutal Inquisitions throughout Latin America during the first few centuries of colonial rule wherein homosexual behavior was severely punished with fines, religious penance, public humiliation, floggings, imprisonment and death. In 1575, Spain’s King Philip II issued an edict sparing indigenous natives from the torture, declaring them incapable of good reason. During the mid-seventeenth century, Inquisition authorities uncovered a network of sodomites in Mexico City and reported the “abomination” to Spain. From 1656-1663, hundreds of homosexuals were consequently executed during a well-publicized effort to purge Mexico of sodomy. The convicted homosexuals were marched to San Lazaro, garroted in public and their dead bodies burned. During the same time period in Cuba, the ruling Spanish Captain General sentenced twenty “effeminate” sodomites to death by burning. Cuban homosexuals and prostitutes were also exiled to Cayo Cruz, a small island in Havana Bay commonly known as Cayo Puto or “Island of the Faggots.” Similar disparaging attitudes toward homosexuals were expressed in a 1791 Havana newspaper article entitled “A Critical Letter About The Man-Woman,” which condemned the effeminate sodomites that apparently thrived in eighteenth-century Havana.
In the early nineteenth century, Inquisitions were ended and many Latin American countries achieved independence from Europe. Both Spain and Portugal eliminated sodomy laws during this time and a majority of Latin American nations followed suit. Brazil, for instance, gained independence from Portugal in 1822 and decriminalized sodomy eight years later under Emperor Dom Pedro I. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 but was briefly occupied by France for five years, from 1862-1867. Under French rule, the Napoleonic Code was adopted in Mexico and sodomy was consequently decriminalized. Both Costa Rica and Guatemala abolished their sodomy laws during the 1870s. Modern homosexual subcultures began appearing in large Latin American cities in the early 1900s and by the end of the century, nearly all countries had repealed their sodomy laws. In some nations, laws against homosexuality were temporarily reinstated by dictators but then later repealed. One of the last major Latin American countries to repeal its sodomy laws was Chile, in 1998.
Sodomy laws or not, homosexual and transgender people remained stigmatized and persecuted throughout much of Latin America. Effeminate men were often despised in the male-oriented, Latin culture and harassed by officials under contrived charges, a phenomenon that continues up to this day in certain regions. Nations retaining their sodomy laws included Guyana, Nicaragua and several Caribbean island nations such as Trinidad and Tobago. Guyana punished sodomy with up to life imprisonment and Trinidad and Tobago prescribed ten to twenty years. Both of these countries had large East Indian populations and their sodomy laws were mostly vestiges of early British rule. Nicaragua, which previously had no sodomy laws, criminalized homosexuality in 1992 under pressure from Christian political groups. The Nicaraguan law also prohibited public support for homosexuality but was rarely followed or enforced.
In the Caribbean, Brazil and American Southeast, descendants of African slaves established a significant presence and introduced traditional African practices such as Voodoo and Santeria into the region. In these religious cults, female head priestesses, crossdressing priests and homoerotic rituals were not only common but also similar in many ways to indigenous Native American practices. A majority of African-Americans, however, converted to Christianity and harbored a great deal of animosity for homosexual and transgender people, particularly in the Caribbean region. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the British Caribbean islands were among the most hostile while the Spanish islands were predominantly closeted and the Dutch, guardedly tolerant. Some of the last Caribbean islands to decriminalize sodomy were Cuba (1979), the U.S. Virgin Islands (1984), Bermuda (1994), the Cayman and British Virgin Islands (2001), and Puerto Rico (2003). Caribbean islands retaining sodomy laws included St. Lucia (twenty-five years imprisonment), Antigua and Barbuda (fourteen years imprisonment), Jamaica (ten years of hard labor), Barbados, and Grenada. In the Bahamas, public sex was legal for heterosexuals but punished by up to twenty years in prison for homosexuals.
