U.S gay activist and award winning author, Will Roscoe, is to visit Australia in early 2000. On February 19, he will speak at a special Melbourne event hosted by the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women. The Way We Were, The Way We Can Be will feature the slide show, Woman Warrior/Woman Chief: The Two-Spirit Women and Their Sisters.
Will Roscoe has been active in the gay liberation movement since 1975, when he helped found Lambda, the first Gay and Lesbian organisation in Montana. In 1977 he coordinated the Gay People’s Alliance at the University of Oregon and spearheaded the formation of the Oregon Gay Alliance, a statewide coalition of Gay and Lesbian groups. In 1978 he served as voter registration coordinator for the “No on 6” Campaign in San Francisco, registering over 10,000 new voters. Proposition 6, a citizen- initiated referendum orchestrated by Republican Senator John Briggs, was ultimately defeated. But if it had been carried, it would have stopped homosexuals from being employed in any capacity in the Californian school system.
In 1979 Will Roscoe attended the first radical faerie gathering in Arizona where he met veteran gay liberationist, Harry Hay. He was influenced by Hay and later edited a collection of his writings, Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder. Hay sparked Roscoe’s interest in studying the social role and status of cross-dressing berdache in Native American communities. During the ’50s and ’60s, Hay had studied the American Indian berdache role and came to view it as an example of a socially approved pattern of sex and gender variance that allowed individuals to make a unique contribution to their communities. In the ’60s, Hay interrupted this research and shifted his energies to political organising in support of the burgeoning radical Native American movement. But it was Hay’s early research and encouragement which prompted Will Roscoe to begin his own study of alternative gender roles.
Roscoe became internationally known after publishing his book, The Zuni Man-Woman (University of New Mexico Press). The Zuni Man-Woman focuses on the life of We’wha, who is perhaps the most famous berdache in American history. Through telling We-wha’s story, Roscoe creates a vivid picture of an alternative gender role whose history has been hidden and almost forgotten. Roscoe also examines Zuni concepts of gender and sexuality and describes the unique role and high status of berdache in Pueblo culture. He characterises the berdache as neither male nor female, but as a distinct third gender. The Zuni Man-Woman won the 1991 Margaret Mead Award of the American Anthropological Association and a Lambda Literary Award.
In 1984 Roscoe began seeking out Native Americans who might share his interest in berdaches and respond to his work. He met activists from Gay American Indians at a political rally and began collaborating. In 1984, under the direction of the Board of Gay American Indians, he coordinated the Gay American Indian History Project and helped edit the subsequent book, Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. He also began to look for ways to make his research accountable to the Zunis, and in 1987 he received permission from the Zuni Tribal Council to give an illustrated lecture in the village and at Zuni High School.
Will Roscoe has since written a number of books on gender, including Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities and Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native America.
Roscoe has spent 15 years researching the Native American two-spirit tradition. The talk he will present in Melbourne features over 100 slides and explores the lives of women warriors and chiefs over the course of four centuries. Although Europeans stereotyped Native American women as dominated by men, they were in fact more independent and powerful than women at any level of European society. Throughout North America, Native women became chiefs, warriors and shamans. Some, like Weetama of the Wampanoags and Lozen of the Apache, were prominent leaders in native resistance. Others, like the Kutenai Quanqon-kamek-klaulha, served as mediators and ambassadors. In the far west, women who lived like men as a result of visions or dreams often married other women.
Alison Thorne, Melbourne Freedom Socialist Party Organiser, will introduce Will Roscoe and talk about the significance of his research to contemporary Socialist Feminism. She explains: “Roscoe’s research builds on the pioneering work of Engels in his classic The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels showed how for 50,000 years, society was matriarchal and communal and sexuality was free. But with the rise of private property, mother right was overthrown by father right, and women became trapped by monogamy inside the new patriarchal family. Roscoe’s study of women leaders and the two-spirit tradition among Native American tribes is a fascinating view of life in a world where defeat of mother right and rise of the State was far from complete.”
Says Thorne: “This special evening is called The Way We Were, The Way We Can Be to highlight that women have not always been oppressed, homophobia is not natural and class divisions and inequality are not eternal. All resulted from the rise of private property, and all can be eliminated in a society based on communal ownership.”
The event takes place at the North Melbourne Library in Errol St. A Native American-style dinner will be served at 6 pm and the program will start at 7 pm. Tickets are $16/$12 with dinner or $6/$4 door only. To purchase a ticket, call 9386-5065. Tickets will also be available at the door.