There are many things that colonization has tried to pry away from us – our traditions, our languages, our children, our pride. But one of the unacknowledged casualties still haunting our communities today is our lost reverence for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans) and Two-Spirited peoples.
Two-Spirited peoples are those that feel they fall outside the two genders Western society presents, and instead have both masculine and feminine spirits living in the same body. Though many tribes have many different words for these individuals, according to the Two-Spirit Society of Denver, the term ‘Two-Spirit’ – which originated in Winnipeg in 1990 at the Third Annual Inter-tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference – “refers to another gender role believed to be common among most, if not all, first peoples of Turtle Island […] This gender role was not based in sexual activities or practices, but rather the sacredness that comes from being different.” Not all indigenous LGBT people identify as Two-Spirited, of course, and they may choose to use other terms to describe their gender and sexual identity.
Traditionally, in many indigenous societies, there were as many as four genders, allowing people more room for self-expression. Two-Spirits were allowed and encouraged to wear clothing and perform work typically associated with the opposite gender. It was common for female-bodied Two-Spirits to take wives and male-bodied Two-Spirits to take husbands. No one thought there was anything strange about this; in fact, many tribes believed Two-Spirits had special insight because of their unique gender identity, taking on the roles of healers, leaders and medicine people. With over 130 tribes in every region of the continent having male-bodied and/or female-bodied Two-Spirits documented in their community, it’s clear these individuals were once widely respected and accepted.
Since contact, our communities’ reverence for gender variant individuals has declined considerably, twisted by colonial teachings of prejudice and hate. In Briarpatch Magazine, Courtney Dakin writes: “Despite commonly being mentioned in reports made before 1850, by the mid-1800s, Two-Spirit individuals and traditions seemed to have disappeared from record. This means that before the federal government banned all Aboriginal cultural ceremonies in 1925, and even before the racist and sexist Indian Act was passed in 1876, Two-Spirit ceremonies and identities were already near extermination.”
As colonizers imposed their misogynist world view on indigenous peoples, women and Two-Spirits, in particular, were forced into patterns of silence and disrespect that continue today – with devastating effects.
According to the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), many LGBT and Two-Spirited youth leave their homes on the reservation for homelessness in the city to escape discrimination, saying, “The street is safer than home.” With the further discrimination they face when looking for work or housing once in the city, turning to sex work is hardly uncommon, opening up these already vulnerable youth to contracting HIV – or worse.
Those who fall outside the prescribed gender binaries and sexualities often face increased rates of violence, both physical and lateral. The RCMP’s 2014 report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women did not include any information on Two-Spirited Women, despite It Starts With Us’ community-led database listing one missing and four murdered Two-Spirited Women. The fact that these women’s existence is not even acknowledged by Canada is a disgrace – and that’s before one considers the many stories of Two-Spirit and trans people being misgendered and abused in jails.
Unfortunately, for all the strides being made towards decolonization and indigenous resurgence, the unique needs of LGBT and Two-Spirit people are not always considered. As Harlan Pruden (Cree) writes in the Two-Spirit Resource Directory, this is a mistake: “The work of decolonization can’t thoroughly happen without also addressing issues of Two-Spirit [and] LGBT Justice. Colonization taught Tribal communities a great deal about homophobia and transphobia, and as Native communities work to consciously reclaim and return to their traditions this work must also re-examine how the effects of colonization remain enshrined in Tribal Policy, Law and structure. For Tribal Nations, LGBT Equality and Decolonization are inextricably linked, one cannot truly be achieved without the other.”
Thankfully, many organizations have taken up the challenge. The Two-Spirit Resource Directory lists 17 different Two-Spirit groups offering support in the United States, and five in Canada – all of which are in major cities like Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver.
In Toronto, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) has a Two-Spirit & Indigenous LGBTQQIA Mentors, Elders & Grandparents Support Circle, which offers support, workshops and other information to youth in the city. They also lead efforts to fight homophobia and transphobia and encourage healthy, safe sexuality through queer community art spaces, ceremonies, etc.
Krysta Williams of the NYSHN explains that the value of the work Two-Spirit people are doing should not be understated: “Two-Spirit people in our network are at the front lines of land defense – challenging environmental violence, harm reduction, leading community art spaces, caring for brilliant children/future leaders […] leading language revitalization in our communities, rebuilding governance systems that are reflective of Indigenous realities.
“They are rebuilding how we experience family, how we respond to colonial gender violence and, well, decolonial love,” along with other things “that people might see less directly as ‘decolonization.’”
There are efforts being made locally to create safe spaces for LGBT and Two-Spirit individuals, as well. Last August, the Mohawk Council of Awkwesasne (MCA) launched its safe zone program to “erase homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism within MCA and provide support to those who need it.” They run workshops and encourage education and advocacy, hoping to let LGBT and Two-Spirits know they are not alone.
In Brantford, The Bridge hosts Gender Journeys Brantford, a trans peer support group. Led by Six Nations’ own Aiyyana Maracle, who recently appeared in the CBC documentary Transgender Parents, the group meets every first Thursday of the month from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Grand River Community Health Centre.
In New Credit, Tommi Hill has been making important strides towards creating safe spaces to talk about sexuality. The Ontario representative on the National Indigenous Youth Council on HIV/AIDS, she often goes to schools and leads workshops on her own time.
Though people like Melissa Elliott and Kahsenniyo Tahnee Williams have made great effort towards inclusive youth work, there is still a considerable gap in LGBT and Two-Spirit services for Six Nations, the most populous reserve in Canada – a gap that desperately needs closing. Safe spaces and support groups on-reserve would go a long way towards repairing our community’s relationship with LGBT and Two-Spirited people.
If we are really going to decolonize our attitudes, we have to stop homophobia and transphobia in our own communities. We have to stop bullying our own people off our territories and start renewing our respect and appreciation for LGBT and Two-Spirited people. The Creator made us all different for a reason; it’s time we accept and rejoice in those differences.