Culture

The Two Spirit struggle

Navigating gender identity in the 21st century

David Etcitty is a student at Columbia University and is trying raise awareness about what it means for Indigenous people to be Two Spirit. He hosts groups on campus to explore how to cope as an Indigenous person, who’s also gay or identifies as queer, living off reserve.

In one group, a student said he went to a queer-based workshop, told participants he identifies as Two Spirit and only got blank stares of confusion in return.

It seems there’s a lot of misunderstanding of what the term means, and a disbelief that there even is such a thing as a third gender in Native cultures.

David Etcitty/Indian Country Today

“I’m either indigenous, or I’m queer,” Etcitty told Indian Country Today. “Non-indigenous people tell me they didn’t think Natives still existed, much less could be gay. But it really shouldn’t be that complicated.”

Many Indigenous communities embraced the idea of Two Spirit people. In many societies, according to Indian Country Today, someone could come out as gay first and then begin Two Spirit “coming in” ceremonies. They were also often considered spiritual leaders and respected as storytellers, healers and counsellors.

These days, the experience is usually very different, especially for Indigenous youth like Etcitty.

He said his family accepted him when he came out as gay at 18, but didn’t recognize or accept the Two Spirit identifier.

Here in Canada, people identifying as Two Spirit are more likely to experience violence than heterosexual First Nations and are twice as likely to experience assault than LGBT folks in the general population, according to the National Aboriginal Health Organization. 

“I don’t know what it’s like to fully embrace, and be recognized, as Two Spirit,” Etcitty said. “I don’t feel like I’m wanted. I don’t know if I’ll ever be happy.”

Do you or anyone you know identfy as Two Spirit? How can we help others understand what it means? 

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