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Editor’s Note: Contributor Charles Alexander fell ill last monthand was unable to provide his usual weekly Parting Glances Column. This selection was chosen in honor of Pride month and Stonewall’s 50th Anniversary. Everyone at Between The Lines wishes Alexander a speedy recovery.
Gays and lesbians have been welcomed to the White House during the Clinton and the Obama administrations. BTL co-publishers Jan Stevenson and Susan Horowitz attended one such gathering and shook hands with President Obama.
I had asked Jan and Susan not to wash their hands until I could shake the President’s hand by proxy. Unfortunately, on their return flight — joining the Mile High Club of Democratic Celebration — they forgot. (I herewith publicly forgive them.)
The first “gay” guest at the White House dropped in under the President Grover Cleveland administration 129 years ago. Cleveland was also a Democrat, and his guest was a Zuni Native American named We’wha. “She” was in reality a third-gender, cross-dressing, spiritual advisor to her people.
We’wha was in Washington in 1896 taking a performance part in a program presented at the city’s National Theater. She also demonstrated basket weaving, of which she was highly skilled, at the Smithsonian Museum.
A sponsor for We’wha was anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson — no relation to BTL’s Jan — who met with We’wha several times over a period of many years, recording intimate impressions. We’wha “performs masculine religious and judicial functions at the same time that she performs feminine duties, tending to laundry and the garden.”
Stevenson, whose interest mellowed gradually into a happy friendship, lived with We’wha for six months without realizing that she was actually physically male.
“We’wha was the most intelligent person in the pueblo,” writes Stevenson. “Strong character made his word law among Zuni men and women, both of whom he spiritually led. Though his wrath was dreaded by all, he was very loved by children with whom he was very kind.”
We’wha’s own community believed he/she was “two spirited.” Anthropologists call this inter-sex status a berdache. Two-spirited persons — precursors of today’s transgendered M to Fs — were found in 130 Native American tribes and were often married to other males.
We’wha made a big hit in Washington, D.C., although few knew anything about her tribal function. The press called her — over 6-feet tall with a commanding gentle presence — a “Zuni Princess.” Her basket weaving and pottery were admired, but because she was a Native American, she was patronized.
We’wha, in turn, was shocked to learn that some women in Washington society had false teeth and wore braided “rats” in their hair.
Looking back, what has been done to Native Americans is a sordid affair. Their land has been taken. Their food source destroyed by hunters (60 million buffalo). Their religion and customs demeaned. They have been subjected to imported diseases, killing 96 percent of their population.
(According to Latter Day Saints theology, based on Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr.’s “Book of Mormon” translated Golden Plates, Native Americans are descendants of Israelite tribes who came to America by boat. Following his resurrection, Mormons believe, Jesus appeared to these Holy Land exiles, preached, baptized and sanctioned a new-found worship.)
Since 1987, hundreds of LGBT Native Americans gather yearly in the Pacific Northwest for celebrating an International Two-Spirit Gathering. In the tradition of We’wha, participants meet to pray, dance, share sweat lodge initiations, honor their sexuality and traditions and mourn AIDS losses that have further so decimated their communities.
Today there is also a strong Gay American Indian Coalition. Co-Founder Randy Burns observes of LGBT Native American Spirituality, “We are perhaps a little more spiritual than our straight native counterparts because that is the traditional role we played.” A time-honored role, indeed.
In spite of the White Man’s singular mean spiritedness.