We can all probably agree that it’s complicated enough being a woman or a man. Imagine being both. There is nothing quite simple about exactly who and what the two-spirit is.

Two-spirit is a neo-traditional movement that emerged in Winnipeg in 1990, during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference.

The term gained popularity in various cities across the country, and was gradually adopted by many urban Natives experiencing any given form of so-called gender fluidity and any contemporary Native who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual—you name it—could join the two-spirit community.

Historical traditions

The goal is to reclaim some of the ancient Aboriginal ideas and traditions that had historically valued those individuals in their communities, believed to be born with both male and female spirits.

“Across Canada now there are a lot of Aboriginal people or people that have Aboriginal ancestry who want to reconnect with their past,” explained Craig Ross, the Youth Director at the Montreal Native Friendship Centre, who has been researching and looking at the two-spirit phenomenon.

“Two-spiritedness is an attempt to reach into the past […] but in terms of what it actually was like before, we don’t really know in a lot of cases. So it’s sort of reconstructed, and it’s sort of become its own thing,” he said.

Though Native and gay, Ross does not identify himself as a two-spirit.

Communities set apart

Nancy Leclerc, an anthropology professor at Vanier College, has studied the two-spirit movement for several years. She says that not all Native communities treat gender and sexuality in the same way. “The extent to which they were respected by their society varies. You had some societies like the Navajo where they were fairly well respected and accepted into the society; it wasn’t such a big deal,” she explained. “They didn’t have a hang up about it so much, and individuals who in childhood would show that they had more affinity for the tasks of the opposite sex wouldn’t necessarily be discouraged from adopting that gender.

“In some cases, they would […] be shamans, they would be considered to be people that have access to the spiritual realm in a very special way because of the ‘two-spirits,’” Leclerc continued.

“You have examples, like with the Mohave, where you had both female and male gender variants, and there was some level of scorn there. If a male gender variant among the Mohave, as a boy, started displaying [conventionally feminine] tendencies the parents wouldn’t be too happy about it […]. There was some shame there, there was some ridicule.”

An emerging celebration

So while the two-spirit concept, emerging as a neo-traditional movement, might in some instances rightfully celebrate a historically positive attitude toward Native gender variants in some communities, this was not always the case.

According to Ross, the idea of the two-spirit can be very comforting to Native Americans who are both Aboriginal and espousing any given form of “unconventional” gender identity or sexual orientation.

“You have Aboriginal people experiencing oppressions based on the fact that they’re Aboriginal, so it’s a lot of socioeconomic stuff, intergenerational stuff, and also the fact that they’re sort of queer […] they’re sexual minorities—so it’s like intersecting oppressions,” explained Ross.

A feeling of community

It is this feeling of minority that creates the community feeling of two-spiritedness, explained Leclerc.

“Since two-spirit is very inclusive I think it’s so they can unite [all gender variant/gay/lesbian] Aboriginal people,” she said. “Because if they tried to unite just the Aboriginal bisexual people, you have a very small population. Just the Aboriginal lesbian—[a] small population. Just the Aboriginal transgendered—[another] small population. Whereas if you unite them all in the face of a common oppression, it’s one thing.”

For many contemporary transgender, gay, or lesbian Natives living in the city, identifying as two-spirit is a way to help them cope with difficult social and psychological circumstances.

“A lot of the two-spirit communities are made up largely of people living with HIV/AIDS—a lot of people with a lot of emotional baggage, so if you introduce this identity that says ‘you were once a big part, a respected part of your community’ you can’t blame [them] for taking that, because it’s all they have,“ said Ross.

A 2004 Canadian study by David Garmaise and Theodore de Bruyn summarized the underlying social dynamics of the two-spirit movement. Echoing Ross’s comments, the authors described how alienation from their own communities causes sexual minority Natives to knock at a welcoming two-spirit door.

"Two-spirit people face homophobia and transphobia from the dominant non-Aboriginal culture and from their own communities,” stated the study. “Many two-spirit people are displaced from their home communities and culture; others are forced to lead secretive lives.”

Few are likely to face tolerance or acceptance in reserves.

An urban phenomenon

The study concludes that the emergence of the two-spirits movement, especially as an urban phenomenon, provided a safe space for ostracized Natives to recover or affirm their cultural and social identity as two-spirited Aboriginals.

The majority of Aboriginal people living with HIV/AIDS continue to live in the urban centres of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Fearing rejection and AIDSphobia should they return home, they continue to live away from their communities for years.

Aboriginal people continue to be at higher risk for multiple problems, including suicide. In the United States, Aboriginal youth are about two to two-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide than their white counterparts; in Canada the risk factor is about five times.

Government support

As with several other Aboriginal practices and traditions, the Canadian government seems happy to support the two-spirit movement. Health Canada’s website lists the 2003 Annual International Two-Spirit Gathering at Geneva Park in Ontario among other projects in its 2003-2004 HIV/AIDS Work Plan for First Nations and Inuit Health.

Ross offered an explanation why.

“The government is always trying to push things on Native people to make them reclaim their roots,” he said. “They really try to push this stuff, because [they love] when sick brown people are happy.”