Aboriginal two-spirit people take place in LGBT+

by | Mar 20, 2015 | News

Katie Pedersen
Diversity Reporter

The LGBT+ community has added more and more letters to its acronym over the last several years as more gender identities and sexual orientations gain a presence. But what is the numeral in 2Spirit for?

Beyond the plus sign, the letters designating the queer community change from publication to publication, from LGBTQQ to LGBTTQQIAAP to LGBTTIQQ2S. The acronyms refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, allies, pansexual and two-spirit. Transgender is different from transsexual. Intersex is different from asexual. Questioning is different than bisexual.

Most of these letters identify either a sexual orientation like gay or lesbian, or a gender identity like transgender or intersex. But two-spirit is a bit different.

Two-spirit is the English term for a phenomenon that has lived in aboriginal culture for centuries. Craig Waboose, a 26-year-old paralegal student at Humber who works in the college’s Aboriginal Resource Centre, said that in First Nations’ cultures, gender roles are generally fixed.

“We do have various roles assigned to men and women,” he said. “In our ceremonies, males are the fire-keepers at our powwows, meaning they have to tend to the fire and make sure that it’s burning bright.

“For sweat-lodge ceremonies we have women who carry the water to the fire so that way we can use it in a sweat house,” said Waboose.

He said a two-spirited person is an individual that defies gender roles in some way, but not necessarily in all ways.

A two-spirit individual, embodying both the male and female spirit, may be a homosexual or transgender person, or they may be heterosexual and cisgender (their gender identity matches their assigned gender).

Art Zoccole is the executive director of the Two-Spirited Persons of the First Nations – an organization that primarily aims to raise HIV and AIDS awareness and support in Aboriginal communities. He said being two-spirit can be as simple as a woman in the tribe wanting to be a warrior, which is traditionally a man’s role.

Zoccole said the two-spirit population didn’t always face discrimination in society.

“In the past, if a woman wanted to be a warrior, that was totally acceptable,” he said. “If a male wanted to assume female roles, then that was totally acceptable too. I always say that there was no homophobia in Aboriginal communities prior to colonization.”

Although this is a bold statement, Waboose agrees that colonization degraded the two-spirit community’s place in society.

“When first contact happened with the Europeans, the Eurocentric ideology swept through the nation and that tide turned against us,” he said. “Over time we were persecuted.”

He said the term “two-spirit” varies in different Aboriginal communities but there is often a common idea that the individual has been born with two spirits – one that conforms to their designated gender norms, one in defiance of their gender.

“We look at everything from a spiritual perspective,” said Waboose. “I am two-spirited so I look at myself as having both the male aspects and female aspects so I can look at two sides of an issue.”

The two-spirit community’s fluid view of gender identity and sexual orientation is appealing to other members of the LGBT+ community that often find themselves on the polar end of a binary.

“I would totally identify as two-spirited if I didn’t feel like I would be (appropriating) someone else’s culture,” said Hadley Bird, a 21-year-old Humber student who is both transgender and bisexual.

It seems he’s not the only fan of the two-spirit culture. Last year, at World Pride 2014, Pride Toronto organizers chose Zoccole’s organization to be the “honoured group” which meant they got to be at the front of the parade.

“Last year was kind of a big milestone year because it was World Pride,” said Zoccole. “I think we’ll be scaling a little bit back this year.”

Waboose is helping with the two-spirit effort at Pride this year and said they will be incorporating gender and cultural aspects into the float to truly represent their unique identity.