On the island of Hispaniola, sodomy was decriminalized under European rule in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti but homosexual and transgender people remained harassed, just as they were in neighboring Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Female-to-male intersex conditions were relatively common in the Dominican Republic and locally known as guevedoche or “penis at twelve.” This well-studied condition, also called pseudo-hermaphroditism (steroid 5-alpha reductase deficiency), is found on certain islands and isolated jungle areas around the world. Infants born with this syndrome are commonly mistaken for and raised as female; however, they are chromosomally male and develop as such (sometimes only partially) upon reaching puberty. One of the earliest known cases of pseudo-hermaphroditism in America is that of Thomasine Hall, who was born and christened a girl in England but began dressing as a man at age twenty-two. Hall joined the English army for several years and then later moved to America, where she reassumed her original female identity. This caught the attention of colonial authorities, however, and the questionable woman was summoned before an American court in 1629. Upon examination, Thomasine Hall was found to have fully developed male organs and a baffled court subsequently ordered her to dress partly as a man and partly as a woman.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Latin America was predominantly Roman Catholic and a majority of its nations were quietly tolerant of homosexual and transgender people. Gay communities flourished in large cities such as Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Buenos Aires, and civil rights protections—along with some legal recognition for gay couples—were enacted in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. In 2008 Uruguay became the first Latin American country to enact civil unions for gay couples, and in 2010 Argentina was the first to legalize same-sex marriage.
In North America, settlers from England and France became prominent during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although indigenous native tribes were quickly decimated in the East, those west of the Appalachian Mountains survived longer and were well-documented by Euro-American settlers. Seventeenth-century French explorers in both Quebec and the Mexican Gulf region noticed a class of crossdressing, homosexual natives and coined the term berdache to describe them. Berdache is of Arabic origin and refers to a young homosexual partner. The word has since become derogatory and most Native Americans now prefer the traditional term “two-spirit,” which refers to tribal members with both male and female spirits or natures. Although French and English records of North American tribes describe Native American culture in great detail, two-spirit natives were typically mentioned only in brief or disparaging terms. Nevertheless, two-spirit traditions have been documented (and in some cases, photographed) in nearly 150 indigenous North American tribes and societies. In roughly half of these, female counterparts were also reported that lived and dressed as men. Included among the tribes were the Seminole, Navajo, Mohave, Crow, Zuni, Pueblo, Hopi, Kutenai, Blackfeet, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, western Algonquian and nearly half of the thirty-five tribes living along the Pacific Northwest. Two-spirit natives comprised a distinct social class within most of these tribal communities; for example, among the Hidatsa of the northern Plains, two-spirits were observed at no less than fifteen to twenty a village and typically pitched their tipis together in a group.
Native American tribes used a wide variety of names for their two-spirit brethren. The Mohave of the American Southwest, for example, called two-spirit men “alyha” and two-spirit women “hwame.” In most Native American societies, two-spirit men were assigned a semi-sacred status and often served as shamans or ceremonial dancers. In battle, two-spirit men were commonly put in charge of bringing food and ammunition to the male warriors while two-spirit women often undertook a man’s lifestyle and actively participated in the fighting and hunting expeditions. Many of the two-spirit men were transgender—they lived among the women and excelled in all their tasks—but were not known to practice castration. Both two-spirit men and women crossdressed or wore specific types of clothing and feathers, and their engagement in homosexual behavior was accepted by their fellow tribesmen. One of the best-known American two-spirits is We’wha (1849-1896), a celebrated Zuni shaman who was invited to Washington D.C. in 1886 and subsequently honored, photographed and widely discussed. We’wha’s ambiguous gender and sexuality created a sensation among Washington’s elite and the two-spirit was dined at the White House and introduced to U.S. President Grover Cleveland.
Native Americans practiced a polytheistic religion worshiping many different gods and nature spirits. Euro-Americans, however, had little interest in the pagan beliefs of Native Americans and were mostly condescending of their tribal practices. By the late 1900s, a majority of tribal descendants had converted to Christianity and abandoned their traditional beliefs. Euro-American culture, on the other hand, moved in a contrary direction. Homosexuality was punishable by death in early colonial America and one of the first known executions for sodomy occurred in Dutch-ruled New Amsterdam (now New York). In 1646, Jan Creoli was convicted of a second offense of sodomy, condemned in the name of God, choked to death and then “burned to ashes.” In 1660, another trial in the same colony convicted Jan Quisthout van der Linde of sodomy with a servant. The servant was flogged while Quisthout van der Linde was tied into a sack, thrown in a river and drowned. In 1674, the English took permanent control of the New Amsterdam colony and renamed it New York. Sodomy laws prescribing the death penalty were continued under English rule and validated by Biblical references from the Old Testament. When the United States of America was established after gaining independence from England in 1776, homosexuality and crossdressing were strictly prohibited and sodomy was punishable by death in nearly every American state. The laws mostly served as a public declaration against homosexual behavior and were only occasionally brought to trial. Shortly after Independence, American states replaced the death penalty for homosexuality with long prison sentences that remained in effect throughout the nineteenth century. In 1850s California, for example, a convicted homosexual could be sentenced from five years to life in prison. While most Latin American countries followed Spain and Portugal by decriminalizing sodomy in the 1800s, English-speaking nations such as the United States, Canada and many Caribbean islands mirrored Britain and kept their sodomy laws intact well into the twentieth century. As a result, all nineteenth-century homosexuals in North America were closeted and lived highly secretive lives. One prime example of this is the United State’s own fifteenth president, James Buchanan (1857-1861), who is widely believed to have been homosexual. As the nation’s only bachelor president, Buchanan never married but shared a home in Washington D.C. with his longtime friend, William King, for sixteen years prior to his presidency. The two were often slighted as homosexual in political circles and King in particular was referred to as “Miss Nancy” or as Buchanan’s “wife” and “better half.”
