As of now, a share of LGBTQ-related literature and research use the concept of two-spirit to showcase First Nations’ acceptance and recognition of non-cis non-hetero members. Unfortunately, this approach to the subject matter may not do the communities any good: in a way, it romanticizes two-spirit people and ignores their dire problems. This paper shows that two-spirit people are not anymore empowered or liberated now that society has grown to be more sensitive to LGBTQ issues and that their status is often not a blessing but a curse.
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Terms used in this paper:
- Two-spirit is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range or sexual orientations and identities other than cisgender and heterosexual. The concept is endemic to the Aboriginal people of North America and used predominantly by them. Due to its broadness, the term “two-spirit” allows for certain ambiguity. On the one hand, it may refer to some of a person’s characteristics that are not performative but rather descriptive. Depending on a culture, nation, or tribe in question, two-spirit may mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or other sexualities and identities. On the other hand, two-spirit may refer to performative roles that a person chooses to take up within their community. Given a clear distinction between male and female roles in the majority of First Nations’ communities, two-spirit people stand out by borrowing behaviors, rights, and responsibilities from both genders.
- First Nations, First People, indigenous people are all synonyms denoting nations, ethnicities, and tribes inhabiting North America before European colonization; the terms are used interchangeably throughout the text;
- LGBTQ is an abbreviature that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. Nowadays, the abbreviature comes in many other variations with more identities having their own letters. For this paper, the general interpretation is a human demographic consisting of individuals who are neither heterosexual (attracted to the opposite sex) or cisgender (identifying with the same gender they were assigned at birth).
Safety and Health
Modern liberal literature often praise indigenous communities for upholding their philosophy regarding sex and gender despite the external pressure. In particular, Hunt provides examples used in booklets and articles on the First Nations’ resistance where the identity of two-spirit people is seen as an act of bravery and upheaval. What is often dismissed however is the cost at which these people manage to retain their identities and personal integrity. Firstly, two-spirit Aboriginal people are twice as likely to be targeted by homophobes and racists. As of now, the Canadian government does not have any conclusive information on the violence rates against Aboriginal LGBT individuals. However, police reports contain two important pieces of statistics that may help to put together a fuller picture of what is happening. Half of the hate crimes committed in Canada are committed on the grounds of racial hatred; 13% of the crimes – on the grounds of hatred because of sexual orientation. It is readily imaginable how two-spirited indigenous people end up at the intersection of these two vulnerable demographics.
When it comes to intersectional analysis, one fact should be stated is the heightened vulnerability of two-spirited women. Hunt reports that Aboriginal women identifying as two-spirited are at the “triple jeopardy (15).” They are targeted because they are female, because they date people of the gender that they were assigned at birth (homophobia), and because they are transgender. Statistically, Aboriginal two-spirited women experience higher rates of violence than heterosexual Aboriginal women and White lesbians (Hunt 15). According to Hunt, violence may take many forms: it may come from strangers as well as occur within a family (15; Furman 363). The latter is a dangerous setting for dysfunctional abusive dynamics. Hunt reports that many two-spirited women stay in abusive relationships because they are practically isolated. Their own community might not be quite supportive while communities outside reservations are often even less sympathetic and understanding of their struggles.
The last aspect worth mentioning is mental and physical health of two-spirited people. Due to their marginalized identities, they are often depressed and may be even ideating suicide. Again, at present, neither the US or the Canadian governments are able to provide meaningful data on the suicide rates in two-spirited people. However, it is possible to draw some conclusions when analyzing the two demographics of which two-spirited people are part. LGBTQ individuals are 2.5-3 times as likely to commit suicide than cishetero North Americans. Suicide rates in indigenous communities are also concerning: the recent data shows that Aboriginal people are at higher risk of taking their own lives than Canadians of European descent. Combined with low access to health services, including psychiatric help, it puts two-spirited people in a position where their mental health can get out of control and push them to the brink of suicide.
Acceptance and Recognition
One more issue with how two-spirited people are often presented as liberated in the media is that they still need to adhere to the predetermined gender roles. For instance, in the Eastern Woodland Societies, men and women are supposed to take on quite different duties and responsibilities with the communities. Traditionally, women would stay at home and maintain the household while travelers and explorers were predominantly male. It is safe to assume that if a person decides to transcend their gender and assume a different identity, they will not be fully free from social conditioning but will only play by a different set of rules. Barker shows that even the language used to describe the divergent identities implies playing the role of the opposite sex (89). The researcher provides an example of the Ojibwe nation that calls two-spirited people ininiikaazo. The term loosely translates to “women who functioned as men” / “one who endeavors to be like a man”. The role of a man was pre-defined – both in terms of clothes and work tasks. This shows that even making a transition from one gender to another does not always help indigenous youth to get rid of the boundaries of tradition.
Recent research has discovered evidence undermining the notion of universal acceptance and recognition of two-spirit people in their own communities. For instance, Hunt describes a study conducted in Canadian cities exploring the mobility of two-spirit Indigenous youth (10). It turned out that the majority of young people did not feel free to be themselves within smaller communities. They could not escape pressure and had no one to reach out to for mental support. Regarding the latter, the reason may be that small communities do not have that much access to medical help, psychological services included. This makes young two-spirit people to leave their tribes and reservations and move to cities where they have a chance to both improve their health and find like-minded individuals.
