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Being Two Spirit

Every June, we as a nation, celebrate LGBTQIA+ Pride month. This month designated to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community, and the contributions made to the overall vitality of our country. Pride was initially inspired by the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, which was a tipping point of the Gay Liberation Movement.

Pride 2022 will be a first for me. This Pride Month will be my first celebrated as an out Two Spirited Man.

In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, at the age of 36, I came out in a public way. As detailed in a prior blog, I made the decision to publicly come out via a Facebook post. Earlier in the day, I had a photo shoot to take the pictures that would accompany the post. Adorning a t-shirt that said “I’m Gay,” I stood in the middle of a park close to my childhood home on the Reservation I grew up on, and snapped the photo that would change my life for the better. The post garnered over 800 likes in 24 hours.

In 2021, I was still getting acclimated to a new job and a new city and many Pride festivities were cancelled as we were still amid a pandemic. I took Pride Month 2021 to really reflect on my journey thus far and introduction to the LGBTQIA+ community.

In a conversation with my dad during this time, he made a comment to me that took me back.

I explained to him that I never understood why my coming out story was such a big deal in my community. To me, it was just me being honest with myself and the world. My dad then said:

“You coming out was a big deal, as you were already held in high regard as a leader in our tribe. You’re held even higher up now as a Two-Spirited man.”

Wait…what? Two Spirited? What is that? I had to do some research, but to be honest, there wasn’t much out there.

Although Two Spirit may now be included in the umbrella of LGBTQIA+, the term “Two Spirit” itself does not simply mean someone who is Indigenous and gay.

The term Two Spirit was introduced and adopted during the Third Annual Inter-tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference in Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada in 1990. While this is a relatively new term, it describes a very old tradition of gender fluidity.

While the term Two Spirit is considered a contemporary term amongst Indigenous communities, the concept of a masculine and feminine spirit existing within an individual has a long history within Indigenous cultures. They historically played important roles within their communities and often held special status.

In many Indigenous cultures, Two Spirit individuals are seen as being two identities that occupy one physical body. Native American teachings suggest that some people are born with both masculine and feminine spirits. Children wore gender-neutral clothing until they were old enough to determine for themselves which path was theirs. People who are Two Spirit may dress in gender-nonconforming ways or combine different aspects of traditionally masculine and feminine gender expression.

Within different communities, Two Spirit individuals were often involved in performing work that was generally associated with both men and women. Having the spirits of two genders was considered a special gift and people with this gift often held highly respected positions within their communities. Rather than being confined to a rigid gender role, Two Spirit people often participated in activities such as hunting or going to battle, while also participating in activities such as caring for children and cooking.

The use of the term "Two Spirit" was seen as a way for Indigenous communities to reclaim lost traditional ways of viewing gender, sex, sexuality, and spirituality.

I do want to point out that being a gay native is not an interchangeable term with Two Spirit, as the term is often confused as one in the same. Its not.

While there are intersections and some commonalities, gay is about attraction to a person of the same sex, whereas Two Spirit is focused on two genders residing in one physical person. A Two spirit person may be gay, but a gay person is not necessarily Two Spirit. Identifying as Two Spirit is to take up responsibilities spiritually that is given to the role traditionally. This could range from leading a healthy life to being a guiding force in a good way with a good mind.

I never knew what it all meant. Honestly, I grew up thinking being Native American and gay was a bad thing. I didn’t know what gay is or recall ever meeting a gay person. That thought carried with me as I grew older.

As a child, I played with trucks. I also played with dolls. I didn’t know any different.

My mom always had an inkling something was different about me when instead of asking for toy cars or trucks, I asked for toy earrings and necklaces.

“I figured you wanted to be like mom,” she shared. “You were always a mama’s boy.”

I was called gay for the first time when I was 5 because all my friends were girls. I would befriend girls because the boys would tease me. I couldn’t relate to any of the boys.

As I grew older, I was bullied because I didn’t follow the crowd; called gay because I talked with my hands and have a high-pitched voice.

I didn’t participate in sports due to injuries from an automobile accident. I loved watching sports. Instead, I took a liking to music, theatre, and performance.

I didn’t date. When I did, I felt no chemistry or attraction.

I loved music. Pop, Rap, Rock, Musicals, and a good Pow-Wow Drum.

