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Trannie Mystics

Gender-Crossing Shamans Spanning Different Cultures

by Roberta Perkins
Article Appeared in Polare Magazine: May 1995 Last Update: October 2013 Last Reviewed: February 2014

Koryak Shamanism in Russia's North-East

The Chukchee [people] had two words to describe the shaman: ne uchica which meant "similar to a woman", and kirkalaul, or "soft man".

The Art of Shamanism Across Siberia

The word shaman comes from the Tungu term Samman meaning practitioner of occult magic and magical healing. Shamans, or medicine men, were found in many parts of the world, such as in North American Indian tribes, in native Brazilian communities, across sub-Saharan Africa, amongst tribal societies in South East Asia and India, throughout Oceania, and in Aboriginal Australia. But, in these areas Shamans were usually always men. But in Siberia, many shamans were also women. In Tungu society young girls could enter the profession of magical healing, and amongst the Kamchadal almost all shamans were women. As the Russian Anthropologist Marie Antoinette Czaplicka noted early last century: "the woman by nature is a shaman ... is not restricted to tabus specifically female, for her social position is much higher than that of the ordinary woman. Whilst purely male tabus are not applied to the man shaman, who has, together with certain male tabus, some privileges of a woman". So it was that male shamans achieved their best results when adopting the mannerisms and dress of female shamans.

Amongst the Koryak the secrets of shamanism were passed on to women by their mothers, whilst men could only acquire these secrets through a dream in which particular spirits appeared and advised the dreamer to thereafter to live as a woman. According to the anthropologist Jochelson who visited the tribe in the 1890s, a Koryak myth which tells of a powerful male shaman who became impotent discouraged men from becoming shamans out of fear of ending up impotent. So, most shamans were women, and men who were supernaturally ordered to take up the profession dressed as women to avoid impotency.

The Kamchadal referred to their male shamans as Koekchuch, which means, "woman-man", because once they entered the profession from that moment they must live as women, taking up female occupations, like making hide clothing, entering a house through it's smoke hole as women did, and act shyly in the company of men just like women. Some Koekchuch married men with many wives to become one of their concubines, With the Yakut, an equestrian tribe of the great Steppes, shamans were divided into "white magicians" and "black magicians" The former were healers and always men, who inherited their profession from older male shamans, and who were not required to dress as women. "Black magicians" were sorcerers and always women or men who lived as women. These latter donned the iron hoops worn by women over their breasts, women's jackets, and shaped their hair in a female fashion. They also slept on the left side, or the woman's side, in the yurta, a tent erected on the backs of horses, when the tribe was on the move.

The Ambivalent Sex of Chukchee Shamans

The religious practices of the Chukchi, a reindeer herding tribe of the Siberian tundra, were thoroughly investigated by the Russian ethnographer Bogoras at the turn of the century. Like other Siberian tribes male shamans in Chukchee society were required to live as women. The Chukchi's had two words to describe them: ne uchica which meant "similar to a woman", and kirkalaul, or "soft man". These might imply that the male shamans were pretending to be women, but many Chukchi's believed that they did actually have their sex-changed by supernatural beings. Yet, as Bogoras discovered, some ne uchica also lived as men. One of his informants in fact was an old bearded man who, like all ne uchica, dressed as a woman, but was happily married with four children and numerous grandchildren. Other ne uchica he had heard about had secret mistresses who bore many children fathered by the shamans. It would seem that at least some Chukchi's were aware that a change of sex had not occurred.

However, most Chukchi ne uchica conformed to the inevitable by adopting the full lifestyle of women. They changed their names to female ones and if the opportunity arose married men. As wives they took up needlework and skin dressing and made the clothes for both their husbands and themselves. Some of these ne uchica wives also had supernatural husbands, to whom they had been married long before the marriage to their mortal husband. The supernatural husband, or kele, passed onto his wife orders for her mortal husband, and he refused to disobey for fear of offending the spiritual force. Obviously, it is easy to see how ne uchica wife could take advantage of such a situation in a Chukchi version of the wife wearing "the pants" in the family.

