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Left-Handed Bears and Androgynous Cassowaries

In 1986, Canadian zoologist Marc Cattet made an extraordinary discovery: the presence of significant numbers of wild hermaphrodite grizzly, black, and polar bears. These "masculinized females" have the internal reproductive anatomy of a female combined with portions of the external genitals of a male, including a "penis-like" organ. As many as 10 to 20 percent of the bears in some populations may spontaneously exhibit this phenomenon. Such individuals are able to reproduce, and most adult hermaphrodite bears are actually females that successfully raise cubs. In fact, the reproductive canal in some extends through the "phallus" rather than forming a vagina, so that the female actually mates and gives birth through the tip of her "clitoris/penis." Even more remarkably, these animals seem to offer striking confirmation of a number of traditional indigenous beliefs?most notably the mythic gender-mixing "Bear Mother" that occurs in some Native American cultures.

To reflect these new observations on sexual and gender variability, new words and terms are emerging. "Transgender" refers to the combining, crossing over, or blurring of gender or sexual characteristics as defined by anatomy, physiology, or culture. Transgender phenomena include: intersexuality (in the past called "hermaphroditism," in which physiological and/or anatomical sex characteristics of both males and females are present); transsexuality (natural or willed sex change during the lifespan of an individual); transvestism (mimicry of the opposite sex in appearance or behavior); and gender mixing (the linguistic combination of gender signifiers that are "opposite" to each other).

The veritable profusion of different kinds of intersexuality has stimulated a baroque scientific terminology. Fanciful-sounding names like chimera, freemartin, mosaic, and gynandromorph are actually the technical terms used by biologists to designate animals with various types of chromosomally and anatomically mixed male and female features. One particularly astonishing type, the gynandromorph, is a creature that appears to be literally divided in half, one side (usually the right) male in appearance, the other side female, often with a sharp line of demarcation between the sides. This occurs in, among other animals, butterflies, spiders, birds, and small mammals.

Various types of sexual and gender variability have been documented in more than 470 species of animals. Yet zoologists have consistently reacted to these phenomena with a mixture of incredulity, confusion, and even outright hostility. Sexual and gender variance in animals are routinely described with words such as "aberrant," "unnatural," "bizarre," "inappropriate"?even, in extreme cases, "perverse," "immoral," or "criminal" (mirroring attitudes toward human homosexuality/transgender in the wider culture). Cattet himself characterized the intersexual bears as "abnormal," and scientists frequently attempt to pathologize homosexuality and transgender?for example, by ascribing them to the presence of "pollutants" in the environment even when there is no evidence for such.

To Western science, homosexual (used here to mean same-sex courtship and mating in both human and nonhuman animals) and transgender occurrences are above all anomalies that require some sort of "explanation" or "cause" or "rationale." In contrast, in many indigenous cultures around the world, homosexual and transgender components of both the human and nonhuman worlds are routine and expected. The sporadic attention devoted to homosexual/transgendered (H/T) animals by Western science spans a little over two centuries, while aboriginal cultures have accumulated a vast storehouse of knowledge about the natural world?including the sexual and gender systems of animals?over a period of thousands of years.

Indigenous knowledge is not a mere curiosity, nor does it represent some pristine, romanticized, "noble savage" view of nature. It is often based on systematic observation, and can serve as a genuinely useful tool for expanding our concepts of sexual and gender possibilities.

Indigenous knowledge of animal sexuality and gender is encoded:

(1) linguistically, in symbols and totemic associations of animals with homosexual/

transgendered individuals, clans, or special activities;

(2) in some stories, prayers, and songs told within the tribe, many featuring unique animal-persons as characters and divinities;

(3) in some rituals, ceremonies, and daily practices connected to fertility, growth, and the transcendence of male/female categorical differences;

(4) in observations of animals, especially by herders, hunters, and specialists in the sacred who then translate these observations into the narratives and spiritual values of the tribe.

Many Native American tribes formally recognize homosexual and transgendered humans in the role of the "two-spirit" person (sometimes known as a "berdache"). The two-spirit is a man or woman who mixes gender categories by wearing clothes of the opposite or both sexes, doing both male and female (or primarily "opposite-gender") activities, and often engaging in same-sex relations. Two-spirit transvestite and homosexual roles are recognized (or occurred historically) in more than 150 different tribes. When honored in these cultures, H/T individuals, two-spirit people, are frequently shamans, healers, or intermediaries in their communities, performing religious and/or mediating functions (between the sexes, or between the human, animal, and spirit realms).

