Who Are the Third Sex in the 20th Century?

by Timothy J. Leary, M.A.



When I first read Walter William's book The Spirit and the Flesh I became interested in learning about the berdache tradition. I felt a strong kinship toward these Native Americans. The berdache were considered a third sex in their tribes. Many were shamans and artists. It was as if I was reading a story about myself. Never before had I identified so closely with historical figures. They embodied qualities that I felt I had. They were sensitive, creative and homosexual. I was thrilled to learn that they had a place in their culture and an integral role to play in their tribes. They were not discarded as lesbians and gay men are in this day and age. I was sure that if I had been born Native American I would have been a berdache.

I was not born Native American, but am caucasian and live in a major urban center in the United States where the native way of life has been banished. So, then, how can I identify with the berdache? Are there ways I can live like the berdache in my current setting or am I just to dream of another way of life and another time? I believe that it is all a matter of personal perspective.

I have concluded that many of us already lead lives like a man-woman, and that we can amplify certain qualities of our lives so that we can fulfill our destiny and follow in the footsteps of our spiritual ancestors, the berdache. But how do we identify our place in the 1990's? For those gay men who grew up being called "sissy" and "faggot" this can be a very important question. We were robbed of our identity as children and not allowed to develop our individual personalities with proper respect for our natural inclinations. We were taught to disdain our most natural ways of being. But in spite of the efforts of our ministers and teachers, we have managed to maintain much of our personal difference. This is evidenced in how we live.

The descriptions of the young berdache in The Spirit and the Flesh sounded very much like descriptions of myself as a child. I showed a natural interest in what were considered girl's activities. In kindergarten I always wanted to play in the make-believe kitchen. I was more interested in Barbie dolls and hop-scotch than baseball or football. In fact, I really disliked the boys activities. In addition to this, I had very strong spiritual feelings. I felt called to a life of spiritual service and prayer; this is not what is typically expected of little boys. My parents thought I was just a sensitive and quiet child, but it was much more than that.

In our culture children like myself are seen as lacking something. In my case what I was lacking was overt masculinity. The expectation to be more masculine created quite a dilemma for me. I spent years trying to find a masculine activity I could enjoy. I always knew my search was useless, and I would have been content just to find an activity that was not distasteful or did not make me as uncomfortable as did football and baseball.

Fortunately my mother always told my brothers and I that she was "raising gentlemen." By that she meant that we were to be fair-minded and avoid fights, but for me it meant the chance to please my mother without having to be macho. That helped me feel more comfortable with my less than aggressive behavior. So, I developed into a person who was different from the others, not better or worse, just different. Someone who perhaps could have represented a third sex in another place and time. Someone who embodied, at once, both genders and neither gender. I grew up to become a gay man in the twentieth century; complete with the advances made in the last few decades, but not having escaped the bitter hatred of society.

Since lesbians and gay men are not accepted automatically by society, we need to make our own acceptance. As Ellen DeGeneres so aptly put it in her interview with Diane Sawyer on the TV program 20/20, we are minorities in our own families. That peculiar minority status gives us a unique perspective on life. We have to take care of ourselves emotionally much earlier than others. Some of us do this by embracing our otherness very early, while others choose to hide their true identities in order to be accepted. Both approaches are successful in degrees. Each approach, and the many other choices we make, have their appropriate time and place. At other times we may need to re-evaluate our decisions and make changes in our approach to life so that we can move on emotionally and spiritually. All of this affects the way we view the world. We are more suspicious of what we are told by society and we have the ability to see beauty in what is considered socially unacceptable. We can see the potential in people because we see the beauty that is hidden.

One way I dealt with the isolation of growing up gay was by turning to my spiritual life. Many of us learn to build relationships with the spiritual world because we have very few peers to support us and from whom we can learn to be ourselves. So we find out how to be ourselves from the spirits. Because of our isolation, we learn to trust our instincts and our experiences when others tell us we are wrong or that our feelings are mistaken. This strong spiritual inclination was also common among the berdache.

Those of us who openly identify with this spiritual androgyny live lives of celebration. We celebrate our differences by exaggerating what is different about us from the mainstream. We are more familiar than most with the idea of Carnival. At public gay events one sees drag queens and leathermen celebrating their individuality and their sexuality. We own our differences instead of trying to bury them. We've had to hide our differences for so long that we are happy to (and need to) celebrate them. This happens at Gay Pride Parades and Halloween celebrations in major gay centers across the United States every year. The streets are filled with people in every imaginable kind of costume. A true celebration of diversity! When we celebrate our ability to embody the "other" sex, as drag queens and transgendered people do, we are celebrating that part of our spirit which can cross the typical gender boundaries. This is truly a gift. We are special because the spirit makes us different. There is only a relatively small percentage of the population who can access this special spirit, this special way of being. We are gifted by our differentness. This concept may be hard to accept in a culture that praises and values conformity.

Our different perspective is also evidenced in our work and in the professions we choose. For many years I made my living as a window trimmer. The vast majority of people in this field are gay men. I believe this is because the work takes both butch and femme skills. It is a perfect profession for someone who enjoys androgyny. As a window trimmer, I needed to be able to understand the basics of construction and woodworking; activities considered masculine. I also needed to style wigs and drape fabric; activities considered feminine. It can be argued that these are typical qualifications for artists in many mediums, but there is something unique about the combination of skills needed to be a window trimmer.

It is also no accident that the percentage of male nurses, priests and male hairdressers who are gay is greater than the average. This is because these professions often require someone who is able to move between society's rigid gender stereotypes and have empathy for others regardless of gender. By participating in these professions we are not simply giving in to stereotypes or being less-than as we have been accused of doing. Our stereotypical occupations are not an aberration as the heterosexist culture assumes, they are our natural occupations and are closest to our most natural ways of being. It may seem odd to the outside world that we are performing tasks usually attributed to the "opposite" gender, but not if one takes into account our neither-gender status. We have the ability to perform the tasks of either gender. The ways in which we express our neither-gender status come to us from a spiritual lineage. We are simply being our most natural selves and following in the footsteps of our spiritual ancestors.

These experiences are not universal among all gay men. There are plenty of jocks who like to suck dick. But for those of us who were classified as sissies growing up, it is important for us to see that we have a place. We were told as children that we did not have a place, but we do; we always have. We were just unfortunate enough to grow up in an era when our natural state of being was devalued. We grew up as refugees from another time, and were forced to try to be something we were not; that is the most damaging spiritual exercise of all. We were denied our divine essence by the ones who were supposed to be showing us the way to he divine. They were damaged too by what they taught us, either by suffering the same fate they tried to impose on us or by not sharing and appreciating our gifts. The spirits will not tolerate this behavior forever. They have started the stirrings in us to be the best and most natural beings we can be. It is up to us to take the courage to follow their lead.

Today's society recognizes only two genders. Since there is no existing place for a third sex today, we need to forge one. Like the berdache, the spirits have gifted us with our difference and our neither-gender status. The gift is freedom from society's polarization of masculine and feminine energy. Our experience and self expression are more fluid because we are not hemmed-in to society's restrictive gender roles. This gives us the freedom to explore and express ourselves from a broader range of human experience. Our neither-gender status gives us freedom from societal expectations as well as the responsibility to create our own way of life. The only way we can do that is to turn off the old tapes about gender conformity. We must live our lives honoring what makes us different, just like the berdache.

Timothy Leary lives in San Francisco