There were also cases of Chukchi women, known as qa cikicheca, meaning "similar to a man", who cropped their hair short like men, learned to shoot arrows and hurl spears, and married young girls. They were not, though, shamans.

The Women-Males of the American Arctic

Shamans were found in native societies across both American continents, but while male shamans often cross-dressed, female shamans were rare, and usually only occurred with post-menopausal women, if it occurred at all. The opposite opinion to the Siberians existed amongst American Indians, who often viewed women as polluting to spiritual power, especially during menses. Gender crossing females in native America were also rare, although they have been reported amongst the Mohave of the south-west, and in some tribes of the Amazon rainforest. Indeed, the very word "Amazon" comes from the Spaniard Orellana when confronted by female warriors on the river which now bears that name. Amongst the Mapuchas and other Araucanian tribes in Chile there were shamans very similar to the Siberian phenomenon. Mapuche shamans were often young women. whilst their male shamans wore female clothing and lived as woman.

There was one people in aboriginal America who carried the arts of shamanism and the female arts among men to extreme. These were the Aleut tribes of the Aleutian Islands off the south-west coast of Alaska. The name for their male shamans was chupan, which referred to their custom of dressing and adopting the lifestyle of women. But the Aleuts considered them special beings who were themselves semi-supernatural, and, the Aleuts believed that it was certainly not beyond the powers of the chupan to actually change their sex. What was different about these womanly male shamans was the very early age of their gender crossing. Elsewhere in the world a promising shaman might be discovered in boyhood, but they usually did not adopt a female role until in their teens or as adults. But amongst the Aleuts a chupan might be chosen while the boy was still an infant, and thereafter he would begin preparation for the profession of shamanism. Some reports suggest that the child's testicles were removed. As these transformed girls grew into womanhood they gradually became full-fledged medicine-women. On the chupans, the armchair anthropologist Ernest Crawley said "that a stranger would naturally take them for what they are not." Aleuts considered it lucky to have a chupan living in their house.

chupans were the most powerful beings in their tribe because of their close association with supernatural spirits. Mothers hoped some of their magic might rub off on their daughters, and sent girls to be trained in the feminine arts of chupans, who were considered to be idyllic women. Writing about "primitive" peoples early this century, Edward Carpenter drew upon the nineteenth century reports of Russian visitors to the Aleutians: "As soon as the chupan has moulded into (a shaman) the tribe confide to him the girls most suitable in bodily grace and disposition. He has to complete their education; he will perfect them in dancing and other accomplishments, and finally will initiate them into the pleasures of love. If they display intelligence, they will become seers and medicine-women, priestesses and prophetesses.

Across the Arctic the Eskimos depended heavily upon their angagoks, or shamans, to detect tabu-breakers, but gender-crossing, or even simply cross-dressing, was virtually unknown in Eskimo society. Perhaps this was due to a shortage of men, who frequently disappeared in the sudden and fierce blizzards of the tundra. There was, however, one Eskimo tribe, the Kaniagmiut of Kodiak Island off the south coast of Alaska, who did have male angagoks who adopted the lifestyles of women. Perhaps this might be due to their close proximity to Indian tribes to the south who practised the custom of gender-crossing, and certainly might be due to their much less severe environment than other Eskimos. The Kaniagmiuts called their gender-crossing shamans achnutschik, which meant they had special powers, but in having these powers it was natural for them to live as women. They tattooed their chins like women and practised the womanly arts. They usually had husbands, who were considered fortunate to have married an achnutschik. Like the Aleuts, the Kaniagmiuts raised a boy as a girl if he showed some feminine characteristics. Some parents who desired a daughter were even known to raise a boy as a girl from the moment of his birth. In this regard the Kaniagmiuts contrasted with other Eskimos, who highly valued males above females and wouldn't dream of raising a boy as a girl, even placing baby girls out on the freezing tundra to die.

