Young, indigenous and two-spirit: resisting the backlash against our rights

From colonialism to the rise of the far right, two-spirit people have been under attack in the settler-state of Canada. But we are fighting back.

Raven Dinelle
9 August 2019, 11.17am
'Androgyny' artwork by Anishinaabe painter Norval Morrisseau, Ottawa, Canada, 2017
Flickr/Luc Blain. CC BY-NC 2.0. Some rights reserved

I am a young, Indigenous activist from the settler-state of Canada, residing on the stolen lands of three Indigenous nations: the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe and the Neutral Peoples. Today, on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, I am reflecting on my experience as a two-spirit (or 2S) person – a term which carries specific cultural meaning to the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples of Turtle Island (more commonly known now as North America).

Despite colonial desires to put us in a box, two-spirit people are not synonymous with LGBTIQ+ people – and cannot be directly equated with non-Indigenous (settler) transgender identities. It’s simply not a term that can be comprehended within the limitations of the English language. Broadly, it refers to the distinct experience of those who don’t conform to heteronormativity or cisnormativity, and those who embrace gender diversity, while living within Indigenous traditions.

That said, different nations use the term differently – some focusing more on gender, others on sexuality, while not all gender non-conforming indigenous people identify as two-spirit. (I did say it was near impossible to define in this language).

“We were revered for our capacity to bridge two worlds, two genders, two sexualities; for our power in living outside of binaries”

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Our oral traditions tell us that 2S people were historically celebrated for their identity and had important leadership roles – including during ceremonies, or as mediators, medicine people and healers. We were revered for our capacity to bridge two worlds, two genders, two sexualities; for our power in living outside of binaries. But colonialism attempted to crush our culture, and with this, our two-spirit tradition.

Our two-spirit ancestors went underground to protect our way of life; they continued to pass on teachings to the next seven generations. Today, Indigenous youth like myself are reclaiming our two-spirit identity to dismantle homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and phobia against 2S people formed under colonialism.

I grew up and still live near the largest First Nations reserve in Canada. But there is a lack of services and resources for two-spirit people here, from housing to domestic violence services, healthcare, mental health services and other welfare programmes. Being both Indigenous and 2SLGBTIQ+ we face unique marginalisation and the services that do exist are rarely targeted and tailored to our experiences.

We suffer a significant amount of discrimination from within our Indigenous communities – along with racism, tokenism and erasure within western LGBTIQ+ communities. They misunderstand our experience as synonymous with theirs, and they adhere to the same bigotry towards Indigenous people as other Canadian settlers. In this way, the backlash against our rights has continued into the post-colonial era today – and it’s coming from all sides.

“The backlash is coming from all sides”

Much like the current toxic debate around the identities of settler (non-Indigenous) trans people, 2S people face a backlash from some women’s rights groups. It’s spearheaded in Canada by particular brand of these groups – those comprised of people known as Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (or TERFs) who seem to feel threatened by the very existence of 2S and trans people.

An article published on the Feminist Current website last year – and widely shared among Canadian feminists on social media – is a case in point. It claimed that “cultures that have ‘third genders’ don’t prove transgenderism is either ubiquitous or progressive”. This rhetoric directly attacks us, as if our identities are up for debate.

In June, the far right attacked local Pride events, an annual celebration for 2SLGBTIQ+ people, inclusive of two-spirit people. The current Ontario premier Doug Ford has spoken out against these celebrations in the past. Last year, he halted the teaching of a 2015 sex education curriculum, which means, among many retrogressive things, that young people will no longer learn about 2S identities.

And if it couldn’t get any worse, our potential new prime minister (if he wins this autumn’s elections) Andrew Scheer, is known for his anti-2SLGBTIQ+ stance. He stood alongside characters like ultra-conservative Jordan Peterson to vehemently oppose Bill C-16, a piece of federal legislation that extended human rights protections to 2S and trans people. It was passed in 2017, despite this backlash.

“We are constantly erased, silenced and attacked: our very existence is resistance”

In this harsh context, amidst constant erasure, silencing and attacks, our very existence is resistance. I myself have worked hard as a young activist to create safe spaces for 2SLGBTIQ+ Indigenous people at the local level, within our communities. I’ve also educated Indigenous youth on their voting rights, showing trans and 2S people how to register and vote in last summer’s provincial election.

Many 2S and trans people don’t register to vote, fearing that voter ID laws will make it a bureaucratic process if their identity doesn’t match the gender listed on their official documents. And many people from Indigenous communities have never wanted to register with Canadian settler state ID system in the first place.

All over Turtle Island, two-spirit people are resisting the backlash against 2S rights in their different ways. Xemi the two-spirit is a director, actor and author who uses the arts to highlight our communities’ resilience, for instance. Meanwhile, there are groups like 2-Spirits.com and the Portland two-spirit society that offer social spaces and support to 2S people in Toronto and Alaska respectively.

This resistance is also coming from the older generation. Elder Ma-nee Chacaby shares her experience of being two-spirit on the radio and at public events across Canada. She encourages other Indigenous people to come forward to share their stories too: “We are storytellers. That is our gift. And if they share their real stuff, what really happened in the past, the kids will learn from it”.

Through my own activism, online and offline, I’ve also been lucky to meet and learn about Indigenous peoples from Central and South America, Australia and New Zealand who are also standing strong against a centuries-old attack on our cultures.

“This generation is working hard to turn back the tide of colonialism, and that includes the backlash that has filtered into the present day”

I recently met a Maori person (a tribe Indigenous to what is now known as New Zealand). They were visiting Canada for a global conference on how to end homelessness and came to my local Indigenous community centre.

Despite our cultural differences, we found remarkable parallels in our experiences of colonisation and ongoing abuse. We spoke about working together to ensure that our cultures, languages, and ways of life are not wiped out.

We gifted them with traditional Indigenous medicines to thank them for coming to our centre, and as a sign of solidarity. In return, the Maori gifted us with a piece of jewellery that holds a symbolic meaning of gratitude in their culture. They also sang us a Maori song. It was an incredibly beautiful cultural exchange.

This generation is working hard to turn back the tide of colonialism, and that includes the present-day backlash against us with far right hate and anti-trans rhetoric. We are joining forces across nations, lands and even continents. We continue to bridge these multiple worlds and binaries to stop our cultures from being crushed.

Miigwetch (thank you) for giving me the opportunity to share my voice.

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