Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Berdache Definition:

A derogatory term used to refer to North American transvestites specifically or homosexuals generally.

"Berdaches", wrote Fransisco Valdes, professor, California Western School of Law in an article published in the California Law Review, "were (native American) men who assumed, in variable mixes, the occupations, activities, roles and/or attire generally associated with women, or vice versa."

As to the origin of the term berdache, some historians believe it came from the Persian language where it referred to a male prostitute.1

Whatever the origin, the French explorers of North America used the term to refer to an individual cross-dressing or engaged in homosexual-like behavior as it was discovered within the culture of the North American First Nations, who most often respected if not revered what they referred to as two-spirited persons (see the Legal Definiation of Two-Spirited Person).

Writing in the University of Michigan Law Review, J., Jaciobi proposed:

"The French adapted the term (berdache) and applied it to transvestite Native American males who they believed were passive homosexuals.

"Later, berdache was applied to females who took on male social roles. The Europeans came to apply the term to any Native American persons who did not conform to the expectations of their sex."

Professor Valdes added, at footnote #767 of his 1995 article (op. cit.):

"(T)he European word berdache is now the commonly-used term for a tradition that is quintessentially indigenous. The term, moreover, originally carried derogatory connotations: it is a French version of "bardaj," a Persian/Arabic word meaning sexual slave or "kept boy."


  • NOTE 1: Jacobi, Jeffrey S., Two Spirits, Two Eras, Same Sex: For a Traditionalist Perspective on Native American Tribal Same-Sex Marriage Policy, 39 U. Mich. J.L. Reform 823 (2005-2006), at page 824.
  • Valdes, Fransisco, Queers, Sissies, Dykes, and Tomboys: Deconstructing the Conflation of "Sex," "Gender," and "Sexual Orientation" in Euro-American Law and Society, 83 Cal. L. Rev. 1 (1995)

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