Animals are often symbolically associated with two-spiritedness, sometimes in creation myths and origin legends relating to the first or "supernatural" two-spirits. Among the Oto people of North America, for example, Elk is described as cross-dressing in several origin legends and is considered to be the original two-spirit; consequently, two-spirits in this culture always belong to the Elk clan. Hidatsa two-spirit "men" typically wear magpie feathers in their hair as part of ceremonial dress, symbolizing their connection to powerful holy women who are associated with magpies.

Bears play an important role in Native American cultures with regard to gender-mixing and inter-species sex. In a number of cultures that recognize two-spirit roles?the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Kutenai, Keres, and Winnebago, for instance?the bear is seen as a powerful cross-gendered figure. In these tribes, bears are thought to combine elements of both masculinity and femininity, and they are also seen as mediators (much like the human two-spirit) between the sexes and between humans and animals. Their strength, size, and ferocity are considered quintessentially male, yet all bears are often perceived as female and referred to with feminine pronouns and terms of address regardless of their biological sex. Many of the prominent bear stories and ceremonies concern female bears, especially the omnipotent, life-giving "Bear Mother" figure who often engages in mythic marriage to, sexual intercourse with, or transformation into, humans.

In many tribes there appears a fascinating association between (of all things) left-handed bears and two-spiritedness. Strikingly, most bears of both (biological) sexes are thought by these tribes to be left-handed?a quality traditionally associated with the feminine in these cultures?and bear rites often require ceremonial activities to be performed with the left hand. In the Nuu-chah-nulth culture of Vancouver Island, for example, bear hunters eat with their left hands in order to identify with their prey, since bears are believed to reach for bait with their left paws. In tales told by contemporary Nuu-chah-nulth artist and storyteller George Clutesi, Chims-meet the Bear swats salmon with his left paw while his mother picks berries with her left paw. Left-handedness is even encoded in the structure of language: when speaking Nuu-chah-nulth, special affixes can be added to words to indicate that a left-handed person is talking or is being referred to. This "left-handed speech" is also typical of bears speaking in myths, stories, and jokes.

Many Native American tales, especially those involving a prankish trickster-transformer, depict characters and divinities as transvestites or transsexuals, or as inter-species, inter-sex, or same-sex enthusiasts. A male coyote may marry or have sex with a male mountain lion, fox, or other animal?sometimes even with a man?often by changing sex, mixing gender characteristics, or pretending to be a member of the opposite sex. In the Okanagan story "Coyote, Fox, and Panther," for instance, Coyote tricks a panther (mountain lion) into marrying him by pretending to be female. The presence of two-spirits is considered to have been decreed by Coyote in the Okanagan mythic past.

Two-spirit is still a living tradition among some First Nation writers and musicians. There is a continuing depiction of homosexual and transgendered animals in the stories, life narratives, and poetry of these contemporary Native Americans. Mohawk two-spirit writer Beth Brant, for instance, gives the trickster theme a gender spin in her tale "Coyote Learns a New Trick." A female coyote tries to fool a female fox into sleeping with her by dressing up as a man; the joke is on Coyote, however, because Fox only pretends to be duped, and the two end up making love without any disguises. In "Coyote and Tehoma," Daniel-Harry Steward of the Wintu nation offers a poetic account of love between a male coyote and Tehoma, the handsome male "god of the smoking mountain." In this fable, the howling of wild coyotes is attributed to the heartbreak of their mythic ancestor, Coyote, who calls forlornly to his male lover after Tehoma has been changed into the stars. For contemporary two-spirits Terry Tafoya (Taos/Warm Springs), Doyle Robertson (Dakota), Beth Brant, and Richard Markishtum (Makah), creatures such as the dragonfly, hawk, heron, salmon, and gray whale are powerful spirit-guides and allies.

A trickster-like figure can play a central role in same-sex enactments during ceremonies. Among the Mandan (a Siouan people of North Dakota), a spectacular religious festival known as the Okipa was held annually for at least five centuries (until the late 1800s) to ensure the success of the buffalo hunt and to dramatize Mandan cosmology. The festival culminates with male dancers dressed as bison bulls and a clown-like figure called Okehéede. Adorned with a buffalo tail and pelt, and wielding an enormous wooden phallus, Okehéede simulates anal intercourse with the male bison by mounting them from behind "in the attitude of a buffalo bull in rutting season." He erects and inserts his wooden phallus under each dancer's animal hide, even imitating the characteristic thrusting leap that bison make when ejaculating. The Mandan believe that this ceremonial homosexuality helps ensure the return of the buffalo in the coming season.