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A prime example of a personal transformation fueled by relocation is the story of Jazmine Smith, a two-spirit trans woman. Smith grew up in Flying Dust First Nation in northern Saskatchewan. She felt different from the other kids because she could not relate to them at a very basic level. Boys her age were into rough and loud games – tossing and tumbling. Smith’s hobbies, on the other hand, lied in the realm of the feminine. Since childhood, Jazmine has been fascinated with makeup and the almost magic abilities it provided her with – changing her own and other people’s appearance. Unfortunately, the woman could not unlock her full potential living in a reservation. At some point, Jazmine moved to Vancouver where she became a makeup artist and a producer, debuting with her I Am Me mini-film. This life story is quite positive and encouraging; however, it shows once again that two-spirit youth often have to escape the stifling public sentiment of Native communities to be free.
Another reason why the increased awareness of two-spirit people’s issues may not be exactly positive is that it opens the door to cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is defined as a process during which the dominant class borrows or exploits the cultural elements of a subjugated class. The typical dynamics are so that the subjugated class may be oppressed and humiliated for the said cultural elements. However, when the dominant class uses them, they are celebrated: the elements suddenly turn from weird and unacceptable to unique and exotic. Cameron shows that the cultural concepts of two-spiritedness exist outside the Western dichotomy of sexuality and should not mesh and mix (123). The interest of the Western culture to First Nations’ ideas about sex and gender may be rather damaging than healing.
According to Cameron, the Western culture has no right to usurp the concept of two-spiritedness due to the twisted dynamics that have been developing between the two cultures sharing the land for centuries (124). Before colonization, two-spirited people were highly appreciated by the community. In Niish Manidowaag (Two-Spirited Beings), the protagonists learn about the special place that people with diverse sexual and gender identities had in their tribes. They were cherished because the common sentiment was that two-spirited people were born with a special gift which was to see the world through the lens of both male and female genders. The European conquerors destabilized the communities and interfered with the centuries-old practices. In particular, Cameron explains that back when Europeans first started colonizing the land, they made sure to extinguish the cultural elements in First People that were not compatible with Christianity (125). Residential schools were established where indigenous children had to be educated up to the Western standards. As Cameron shows, there was nothing noble about the intention to school those little kids: they were severely abused, and those who identified as two-spirits were often an easy target.
These facts about the past and the present of ethnic dynamics between the Westerns and First People need to be mentioned and remembered because they perfectly explain how heavy-weighted the concept of two-spiritedness is. Due to violence and oppression, the concept of being two-spirited has become psychologically charged. Yet, it is often used as part of the so-called New Age movement that uses the teachings and philosophies of the past to build a holistic view of the world. As much as the adherents of the New Age have every right to keep their spiritual beliefs, they should refrain from using endemic identities (Cameron 127). All in all, the exploitation of two-spiritedness for spiritual needs is not a gateway to respect and acknowledgment.
One may ask whether two-spirited people could share common experiences with the Western LGBTQ community. Cameron argues that this view is somewhat delusional: to the researcher, it would be nothing more than “an unrealistic vision of commonality (124).” When comparing two demographics (in this case, two-spirited people and the LGBTQ community), it suffices not to only consider one axis of similitude. As it has been shown in this paper, two-spirited people has their own share of unique problems stemming from their ethnic background. When analyzed from the standpoint of intersectionality, it is readily visible that two-spirited people’s standing in society differs from that of those belonging in the LGBTQ community. Raising awareness by meshing these two demographics together would only lead to ignoring the challenges that two-spirited people face on a daily basis.
The concept of being two-spirited is not a new formation due to the current liberalization of the West and growing openness to gender and sexuality diversity. In actuality, two-spirit predates the modern LGBTQ theory and terminology as it existed for centuries for centuries before the continent’s colonization. Nowadays, the media and the liberal movement often exploit the concept of two-spiritedness to make a case for the openness and acceptance within Aboriginal communities. For some people, being two-spirit may be even seen as “hip” and trendy: for instance, it is used by the adherents of the New Age ideology. The idealization of two-spirit people makes it easy to dismiss the real-world issues that they deal with on a daily basis. They experience higher rates of violence, depression, and suicide while not getting to reach out for help with ease. Even their own communities may be stifling two-spirited people’s self-expression and freedom of choice. Lastly, their identity may be distorted due to the phenomenon of cultural appropriation.
Barker, Joanne, ed. Critically Sovereign: Indigenous Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. Duke University Press, 2017.
Cameron, Michelle. “Two-spirited Aboriginal People: Continuing Cultural Appropriation by Non-Aboriginal Society.” Canadian Woman Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 2005, pp. 123-127.
Furman, Ellis, et al. “It’s a Gap in Awareness”: Exploring Service Provision for LGBTQ2S Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence in Ontario, Canada.” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, vol. 29, no. 4, 2017, pp. 362-377.