Tag Archives: Berdaches

Randy Burns–Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America, v. 1 (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 2003), p. 175

Randy Burns [DRAFT]

Burns, Randy (b. mid- 20th century), Native American activist and writer.

A Northern Paiute, Burns is a member of the Pyramid Lake Indian Tribe. While a student at San Francisco State University, Burns became an activist: he attempted to recruit Native American students to come to SFSU. While still at SFSU, Burns came out as a gay activist during an interview for the Nevada State Journal. He has subsequently been interviewed by a variety of West Coast gay and lesbian journals and newspapers. He has written various essays and introductions to books, among them Living the Spirit: a Gay American Indian Anthology and Third and Fourth Genders in Native North Americans. Burns plans to publish a book of his own literary work called You Never Heard Me Sing.

Burns has served in a variety of San Francisco government advisory groups and social programs. He is a member of the People of Color AIDS and the Human Rights Commission. A firm believer in electoral politics, Burns has served as an election official for over two decades. He also volunteers his time with numerous nonprofit organizations and programs focused on Native Americans in the San Francisco area.

Burns found gay and lesbian Native Americans ostracized or even bashed for their orientation. Historically, every member of a Native American tribe had a specific role to play; no one was shunned or ostracized for being different. People with ambiguous sexual orientations were no different. Sometimes called “Two-Spirit People,” these men and women served in a variety of roles, from leaders, shamans, healers, and—in the case of women—as warriors. The Spanish wrote about the “Two-Spirit People,” from whom English derived the word berdache (“transvestites’). Being both male and female, berdaches were said to have links with the spiritual world and therefore were able to mediate between that world and the physical. They played important roles in many Native American societies.

With the conquest of the Americas by the Europeans, an attempt was made to “civilize” Native Americans, make them like the Europeans. Whole cultural assimilation was imposed; Judeo-Christian values and religion—including the taboos against homosexuality—became the emblem of “civilization.” Traditional Native American religions and rituals were repressed, and—completely misconstruing who the berdache were and devaluing the functions the berdache played in Native American society—the Europeans linked the berdaches to the sins of sodomy and homosexuality As a result, the berdache suffered severe persecution. Many Native American apologists, in an attempt to mitigate the European attack on Native American culture and identity, diminished the role of the berdache in tribal life and ceremonies, some even suggesting that berdaches were outcasts and scorned by their communities. Though the Native American cultures resisted the assimilating influences, the role the berdache played in many societies was diminished.

Having seen violence committed by Native Americans against their gay and lesbian brethren, Burns sought to remind Native Americans of the berdache heritage and to show people that gay and lesbian Native Americans deserve cultural respect based on history. He co-founded Gay American Indians (GAI) with the late Barbara Cameron of the Lakota tribe in San Francisco in July of 1975. In Burns’ view, modern gay and lesbian Native Americans are the direct descendants of the historic berdache; it is their duty to fulfill the roles the berdache once played in the traditions of their tribes.

By the end of the twentieth century, GAI had grown to over 600 members and spawned other gay American Indian groups in San Diego, Toronto and New York City under the name “Two-Spirit People.” GAI has documented berdache roles in over 130 Native American tribes. Burns’ own Northern Paiute tradition has traditional berdache roles: tuva’sa (male) moroni noho (female).

Burns has been given numerous awards over the years, most recently the Pioneer Award from the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian History Society in 2002. Until recently, Burns worked as a nurse assistant at San Francisco General Hospital.

Michael W. Handis

See also Native American LGBTQ Organizations and Publications


KQED web site (http://www.kqed.org/topics/history/heritage/lgbt/heroes-rburns.jsp (viewed April 10, 2003).

Living the Spirit: a Gay American Indian Anthology. Compiled by Gay American Indians. Will Roscoe, coordinating editor. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988).

Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Trexler, Richard C. Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Roscoe, Will. “Bibliography of Berdache and Alternative Gender Roles among the North American Indians.” Journal of Homosexuality 14, no.3/4: 81-171.

Roscoe, Will. “Living the Tradition: Gay American Indians.” In Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning. Edited by Mark Thompson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

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