Richard Trexler, an Italian Renaissance historian who, by his own admission, has already produced “perhaps the most influential book in Italian Renaissance history published in the last 25 years,” now tackles European and American history. The overriding hypothesis of this rather deceptively named book is that men conquered and possessed other men as a show of political power, just as they conquered and possessed women to demonstrate their wealth. Across time and space, sexuality according to Trexler, was closely tied to war, property, and power.
After looking at homosexual conquest in ancient and medieval Europe, Trexler briefly considers similar patterns on the Iberian peninsula. Turning to America, however, he does not examine the use of homosexual conquest in the Spanish invasion but concentrates instead on the berdache in Aztec, Maya, Inca, and other pre-Columbian Amerindian societies.
The Amerindian berdache was strikingly similar to other passive homosexual men throughout the ages; but unlike the young men seduced and made part of a ruler’s or chief’s retinue in Europe, the berdache was also a transvestite. Furthermore, unlike young men who, as teenagers, sometimes played the passive role in homosexual relationships and later, as adults, took on the active role in heterosexual ones, the berdache was gendered female for life. Trexler explores the process that created the berdache, arguing that in addition to conquest, some young male children were slated by their parents to be passive like females even before they showed any sexual proclivity; still others chose to become berdaches as adults, Trexler also looks at the roles assumed by the berdache (including temple service, “marriage,” brothel service, and women’s work) and the Iberian attitudes toward Amerindian passives. He finds, surprisingly, that Europeans and natives shared a negative view of the berdache for being dominated rather than dominant.
While some of the hypotheses Trexler presents in this metahistory of homosexual conquest and submission are interesting, few are actually proved. Most of Trexler’s findings are couched in language replete with “perhaps,” “assuming that,” and “possible”; he admits that many of his contentions bear scant evidence, but this has little effect on his willingness to plunge ahead. All the evidence, moreover, is based on his reading of chronicles and secondary sources. Lacking Spanish sources, he has no trouble turning to nineteenth-century descriptions of homosexual practices among the tribes of coastal Anglo-America, the Great Plains, and the Southwest (that is, the Delaware, Sioux, and Hopi) to understand sixteenth-century Mexico and Peru.
The author is to be congratulated for his ability, on the whole, to use accessible language, “The other,” for example, becomes “outsiders,” and postmodern jargon is kept to a minimum. Unfortunately, there are some minor but annoying mistakes; for example, throughout the text, Mexico is referred to as part of Central America, and some spelling errors make one wonder about the depth of Trexler’s command of Spanish. Nevertheless, this is an interesting book that will no doubt engender much controversy in the years to come.