In Indigenous communities of North America (Canada and United States), before the time of European rule, four genders were recognized in their social structure, which translated, combine the English terms that reference gender as well as sex; the feminine woman, the masculine man, the feminine man and the masculine woman. The latter two of this list would be those considered ‘two spirited’. In this organization of society it is the identification feminine and masculine that codes the individual’s role in society, not the physical sex.
The ‘two spirited’ people were highly regarded as important people in society because they were thought to be able to view the world through the eyes of both males and females. It was also thought they had a greater sensuality, meaning all five senses were heightened and many identified these third/fourth gendered people as having an innate creativity. For this reason ‘two spirited’ people were coded into historical indigenous societies as healers, intuitives, and teachers of orphans-in general, individuals of power.
To be deemed a ‘two spirit’ a variety of rituals (determined by the specific tribe) must take place when a child is first noted to be sexually deviant of the first two genders recognized in society. Only after the rituals are passed and the elders give permission is the ‘two spirit’ status awarded. However, once awarded this status, the entire tribe is accepting and fully acknowledge this status. One of these rituals consisted of a ‘man’s’ bow and a ‘woman’s’ basket in the middle of a circle. The circle would then be set on fire and the child would be told to run in and grab one item; whichever item the child chose to save would be how he/she would be raised and how they would contribute to society. It is important to note that this differs from homosexuality in that a man or a woman who is homosexual still takes the roles of their physical sex, where the ‘two spirited’ people take the roles of the gender they have chosen to identify with.
To illustrate how this would look in practice I am going to present some examples I have come across during my research. The first of which is one less discussed in transgender research, the masculine woman. A masculine woman contributes to society as a man, often taking a wife, and is not expected to have a relationship with a man to produce an offspring, because they contribute in other ways such as ‘military like’ positions. Furthermore the feminine man acts in society as a woman, wearing woman’s clothing, taking on care-taker positions and often takes a husband but is not expected to. Note that this is not rigid and that this can vary across First Nations societies. For example in some societies the biological masculine qualities of a feminine man would still be embraced, such as strength, however, in other societies the biological masculine qualities were overshadowed by over exaggerated feminine qualities such as face painting, braided hair and jewelry.
The historical organization of First Nations peoples gives a very unique insight into how possible societies in the future could organize themselves in a way that takes into account the identity of each individual. For many western cultures the binary of male/female gender is a way of coding the population into roles thought to be beneficial to the common interest of society. The belief in the nuclear family has been used to justify this binary and simultaneously suppress the natural identities of many transgender, third gendered or ‘two spirited’ people. A look at the First Nations fluidity towards gender is valuable for pursuing the main goal of sociologists, a goal I think is summed up the best in a quote, to find the general in the peculiar and the strange in the familiar (source of quote can be found in references below).