Texas's Anti-Transgender Policies Erase the State's Indigenous Transgender HistoryRoundup
tags: colonialism, Texas, Native American history, transgender
Gregory D. Smithers is professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, a British Academy global professor, based with the Treatied Spaces Research Cluster at University of Hull and the author of Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal & Sovereignty in Native America.
A Texas judge will decide whether to block the enforcement of Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) directive and Attorney General Ken Paxton’s (R) legal opinion labeling gender-affirming medical care for transgender children as child abuse. In addition to directly investigating families over gender-affirming medical care, Texas has also called for “members of the general public” to report the parents of transgender children suspected of seeking such care.
Texas’s targeting of LGBTQ communities, especially trans people, comes amid a torrent of similar efforts, including in Alabama, Iowa, Idaho and Indiana. The Human Rights Campaign is tracking “147 anti-LGBTQ bills across the country, including 73 explicitly anti-trans bills.”
In Texas, however, anti-transgender lawmakers are swimming against a tide of history that predates European colonization. This history of Texas is in no small measure a transgender Indigenous history. It is also a rich and inclusive historical narrative unlike anything learned by generations of Texas schoolchildren. This history is critical to recognizing the colonial antecedents of anti-trans violence and their connection to anti-trans lawmaking and violence today.
In the centuries before European colonialism upended life in Texas, Native Americans lived in societies that included children with fluid gender identities. They were neither male nor female, but both. Throughout the Southwest, Indigenous children with fluid gender identities were nurtured and grew to become important members of kinship communities.
In West Texas, Apache communities included individuals known as Nde’isdzan, which means “man-woman.” Farther south, the Karankawa, whose homeland abutted the coastline at Galveston Bay, embraced people referred to as Monaguia, a term for a transgender person who was assigned a male identity. All along the Gulf Coast, gender-fluid people occupied important roles as knowledge keepers, medicine people and spiritual leaders.
In the 1560s, the French artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues claimed that he saw Native American men dressed in female clothing and performing work he assumed was female labor. He described these people as “hermaphrodites” — a dismissive and offensive term that did a disservice to the important social responsibilities they performed. According to Le Moyne, these individuals tended to the burial needs of recently deceased warriors. Throughout eastern North America, funerary rites carried enormous religious significance. Only spiritual leaders possessing highly specialized skills and knowledge carried out such rites. This is what Le Moyne observed — spiritual leaders, who we today would recognize as transgender, performing a sacred responsibility. Many Indigenous communities considered it a sign of a healthy society for such people to carry out these roles, to mediate between the worlds of the living and the dead and to help community members bridge disagreements or overcome social challenges.