Gender Identity

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Gender Identity

For the most part, our modern mainstream society divides gender into two domains – man and woman, or boys and girls. Many traditional cultures around the world, including many Native American cultures, have not always viewed things in this way. A person who was born of the male sex was not automatically seen as a boy and a person born as a female was not automatically viewed as a girl.


Genders were based on societal and cultural roles, and often there were more than just two. A person might be identified as a man, a woman, or another gender blending both men’s and women’s roles. Sometimes gender was not assigned until more was known about the child’s personality. At that time, the child could be identified as belonging to any one of the possible genders recognized in their culture.


In a similar way, intimate relationships were not always limited to men and women. In other words, sex and relationships were not always limited by assigned gender. This way of seeing the world allowed for people to be true to their nature, as well as benefiting the Tribe or culture.

Special Roles

Other gendered people often had special roles that were just for them. Instead of people being shunned for their differences, the differences were appreciated and each individual had a place in society and a way to contribute. They often had specific names for their assigned gender roles. They were revered leaders, medicine people, Tribal representatives in negotiations, and conducted specific ceremonial roles. If you are interested in your specific Tribe or culture, you might ask an elder or someone from your Tribe who today identifies as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or Two-Spirit. There are also many books published on this topic.

Sexual Orientation Glossary

Many Americans refrain from talking about sexual orientation and gender expression identity because it feels taboo, or because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. This Sexual Orientation Glossary was written to help give people the words and meanings to help make conversations easier and more comfortable.

Two-Spirit Reference Books

Two-Spirit People: American Indian Lesbian Women and Gay Men. Lester B. Brown, PhD, Editor. Harrington Park Press An Imprint of The Haworth, Inc., New York, London 1997. ISBN: 1-56023-089-4

Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. Will Roscoe, St. Martin’s Press, New York 1998. ISBN: 0-312-22479-6

The Zuni Man-Woman. Will Roscoe, University of New Mexico Press 1991. ISBN: 0-8263-1370-1

Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Will Roscoe, Editor. St. Martin’s Press, New York 1988. ISBN: 0-312-30224-x

The Spirit and The Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Walter L. Williams. Beacon Press 1991, ISBN-10: 0807046159. ISBN-13: 978-0807046159

Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Sue-Ellen Jacobs (Editor), Wesley Thomas (Editor), Sabine Lang (Editor). University of Illinois Press 1997. ISBN-10: 0252066456 ISBN-13: 978-0252066450

Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. Brian Joseph Gilley. University of Nebraska Press 2006. ISBN-10: 0803271263 ISBN-13: 978-0803271265

Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization. Scott Lauria Morgensen. University of Minnesota Press 2011. ISBN: 978-0816656325

Special Thanks:

  • Tommy Chesboro
  • Tony Aaron Fuller
  • Hannabah Blue

Many articles in this section were adapted from, a website for Native Youth by Native Youth