In the early 1900s, homosexuality came to be viewed more as a psychopathic illness and prison terms were reduced in many states. Homosexual subcultures had existed in large American cities since the early nineteenth century but became increasingly prominent after World War II, when the United States emerged as a modern superpower. In 1948, Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey’s groundbreaking book, Sexual Behavior In The Human Male (The Kinsey Report), created a sensation in conservative America and brought the taboo subject of homosexuality up for debate. In 1950, America’s first homosexual organization, The Mattachine Society, was founded in New York City and in 1952, Christine Jorgensen became America’s first modern transsexual after returning home from a sex-change operation in Denmark. In 1956, beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) crossed censorship lines by publishing Howl, a book celebrating his homosexuality. The first U.S. state to decriminalize sodomy was Illinois in 1962 and others gradually followed. In 1969, homosexual riots broke out at the Stonewall Inn in New York City as a response to routine police harassment, marking the beginning of the modern gay movement. Sodomy laws had long been used by authorities to stigmatize and harass homosexual citizens in the U.S. and most states were extremely reluctant to abolish them. In 1975, for example, the California legislature just barely managed to repeal its sodomy laws by a single vote. In New York, sodomy laws were ruled unconstitutional by the state court in 1980 but not formally repealed until twenty years later.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, many educated Americans began viewing homosexuality and transgender identity as primarily innate and biological. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental and emotional disorders and two years later the American Psychological Association followed suit. In 1981, HIV/AIDS was diagnosed for the first time among American homosexual males. The disease initially fueled homophobia but also prompted many gay men to reconsider their promiscuous behavior and move toward committed, monogamous relationships and marriage. Wisconsin was the first state to outlaw discrimination against homosexuals in 1982 and Minnesota was the first to ban discrimination against transgenders in 1993. That same year, the Intersex Society of North America was formed to provide support for intersex individuals. In the 1950s, American doctors began performing sex-assignment operations on intersex infants that often caused severe physical and psychological trauma later in life. The ISNA was established to promote a more natural and accepting approach toward intersexuality and to abolish all unnecessary surgery and stigma.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States of America was a predominantly conservative, Christian nation but mostly tolerant of homosexual and transgender people. Modern gay communities, some of the largest in the world, thrived in cities such as San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Miami. In 2000, Vermont was the first state to grant civil unions for gay couples and in 2003, the United States Supreme Court invalidated all U.S. sodomy laws (173 years after Brazil and 212 years after France). Remarkably, nearly a dozen states still had various laws against homosexuality in their books at the time of the ruling. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage and the issue was hotly debated nationwide. Several Christian and Jewish denominations began including gays in their congregations, blessing their unions and allowing them to serve as priests, but most major denominations remained strongly opposed to homosexuality. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court repealed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and legalized same-sex marriage nationwide one year later.
Canada gained independence from Great Britain in 1867. Sodomy laws were inherited from Britain but no death sentences were ever recorded. Canadians were flogged for homosexuality until 1894, after which prison terms of up to fifteen years were meted out instead. Canada repealed its sodomy laws in 1969 and five years later, Chris Vogel and Rich North, a gay couple from Winnipeg, shocked the world by becoming the first homosexual couple to publicly marry in a church and file a legal challenge (a Manitoba judge declared their marriage invalid later that year). In 1986, equal rights and freedom from discrimination were guaranteed to homosexuals and transgenders under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The new charter allowed Canada, in 2005, to become the first country in the New World and the fourth overall to legalize same-sex marriage. In the early twenty-first century, gay and transgender communities thrived in large Canadian cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
[Continued in Part 3...]