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Activists hold the rainbow flag. More than 100 local LGBTQ2S + supporters gathered Friday evening at the southeast corner of Whyte Avenue and 104 Street to celebrate the city of Edmonton proclamation recognizing the area is Pride Corner. On Friday, 13 May 2022, in Whyte Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Being Two-Spirit and trans in Canada: How colonization shaped the way we view gender diversity

For Phantasma Levesque, learning about their Two-Spiritedness hasn’t been easy. As a Two-Spirit, Jamaican and Néhinaw person, Levesque did not know Two-Spirit people existed until they started to reconnect with their Indigenous roots.

“It’s only been very recently for me that I’ve started to find a Two-Spirit community, and as a result only recently have I felt identifying in that way,” Levesque said.

“One of the reasons it was so difficult was because I didn’t know that folks like me exist… Even now I’m still learning about what it means to be Two-Spirit because the knowledge has been lost through colonialism.”

FULL COVERAGE: Inside Pride

What does Two-spirit mean?

Two-Spirit is a modern umbrella term used by Indigenous peoples in North America to describe a person with both masculine and feminine spirits. Two-Spirit people are blessed by the Creator to see life through the eyes of both genders and often hold important spiritual and knowledge-keeping roles in their communities.

The term was first coined in 1990 by Myra Laramee at the third International Gathering of American Indian and First Nations Gays and Lesbians in Manitoba, according to queer Kanyen’kehá:ka writer Marie Laing in her book Urban Indigenous Youth Reframing Two-Spirit.

At the time, gay and lesbian Indigenous organizations were being created in the face of homophobia in Indigenous communities and racism in LGBTQ2 spaces in Canada.

But for queer and transgender Indigenous people, the need for a new term to describe the wide range of nation-specific gender identities across Turtle Island and to help with inter-nation organizing. Unlike Western ideas around queerness and gender identity, Two-Spiritedness acknowledges the fluidity and spectrum of gender identity and expression.

Despite the term’s relatively young age, Two-Spirit people have existed for centuries prior to European contact. Indigenous Elders tell and pass down stories about Two-Spirit people who were honoured and revered as visionaries and healers in many cultures.

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The role of colonization on Two-Spirit erasure

Colonization, however, has led many Indigenous people to think negatively about queer and gender-diverse people in their communities.

Christian missionaries rejected alternative concepts of gender. Two-Spirit people were often reduced by explorers and anthropologists as “berdaches,” drawing from the Persian word for “slave,” especially a boy slave kept for sexual purposes.

The term represented a limited understanding of gender and denounced the fluidity of gender identity within many First Nations, according to a report by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The erasure of Two-Spiritedness from Indigenous communities was racist, colonial and incredibly harmful. As it became more and more dangerous, and even illegal, for Two-Spirit people to be open about their identity, many were prevented from doing so by family members or forced to conform to patriarchal gender roles.

“Some of the teachings associated with the church have led to some of our old people and some younger people to think negatively about queerness and Two-Spirit people within our communities,” said Lori Campbell, University of Regina’s associate vice-president of Indigenous engagement. Campbell is a Two-Spirit nēhiýaw āpihtāwikosisān and is a band member of Montreal Lake First Nation, Treaty 6 territory.

“There are pictures of women on horseback as a warrior riding alongside men. There are people who may have been biologically born male but lived with the women and took on maternal roles and responsibilities.

“It wasn’t until colonization that people tried to censor these stories.”

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Colonial language and gender

The gender binary has also affected the way racialized trans, non-binary and Two-Spirit people describe their identities.

Many cultures have multiple genders that can’t be described in English.

“Although I use she/her pronouns, I say I’m Two-Spirit. I don’t know how to explain it other than when I wear a dress it might feel like a heterosexual man wearing a dress like it feels uncomfortable and awkward,” Campbell said.

“For me, being Two-Spirit is a role. It’s a responsibility. It’s coming to know and continuing to learn about my place within Indigenous communities.”

Other languages, such as spoken Mandarin, may not even have pronouns at all. Parker Henry, a trans community worker for Skipping Stone in Calgary, said Tagalog does not really have pronouns.

“It’s a beautiful thing because there are no pronouns, and everyone is gender-neutral,” Henry said. “But it’s also difficult because when pronouns are affirming for people, it can be very harmful and hurtful. It’s harder for people to get those right due to language barriers.”

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Reclaiming stolen identities

Many trans, non-binary and Two-Spirit Black, Indigenous and people of colour have also had their cultural identities stolen through colonialism, which they have to grapple with in addition to cisnormative gender expectations.

Campbell, Levesque and Henry all expressed the importance of empowering other racialized trans, non-binary, Two-Spirit and gender-diverse people in their communities.

After being excommunicated by her adoptive family for coming out as queer, Campbell decided she wanted to reconnect with her Indigenous heritage and biological family at 27-years-old. Her mother, she says, welcomed and accepted her right away.

Now she wants other Two-Spirit youth to feel the same.

“I was up at Montreal Lake First Nation and I was invited to speak at an event talking to youth about what it’s like to be Two-Spirit… When I was done, a young person literally leaped out of their chair and told me how hard it was to be Two-Spirit,” Campbell said.

“They said ‘I’m just like you’ and asked for a hug. I said absolutely.”

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Henry expressed similar sentiments, highlighting the importance of creating spaces for racialized LGBTQ2 people. He facilitates Mosaic Hearts, a program by Skipping Stone that holds space to discuss how racialized identities intersect with trans, non-binary and Two-Spirit identities.

“It feels amazing (to find a community of trans people). It feels like family, like these are my siblings — my queer and trans siblings,” Henry said.

“The beautiful thing about dismantling the gender binary is not just choosing your own path or your own gender. It’s like choosing your family, choosing your community… That’s super important.”

Henry is also exploring the Filipino side of his heritage, something he wasn’t able to do growing up.

“It’s a beautiful gift that I’ve given myself. I felt a lot of resentment, a lot of anger growing up that I didn’t have access to that. It was kind of taken away from me,” Henry said.

But Lavesque, who also helps facilitate Mosaic Hearts, notes that simply allowing Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) into queer and trans spaces isn’t enough.

“If there’s a space or organization and they claim to inclusive but all of their leadership is just white folks, even if it’s white queer folks, that’s not inclusive. That’s not decolonizing, but not a lot of folks are willing to do that,” Lavesque said.

“I want to see more queer and trans BIPOC folks starting and creating their own space. Taking their own space, building their own communities… It’s unfortunate that this needs to be done but we need more spaces away from white supremacy.”

In the month of June, Global News is exploring deeper issues related to the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community in our series, Inside Pride, which looks at the importance of the acronym and the labels it represents.