I dressed in thrift store couture. I looked like Ducky from Pretty in Pink.

I was an average kid from an Indian reservation in Northcentral Wisconsin, that straddled the line of what is masculine and what is feminine, and I knew no different.

But I wasn’t fully honest. I didnt feel like I was who I was meant to be.

I went through most of my life not being true to myself because I thought I could lose everything. I have no idea where this belief came from, but I attributed it to not being exposed to LGBTQIA+ people in my community. Those that did eventually come out would leave our community.

As many young questioning persons do, I assimilated to what was expected of me.

In this time, I felt called to being a voice for others.

I am a leader in my community and have assumed this responsibility since I was young.

Some in my community would say that I take on the nurturing and compassionate side with my people, which is a construct given to women in my community. I also take on the fighter and the warrior side as an activist for Native youth, which was a construct given to men in my community.

At the age of 15, I was elected to the National executive board of United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc. (UNITY), which is the largest Native American youth organization in the country. At the age of 17, I became the National Co-President. I traveled the country working with Native youth from all walks of life. I testified before Senate committees on issues facing Native youth. I have had the opportunity to see Native youth at their best and their worst. I became a motivational speaker.

I worked in both private and non-profit work with youth and adults in organizational development, leadership development, and diversity/equity/inclusion.

I became the first person in my family to graduate with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree.

By definition, I was someone who made it off the reservation and was achieving great things that most Native people dream about.

But I was lost.

In 2019, I turned 35. While I accomplished a lot in my young life, I felt disconnected. There just was something missing. I battled anxiety since 2009, stemming from an incident while working on my undergraduate degree, where I was physically assaulted by someone due to my sexual orientation. I wasn’t out when this happened. But this incident scared me back into a closet because of the fears of losing everything I had, my family, and my culture.

I decided on my birthday to close the circle and get myself back to balance. Part of this was revealing my authentic self, despite fears of what I could lose.

Several weeks later, I traveled back home to attend my tribe’s annual Pow-Wow festivities. My dad and I passed the church that I grew up in. I had heard months prior that the new pastor of the church was someone who I went to college with. He was openly gay, and a pastor on an Indian reservation.

Since I knew the pastor, I asked my dad how the community was taking him being openly gay. My dad’s response took me by surprise:

“Some people love it. Some people are not ok with it. Personally, the way I see it, you are who you are and we need to honor that.”

I didn’t realize that my dad was giving me permission to come out. He knew.

I worked tirelessly to get myself to a point where I could finally be comfortable in my own skin. I worked to lose over 80 pounds. I got myself into a mindset of not being anxious about what I cannot control.

I came out on October 11, 2020 at 6:30p.m. I was finally complete.

My community was not surprised. My family was overjoyed. I have stepped into a new role of my life and my tribe.

Looking back on my journey, I have learned so much and have grown in self and purpose. You can be Native American and gay without fear of disownment or not being “Native enough”. Most of all, I learned that I can still be the leader I always have been. I understand what it means to be Two Spirit.

Being Two Spirit is balancing one’s culture with one’s authenticity.

Being Two Spirit is knowing that as an Indigenous person, one’s culture creates one’s authenticity.

Being Two Spirit is recognizing who’s shoulders you stand on as countless ancestors fought for you to be here, to have the opportunities you have, and the voice you use.

Being Two Spirit is being a mother-figure, father-figure, brother-figure, sister-figure, grandma-figure et al to others when they need someone.

Being Two Spirit is sharing your wisdom as it connects you to your people.

Being Two Spirit is leading the way Creator intended you to lead.

Being Two Spirit is practicing humility.

Being Two Spirit is walking the Red road and letting that journey center your decisions and your heart.

Being Two Spirit is being an example of bravery and honesty for your younger family members and the youth of your community.

Being Two Spirit is living 100% in your truth with no apologies.

Being Two Spirit is appreciating Turquoise Jewelry, a beaded medallion and always looking damn good.

Pride is about celebrating community. It is about celebrating who we are with no regrets or apologies. This Pride, celebrate who you are to the fullest. If you are a person of color, celebrating your true authenticity: your culture and your love. This Pride, I am celebrating my role as a leader in my community, my tribe, and in Native America, in bringing a voice to other Two Spirit beings to live loud and live indigenously.

Be proud. Be brave. Be you. Xwat-AnuShiik (We give thanks).

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