Native American rites and beliefs about sexual and gender diversity sometimes extend to animal husbandry. The Navajo, for example, after obtaining livestock from the Spanish in the 1500s, became consummate shepherds and goat herders. Traditionally, hermaphrodite sheep and goats have been considered integral and prized members of the Navajo's flock, since they are thought to increase the other animals' productivity and bring prosperity. For this reason they are never killed, and their presence is further encouraged by several ritual practices. Or when Navajo hunters kill an intersexual deer, pronghorn, or mountain sheep, for instance, they rub its genitals on their domesticated herd animals, as this is believed to result in more hermaphrodite sheep and goats being born into the flocks. In addition, rennet from the stomachs of intersexual animals is rubbed on sheep to increase their growth and milk production.

Not all this attention to sexual and gender variability is confined to North America. Various animals are symbolically and ceremonially associated with homosexuality in the cultures of New Guinea and Melanesia. Among the Sambia, for instance, boys and adolescents wear the plumes of several birds, including the Raggiana's bird of paradise and the kalanga parrot, to mark their various stages of homosexual initiation. (All males undergo a period of homosexual initiation from pre-puberty to young adulthood: semen from adult men is considered to be a vital substance for "masculinizing" boys, and therefore adults "inseminate" younger males through oral or anal intercourse.) Among the Ai'i people, two men publicize their homosexual bond by sharing a bird of paradise totem, which also connotes the joint land-holding rights of the male couple.

Perhaps the most extraordinary example of beliefs about ambiguous or variable genders in animals concerns the cassowary. A large, flightless, ostrich-like bird of New Guinea and northern Australia, the cassowary is considered by many New Guinean peoples to be an androgynous or gender-mixing creature. This bird possesses many of the physical attributes of strength, audacity, and ferocity traditionally considered masculine. Yet numerous New Guinean cultures also consider the cassowary to be an all-female species (or each bird to be simultaneously male and female), and often associate them with culturally feminine elements.

The Sambia, for instance, consider all cassowaries to be "masculinized females," that is, biologically female birds that nevertheless lack a vagina and possess masculine attributes (they're thought to reproduce or "give birth" through the anus). Over a dozen cultures elevate the cassowary to a preeminent position as a generative figure, a powerful female creator of food and human life. And in a striking parallel to the gender-mixed bear figure of some Native American cultures, the androgynous cassowary is also considered to be an intermediary of sorts, between the animal and human worlds.

The gender-mixing cassowary reaches its greatest elaboration among the Bimin-Kuskusmin people. In this remote tribe of the central New Guinea highlands, the cassowary presides over an entire pantheon of androgynous and sex-transforming animals. At the pinnacle stands the creator Afek, the masculinized female cassowary, and her brother/son/consort Yomnok, a feminized male fruit bat or echidna (a spiny anteater, an egg-laying mammal related to the platypus). Both are believed to be hermaphrodites possessing breasts and a combined penis-clitoris. Afek gives birth through two vaginas (one in each buttock), while Yomnok gives birth through his/her penis-clitoris.

The Bimin-Kuskusmin elect certain people to become the sacred representatives of these primordial creatures, ritually re-enacting and displaying the intersexuality of their animal ancestors for the duration of their lives. Two post-menopausal female elders are chosen to represent Afek: they undergo male scarification rituals, experience symbolic veiling or dissolution of their marriages and separation from their children, adhere to combined male and female food taboos, receive male names, and are given both males' and females' hunting and gardening tools. During ceremonies?in which they are sometimes referred to as "male mothers"?they ornament themselves with cassowary plumes and often cross-dress in male regalia or wear exaggerated breasts combined with an erect penis-clitoris made of red pandanus fruit. Actual intersexual or hermaphrodite members of the tribe are selected to be the embodiments of Yomnok: they are adorned with echidna quills or dried fruit bat penises, wear both male and female clothing and body decorations, sport an erect penis-clitoris (made from black salt-filled bamboo tubes) during rituals, and are lifelong celibates.

These human representatives of the primal animal androgynes become highly revered and powerful. They apply their sacred double-gendered power in various rites and officiate at ceremonies that require the esoteric manipulation of both male and female essences. Above all, these transgendered and nonreproductive "animal-people" are symbols of fertility, fecundity, and growth?corporeal manifestations of what one cassowary man/woman calls "the hidden secret of androgyny...inside the living center of the life-force."

