Remembering Our Two Spirit & Indigenous LGBTQ+ Relatives

In this month’s blog post, four public health professionals describe their journeys toward inclusive programming for Two Spirit and Indigenous LGBTQ+ people within organizations and within themselves.

When did your organization start to think about the Two Spirit voices that were there, and those that were missing, in terms of goals and programming?

Shawn Peterson (she/her) (Nuu Chah Nulth), Youth Program Manager- Na’ah Illahee Fund, Seattle, WA: 

Na’ah Illahee has historically been an organization with a mission focused on Native women and girls. Over the last couple years, as I’ve gotten to know our Two Spirit and LGTBQ+ relatives in the Native community, I’ve been thinking about how Na’ah Illahee and other organizations can be more inclusive by offering more programs and support.

I feel strongly that when we bring in our Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ relatives, our language and overall atmosphere should reflect who they are, I want them to feel seen. I want our spaces and programs to feel welcoming and comfortable. Excluding our Two Spirit and LGTBQ+ relatives is not traditional. Remembering they hold a special place and contribute to the overall wellbeing of our communities is important.

I recently saw a webinar where our Two Spirit and LGTBQ+ relatives talked about feeling invisible in the already invisible. Native communities already feel invisible. Hearing their stories made me realize that we have work to do. We need to get out of our own way. We need to reflect on how colonization continues to show up in the ways we relate to one another, and on the impacts of colonization on our traditional teachings and our understanding of them. I do see work happening in our communities for our Two Spirit and LGTBQ+ relatives. We are remembering and giving space for the teachings to come forward. So, I have hope and faith that we will come around the bend and start having more conversations like this one.

Morgan Thomas (they/them) (Settler) Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board (NPAIHB)- Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ Outreach Coordinator, Portland, OR:

There’s long been Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ focused work at NPAIHB. However, in my understanding, before 2019 that work was often focused on specific health disparities, like through our THRIVE suicide prevention project and sexual health initiatives.

In 2019, though a collaboration between NPAIHB and IHS, we created a short film to share three Two Spirit or LGBTQ+ stories. In the process of making that film and talking to many Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ individuals about their experiences, we formed relationships. The current work grew from those relationships.

One of the ways in which we work to ensure we have a strengths-based approach to this work is by not having it exist within a program that is tied to very Western goals and objectives. Our program is created for Two Spirit LGBTQ+ people and centered on Indigenous concepts of holistic wellness for the individual and community. That feels important to combatting the narrative that these identities are inherently unhealthy when we know they aren’t—Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ identities are an incredible source of community and strength.

Marissa Perez (she/her) (Oglala, Mexican, and British American) Organizer- Cedar Rising Coalition, Seattle, WA:

I first began working in the gender-based violence field on Project Beacon, a DOJ-funded anti-trafficking program. I immediately noticed that it was very women focused. All the language in the grant and in our materials referenced only girls and women, though we knew that our men were being targeted, too. A mentor said to me, “There’s boys too. Why are you using women in all your language?” That led to further questions about including our 2SLGBTQ+ relatives. I began understanding what Two Spirit meant. I realized there were a lot of folks whose struggles and needs were not being captured in the language we were using.

When we started looking at Cedar Rising, a group of Native-led organizations coming together to combat MMIP and gender-based violence, I insisted that the language be inclusive, that instead of he/him or she/her, we use “relatives” or “survivors.” I got some pushback. There are some folks in the MMIW movement that are very focused on the W/G part of that movement. I do my best not to use MMIW. Instead I use MMIP, with the P standing for persons. Because not everyone falls under that W.

What is your personal stake in this work? Why do you feel compelled to be in action toward Two Spirit/LGTBQ+ equity and liberation?

Itai Jeffries (they/them) (Yèsah)- Partner Consultant- Biwa|Emergent Equity, Chapel Hill, NC:

A couple years ago I helped with an event for high schoolers with a Northwest tribe. My visibility has been a work in progress. I’m not comfortable with it half the time, because it can feel vulnerable to be as femme as I feel. I took a risk on that day and dressed boldly femme. One of the kids came up to me and started talking. They shared that they were so happy to see someone there who looked queer like them. They gifted me some incredible graph paper art they’d done. It reminds me that being seen is both validating for myself and also for others. When I’m afraid of personal risk, I think about them.

My visibility is important for queer and Two Spirit kids and also our cis-hetero folks including boys, young men, and men. As challenging as it may be—a lot of my traumatic experiences involved them, and it makes me fearful to be openly queer around them—we need them to encounter me and people like me, to learn to relate to us, too. If they learn to relate to people like me, they learn not to perpetuate the negative patterns that create the violence Marissa is working to fight.

Morgan:

My journey to this work and the way I think about myself is influenced by my identity as a settler. I grew up in a small Catholic, conservative, very white town without a lot of space for queerness. The only traditions that my family or my ancestors have are traditions of Christianity, of colonizers.

As I searched for queer spaces and understandings as a young adult, a lot of those spaces were held open for me by People of Color. In that way, my personal experience is a replication of history—queer spaces and freedom were fought for first and hardest by People of Color. White people have taken advantage of those spaces without fully recognizing their responsibility to contribute to the work of liberation. My work at the board comes from a place of gratitude to those, living and dead, who have worked to create and defend spaces where Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ people could be themselves and be safe.

Throughout my life, I’ve been consistently protected by privilege in ways the people around me weren’t. Originally, I clung to allyship as an answer to the discomfort of that realization of privilege, but recently that hasn’t felt sufficient. I was lucky that a colleague of mine sent an article—“Accomplices Not Allies,” by the Indigenous Action Network. The article resonated with me, in large part because it highlights the lack of risk taken by allies who contribute in small ways but are protected from real investment. I felt implicated by it. I’ve been thinking over the past few years about what being an accomplice looks like professionally and personally. My work at the Board feels like a part of that.

Marissa:

In January 2020, two young men went missing on my homeland reservation. They went missing around Christmas and were found deceased six months later. When it came time to do the MMIW Day of Awareness walk on May 5th, I decided to change the language. I knew that if we continued to be solely focused on the W and G in MMIP movement, we are telling the mothers of our men and our Two Spirit folks that their grief and brokenness don’t matter, that they don’t deserve justice, policy, or advocacy as much as the mothers of women and girls. My mind can’t see that as acceptable.

When I published a message on social media using MMIP instead of MMIW, I had folks call me a colonizer and a privileged white girl, folks told me I was erasing the movement. I got some really nasty personal attacks and messages, because I chose to move beyond the binary of just our women or girls. I chose to focus on our relatives, all of them, because gender-based violence is not just a cis/hetero man attacking a cis/hetero woman. We have to get out of the mindset that the only people who can be raped are women. All genders can create and experience gender-based violence.

The mothers of those two young men deserve advocacy, closure, hashtags, and ultimately justice just as much as the mothers of Selena Not Afraid and Kaysera Stops Pretty Places and the other women who are well known in the MMIW movement.

My role is that of a warrior. I’m not Two Spirit, but my family, my chosen family, includes Two Spirit people. I can’t say to them that this is who I serve, and you fall outside those lines, so you don’t deserve my service—Who am I to make that line? How dare I make that line? That’s not the Creator I serve. That’s not the path I’m on.

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