William’s reading on the Berdache

Williams seeks to understand the role of the berdache in order to understand the reports written by ignorant whites who observed the berdache in their native communities. The whites did not understand the spiritual significance of the berdache; therefore, they misinterpreted their roles within the community. The respect for the berdache can be easily understood through Amerindian views that “everything that exists is a reflection of the spiritual.” Amerindians do not question or ridicule the berdache, because they understand that their existence is a result of the spirits. Furthermore, the admiration of the berdaches stems from the awareness of their unique identity. “If the spirits take such care, such an individual must be especially close to the spirits.” In contrast to Western cultures, which disregard and reject non-normative behaviors, the American Indians considered the trait to be holy. As a result of their distinctive spiritual status, berdaches held significant ceremonial roles, and they were responsible for the well-being of the entire clan. Many sought their guidance for a variety of physical and spiritual ailments. Without this knowledge of the spiritual importance of the berdache, outsiders fail to comprehend the complex dynamics of the community. For example, the power of a berdache frightened many clansmen; therefore, they used jokes and mockery to alleviate the nervousness. Westerners interpret this act of mocking as a form of harassment. However, they are unable to comprehend that the joking is simply a means to assuage fear and tension. “It is the power, based on spiritual origins of berdachism and in the context of ceremonial leadership, in which the respected status of the berdache is rooted.”

It is interesting to note the stark difference in reactions between Western, European cultures and American Indian cultures. We learn at an extremely young age to “point to the thing that does not belong,” and this ideal is maintained through many practices. We are trained to spot ‘irregularities’ and erase them. If something does not fit within the constructs of ‘normality,’ they are identified and rejected immediately. Westerners translate this ideal also to the treatment of human beings. Just as our first-grade teachers applaud us for identifying the block amongst the circles, popular society trains us to reject anyone that does not fit ‘the mold.’ Furthermore, we add humiliation to the rejection. Ignoring someone is not enough; we first make him/her feel as insignificant and worthless as possible. On the other hand, the Amerindians recognized the individuality of the berdaches. They acknowledged a difference, but they did not subjugate these individuals. Instead, they elevated their social status to represent their connectedness to the spiritual world. Members of a berdache’s community sought out their advice because they were more knowledgeable than an average man or woman. Although there was some mockery at the berdache’s expense, it was not their identity at the root of the ridicule; it is anxiety due to the fear of their power and spirituality. Western cultures could learn a lot by studying the perspectives of other cultures.

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