Another example of honoring gender-mixing animals can be found on northern and central Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides), where hermaphrodite pigs are often highly prized, valued for their uniqueness and relative rarity. Their husbandry is esteemed, and animal-breeding practices that result in hermaphrodite offspring are encouraged. As a result, intersexual animals make up a fairly high proportion of the total domesticated pig population; perhaps as much as 10 to 20 percent in some regions. In fact, on these islands there are more hermaphrodite pigs?probably numbering in the thousands?than anywhere else in the world. Hermaphrodite pigs are a "status symbol," since their ritual sacrifice is required to achieve progressively higher rank. In some places, a sophisticated monetary system has developed in which pigs are a type of currency, complete with "pig credit" and "pig compound interest." Intersexual pigs (and the sows that produce them) can be worth up to twice as much as nonintersexual pigs.

Although much indigenous thinking about animals is encoded in mythological terms, much is grounded in a sophisticated direct observation and study of the environment. In fact, aboriginal knowledge about the organization of the natural world often mirrors the findings of more "objective" scientific inquiry, sometimes down to the most minute detail. In many cases the behavioral, anatomical, or physiological phenomena involved have only been "discovered" or verified by Western science in the last decade or two.

How likely is it that indigenous peoples could have been aware of the often esoteric details of animal behavior and biology that "corroborate" their beliefs? How accurate are indigenous views about homosexual and transgendered animals? In other words, do the species associated actually exhibit same-sex behavior or intersexuality?

Many animals depicted in aboriginal cultures with alternate sexualities are not in fact homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered, while many species in which sexual and gender variance have been scientifically documented do not have symbolic associations. Furthermore, although many of the indigenous stories about animals are obviously scientifically false in their specifics, they were never meant to be "scientific"?any more than Roadrunner cartoons are accurate ornithology.

On the other hand, the choice of clan names, and of animals as characters in specific narratives and rituals, is not completely arbitrary. For example, homosexuality? including courtship, mounting, and full anal penetration between bulls?is common among bison; same-sex courtship and pair-bonding occur in black-billed magpies; and same-sex mounting and co-parenting also occur among bears. We have seen that these animals are all directly identified with H/T events in stories and rituals in some Native American tribes. Moreover, in many cases where the exact species is not accurate, a closely related animal does exhibit the behavior. Of the more than fifty animals identified with sexual or gender variance in various Native American and New Guinean cultures, homosexual and/or transgender phenomena have been documented by Western science in more than 90 percent of the same or closely related species.

In addition, many indigenous languages show specific detailed vocabulary about inter-sex animals and their behavior. Inter-sexual bison, for instance, are named by some Native American peoples. The Lakota refer to them as pte winkte ?pte meaning buffalo and winkte designating two-spirit?thereby drawing an explicit parallel between transgender in animals and people. Navajo also recognize intersexual animals in several game species, and have a special name for so-called "cactus bucks," transgendered mule deer with distinctive antler configurations. They call these creatures biih nádleeh ?biih for deer, nádleeh meaning transformed, constantly changing, or hermaphrodite (the same term applied to two-spirit people)?once again establishing the fundamental continuity between animal and human gender/sexual variability. Likewise, indigenous Vanuatuan knowledge and vocabulary relating to the variety of intersexuality in pigs rivals and in some cases exceeds that of Western science.

Contemporary biologists have provided startling confirmation of a number of indigenous observations. "Handedness" or laterality is a widespread phenomenon in the animal world, with species as diverse as monkeys, cats, parrots, and even whales and dolphins showing preferences for the use of a right or left appendage (or side of the body). Although in most species there is considerable variation between individuals, it does appear that at least some bear species are predominantly "left-handed." Polar bears, for example, regularly use their left paws for attack and defense as well as for clubbing seals and hauling them out of the water. In many cases they exhibit greater development of the left paws, and may also use their left forelimbs and shoulders to carry large objects. Could it be that indigenous cultures actually know more about certain aspects of animal sexual and gender variance than do trained zoologists?

While no zoologist has documented an individual left-handed, homosexual polar bear or found a traditional bear story combining gender-mixing and left-handedness, the constellation of Native American references and observations could very well open up the fieldwork of contemporary biologists. Although no evolutionary connection is implied, here's another fact that can be added to this intriguing complex: scientists have found a higher incidence of left-handedness among gay men, lesbians, and transsexuals.

