Beyond the Binary: Two-Spirit People

Practice Point

Beyond the Binary: Two-Spirit People

November 7, 2019

Historically, individuals with cross-gender identity were revered in First Nations cultures and looked to as leaders, visionaries, and healers. Embodying both masculine and feminine traits, two-spirit people were thought to be blessed with the ability to move between gender roles and were given important spiritual responsibilities as [a] result.

The term two-spirit, while not a new concept, was actually selected during an international conference of gay and lesbian activists in Winnipeg in 1990 to replace the word berdache – a commonly used French denigration that translates to ‘male whore’. 

In her essay, ‘N’Tacimowin Innan Nah: Our Coming In Stories‘, University of Saskatchewan professor and Opaskwayak Cree Nation member Alex Wilson explains that ‘people make the assumption that the two [in two-spirit] refers to male as one and female as the other, or vice versa. In my view,’ she writes, ‘the “two” refers to a range of possibilities, such as being in a doorway and being able to see both rooms because of perspective.’

For some, two-spirit also represents their distinct First Nations experiences and traditions, and the way that culture and gender identity are tied together.

Gender roles were fluid in pre-colonial societies. Words to describe up to six different gender variants, beyond the binary of male and female, have been found in 155 Indigenous nations of North America. The Cree, for example, refer to them as Aayahkwew (‘neither man nor woman’), and the Navajo refer to them as nàdleehé or ‘one who changes’. To help individuals determine the gender they were drawn towards, rites of passage were often used.

It wasn’t until the onset of the federally run residential schools in the late 19th century, and the aggressive proliferation of European Christian influences, that being gay became stigmatized.

Shortly after coming out, [Squamish Nation fashion designer and] dancer Tyler-Alan Jacobs was beaten so badly that his right eye was dislodged and the side of his face was caved in. … The pain was excruciating, and the $30,000 of reconstructive surgery would leave still-visible scars, but the fact that Jacobs had grown up with his attackers made the abuse even harder to move past.

Jacobs, 29, is one of a few hundred Vancouverites that identify as two-spirit – a First Nations term for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, other gendered, and third/fourth gendered individuals.

‘I knew that I was gay,’ he says. ‘It was hard for me to come out to my family, but everybody already knew.’

The son of a prominent Squamish Nation councillor and artist, Jacobs says he had the support of his family as he pursued traditionally female crafts such as sewing and beadwork, and experimented with flamboyant fashion after puberty hit. Throughout the rest of his 4,000-person reserve, however, homophobia – a product of the historical trauma of colonization and residential schools – was rampant.

‘I went through a really hard time,’ says Jacobs softly. ‘I was beaten; more than once. I was choked.’

According to the National Aboriginal Health Organization, two-spirited people are more likely to experience violence than heterosexual First Nations and they are twice as likely to experience assault (including physical assault, sexual assault, and assault with a weapon) than LGBT people in the general population.

(Kelsey Klassen, “Two spirits, one struggle: The front lines of being First Nations and gay,” Vancouver Courier)

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This TRC#86 blog post written by journalism students sets out basic information on two-spirit identity is a critical and integral “reconciliation” and “decolonization” issue.

Senator and former Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair Murray Sinclair is alive to the issue. He “said [his two-spirit daughter] was already ‘living a life of enhanced danger just by being female,’ increased by the fact that ‘she was in a higher at-risk group because she was an indigenous woman.’”

‘We told her about the fact that among indigenous people, being a two spirit was traditionally a position of respect and honour. Ceremonies, we have been taught, are enhanced if done by or with two-spirit people present, for it is believed that they embody the strengths and spirits of both man and woman and bring a special healing power and medicine to every special event.’

Sinclair said his daughter has brought ‘great respect’ to his family.

‘We are said to be blessed by having her as a daughter because she is two spirit, and we feel so.

‘We adopted another two-spirit daughter into our family as well, whose partner just gave birth to our newest grandson. He will be raised by two-spirit parents.

‘As parents of two spirits, we want to protect our children from the bullying, the offensive comments, the disparaging remarks and the physical and verbal abuses that every member of the LGBTQ2S experiences. We have learned to shield them and to heal them when our shields prove insufficient.’

But, Sinclair said, ‘society’s dislike and disrespect for those who are gay and transgender has been a part of Western thinking for many generations. The enhancement and recognition of their right to be who they are and their right to public protection of those rights does not sit well with far too many people, the shooter [at Pulse, the gay Orlando nightclub] being representative of that.’

(Tonda MacCharles, “Senator Murray Sinclair delivers emotional tribute to Orlando victims,” The Star)

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Here is a two-minute video clip (from a feature-length American film) about a murder of a Navajo two-spirit person that is instructive.

Two Spirits interweaves the tragic story of a mother’s loss of her son with a revealing look at the largely unknown history of a time when the world wasn’t simply divided into male and female and many Native American cultures held places of honor for people of integrated genders.

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This blog post written by a Cree-speaking Métis woman living in Quebec contains an excellent discussion of the effect of colonialism on two-spirit identity. See also the comments thread.

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Finally, here is some info on two-spirit peoples from Cape Breton University Mi’kmaq and Indigenous Studies.

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We acknowledge that the land on which we work is the unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.