Roberta Perkins

Roberta Perkins established the Gender Centre (then known as Tiresias House) in 1983. She is also a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at The University of New South Wales and has conducted many government-funded research projects into prostitution. A transsexual herself, she has the confidence of the people she interviews; a sociologist, she has counselled transsexuals for a number of years; an activist, she has worked with them in the struggle to overcome the problems they face every day of their lives. Roberta is also the author, and co-author of five books and scores of journal articles on sex work research in Australia and has also taught Native American Studies for many years in Sydney

The Drag Queen Scene: Transsexuals in Kings Cross
Author: Roberta Perkins Publisher: Allen & Unwin (1983)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0868610474

Through a unique series of frank interviews, The Drag Queen Scene deals with the experiences of male-to-female transsexuals who live and work in Sydney's Kings Cross area. It focuses on twelve people showgirls, strippers, bar girls and prostitutes. Each of the twelve speaks for herself, providing first-hand insights into life and work in her world a world a few people understand. Their stories uncover the raw reality behind the shallow popular view of the "Drag Queen". These revealing every-day accounts demonstrate how much accepted attitudes are based on ignorance, prejudice and callousness. By offering the reader a rare opportunity to view a closed subculture as its participants see it, The Drag Queen Scene is an attempt to break down the resistance facing transsexuals, to influence changes in social attitudes and the law. In this book, twelve voices, hitherto silent, challenge the reader to question the stigmatising and ostracising transsexuals endure.

Being a Prostitute: Prostitute Women and Prostitute Men (with Garry Bennett)
Author: Roberta Perkins and Garry Bennett Publisher: Allen & Unwin (1986)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0868616780

Constant media coverage and popular concern about prostitution, recent changes to legal and administrative regulations governing prostitution in its various forms in its several States, and the emergence of organised groups to represent the views and interests of prostitutes in public discussions and to influence policy formation ensure that the subject retains a high level of visibility and social significance. At the same time there have been remarkably few empirical studies of prostitution in Australia and our knowledge is largely confined to sensationalised reports of criminal cases and media exposés. So a book giving detailed accounts of the perceptions and experiences of a variety of prostitutes, male and female, homosexual and heterosexual, of different ages and background, and covering the diversity of forms of occupational types and organisational settings of prostitution at the present time would seem to be timely.

Working Girls: Prostitutes, Their Life and Social Control
Author: Roberta Perkins
Publisher: Australian Institute of Criminology (1991)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0642158765

From Abe Books: External Link This book has three objectives: 1. To demonstrate empirically that prostitutes are basically ordinary women with only their occupation distinguishing them from others; 2. To bring to the general public a balanced, well-informed view of prostitution, shed of its tawdry reputation; 3. To convince legislators to adopt a more practical method of dealing with prostitution.

Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia
Author: Roberta Perkins
Publisher: University of New South Wales Press (1994)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0868401744

From Amazon Books: External Link Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia is one of the most comprehensive books on the sex industry. This book's main focus is on prostitution and it is broken down on many levels: female, male, transsexual, health care, oral histories, and foreign workers (e.g.. Thai). It is very easy to read and one leaves this book with an excellent history lesson as well as viewpoints from both men and women which balances this book.

Call Girls: Private Sex Workers in Australia
Author: Roberta Perkins and Frances Lovejoy
Publisher: U.W.A. Publishing (2007)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 1920694913

From Booktopia: External Link Call Girls casts a penetrating, red light gaze upon the upper echelons of the worlds oldest profession private sex workers who use the telephone as a means to solicit clients. Containing frank accounts from women working in the Australian sex industry. Call Girls puts a human face on this hitherto shadowy, clandestine world as it documents how many women became sex workers; run their businesses; maintain their health; and how the call girls work affects their relationships with husbands, lovers and families. Far-removed from the moralising, victim stereotypes and Pretty Woman-inspired fantasies which pervade popular culture, Call Girls places the world of the sex worker within social, political and legal contexts which will surprise and change the preconceived notions of many readers.

Polare Magazine is published quarterly in Australia by The Gender Centre Inc. which is funded by the Department of Family & Community Services under the S.A.A.P. program and supported by the N.S.W. Health Department through the AIDS and Infectious Diseases Branch. Polare provides a forum for discussion and debate on gender issues. Unsolicited contributions are welcome, the editor reserves the right to edit such contributions without notification. Any submission which appears in Polare may be published on our internet site. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Editor, The Gender Centre Inc., the Department of Family & Community Services or the N.S.W. Department of Health.

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