As for the cassowary, its polyandrous social system?in which one female mates with several males, who are then left to incubate the eggs and raise the young on their own?shows some correspondence to notions of "female potency," male motherhood, and gender reversal. Biologists have discovered some unusual details about the cassowary's genital anatomy that bear an uncanny resemblance to indigenous ideas about the "androgyny" of these creatures, especially the Bimin-Kuskusmin depiction of the bird's "penis-clitoris." Unlike most other male birds, the male cassowary actually does possess an organ that looks remarkably like a penis; however, this organ does not discharge semen internally as it does in mammals. The cassowary's phallus is "invaginated," that is, it has a tube-like roll of tissue that opens at the tip of the "penis" but is not connected internally to the male reproductive organs. This male's vagina-like cavity is in fact used to retract the phallus by turning it "inside out" (causing the non-erect "penis" to resemble the finger of a glove that has been pushed inward). Consequently, although the male cassowary inserts his erect phallus into the female during mating, he ejaculates semen through his cloaca, an orifice at the base of the phallus that also doubles as the bird's anus and urinary organ.

Female cassowaries mate, lay eggs, defecate, and urinate all through the same orifice, the cloaca (as in all other female birds)?but the cloaca is exceptionally large in this species, being capable of passing eggs weighing up to 1-1/2 pounds. Most amazingly, all female cassowaries also possess a phallus, which is essentially identical to the male's in structure but smaller. The "female phallus" is sometimes referred to as a clitoris, but it would be equally valid to speak of a "male clitoris," since the male cassowary's "penis" is not an ejaculatory organ. Thus, from the human point of view, the cassowary's genital anatomy exhibits a bewildering juxtaposition of "masculine" and "feminine" traits: both males and females possess a penis/clitoris, and both sexes also possess another genital orifice that doubles as an anus. Indigenous beliefs about masculinized female cassowaries, the bird's penis-clitoris, anal birth, and women with phalluses being transformed into cassowaries are not nearly as outlandish as they might sound.

If the Western world is to finally appreciate indigenous perspectives, then it must do so fully, including views on homosexual/transgender occurrences. It cannot simply pick and choose among aboriginal beliefs, salvaging only those it is most comfortable with while rejecting those that challenge its prejudices. For too long, many indigenous views have been sanitized to make them palatable to nonindigenous people.

Darwin concerned himself only with the paradigm that heterosexual courtship and mating were "real," serving the purpose of more offspring and survival for the fittest. His followers?Lorenz, Tinbergen, E.O. Wilson, and most contemporary zoologists? similarly perceive homosexual/transgender sexuality in nonhumans as aberrant, "unfit," not "genuine" sexuality, or merely behavior that ultimately serves heterosexuality and reproduction. But some indigenous peoples' views challenge the "heterosexual paradigm" and offer an alternative view of nature to current biologists.

Consider the cosmology of the Bedamini people of New Guinea, which seems to turn conventional ideas about the natural world upside down:

It is believed that homosexual activities promote growth throughout nature...while excessive heterosexual activities lead to decay in nature....The balance of these forces is dependent on human action....The Bedamini do not...experience any inconsistency in the cosmic equation of homosexuality with growth and heterosexuality with decay.

?Arve Sørum. (From Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia , Gilbert H. Herdt, ed. University of California Press, 1984.)

Rather than being seen as "barren" or counter-productive, then, homosexuality, transgender, and nonbreeding are considered by some indigenous people to be essential for the ecology of life. Among the peoples cited and others, this is the fundamental "paradox" at the heart of their thinking on alternate genders and sexualities?thoughts that are not, of course, really considered paradoxical in their worldviews.

Perhaps what is most valuable about indigenous knowledge of homosexual/transgendered animals is the view of humans and other animals in which sexuality and gender are each realms of multiple possibilities; we are all species with differing natures, in one Nature. When people consider homosexual/transgender phenomena to be an accepted part of human reality, they are not surprised to find gender and sexual variability in other animals as well. Similarly, a culture living in intimate association with the natural world will undoubtedly observe homosexual/transgendered animals on a routine basis; these observations in turn contribute to the culture's view of such phenomena as an integral component of human life. On the other hand, people accustomed to seeing homosexual/transgender occurrences as aberrations will balk at recognizing the phenomenon in animals. And when a culture no longer lives in close association with wilderness, it will have less opportunity to encounter natural examples of variation in animal gender and sexual expression.