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Two-spirit youth are reclaiming their identities and spaces to call their own

They will have a special place of prominence at this year’s Toronto Pride parade

by Rachel Browne
Jun 21 2017, 2:05pm

Ezra always felt out of place growing up part Mi’kmaq in the mostly white areas around Peterborough, Ontario, a couple hours northeast of Toronto.

“As a child I was torn between knowing that I had Indigenous heritage and something that, I think, had been pushed in my family, which was Christianity,” said Ezra, who used to go by “she” and now, at 22, uses “they” pronouns.

Ezra doesn’t like to talk about their parents — both of whom are of mixed European and Indigenous descent — but says neither discussed what it meant to be Native. “My Indigenous heritage was shamed for me.”

It’s a feeling understood by those who have been impacted by the trauma inflicted on Indigenous peoples who were forced to reject their culture and attend residential schools run by churches and the Canadian government for more than a century.

Two-spirit members of Ode march in the Toronto Pride Parade in 2016. Photo from Facebook.

For Ezra, there also wasn’t much discussion about gender and sexuality, except for the homophobic slurs used routinely by those in the community. They came out as transgender by age 20, and started taking testosterone. Ezra eventually moved to Toronto, where they connected with Indigenous youth and discovered they were two-spirit.

“The community there affirmed to me that I have two spirits, male and female energies, and it just felt revolutionary for me,” Ezra, who has since stopped taking hormones entirely to “de-transition,” recalled recently at a weekly drop-in group for Indigenous two-spirit youth in the city called Ode (the Ojibwe word for “heart” pronounced oh-day).

“I hope that it’s the beginning of honouring more two-spirit and Indigenous people.”

It’s one of the only groups of its kind to offer services for people often forgotten or excluded from many Indigenous and LGBTQ initiatives. And it comes at a time when there’s a striking resurgence happening for two-spirit people across the country. A group of them will march as honoured guests at this year’s Toronto Pride parade, which has also named prominent Cree two-spirit artist Kent Monkman as national grand marshal. For the first time, this community will be featured with prominence at the celebration — one of the largest in the world.

“I hope that it’s the beginning of honouring more two-spirit and Indigenous people,” said Kiley May, who will serve as a youth ambassador for Pride this year. For May, this spotlight is another sign that two-spirit people, highly revered in Indigenous communities before colonization, are rapidly re-gaining prominence alongside the growing chorus of First Nation, Métis and Inuit voices striving to disrupt the status quo.

Still, Ezra and their two-spirit peers face unique daily obstacles. Disproportionate rates of homelessness and poverty are still a reality, and they confront homophobia and racism in all aspects of their lives. “But we take each other in, we’re a big family,” said Ezra.

What it means to be two-spirit can differ among different First Nations and Native American communities across North America, but it broadly refers to an Indigenous person who identifies as carrying male and female energies. However, it’s not necessarily based on one’s gender or sexual preference, but rather the spirits.

Prior to colonization two-spirit people were among the most respected within Indigenous communities for possessing unique leadership skills and wisdom.

The term “two-spirit” is recent, and was coined during the early 1990s at a gathering of Indigenous LGBTQ leaders to replace the French term “berdache” used by settlers as a derogatory phrase to describe any Indigenous person who did not fall into their Judeo-Christian understanding of male or female. Some were even killed for not doing so. This destruction of two-spirit and LGBTQ identities was eventually internalized by many Indigenous communities, some of which continue to shun those who don’t adhere to Eurocentric gender and sexual identities.

But, prior to colonization two-spirit people were among the most respected within Indigenous communities for possessing unique leadership skills and wisdom. Many became celebrated healers and hunters, and served special roles in ceremonies.

And it’s the reclaiming of this original understanding of what it means to be two-spirit that is the driving force behind groups like Ode that seek to help Indigenous youth explore these aspects of themselves through cultural teachings and practices.

Kiley May, who uses “they,” grew up on Six Nations, the largest First Nations reserve in Canada that’s located in southern Ontario. They grew up in what they describe as a traditional family, going to ceremonies and speaking the Mohawk language. But May didn’t behave like the other boys in the community where men were expected to be masculine and macho. “I was always a very effeminate child, called a ‘girly boy,’” May remembers. “My parents discouraged my femininity.”

Kiley May, this year's youth ambassador for Pride Toronto. Photo by Alyson Hardwick for VICE News

“I sort of assimilated and conformed and tried so hard to be masculine, and it was horrible … I became depressed, I felt like a fraud, but that’s what I had to do to survive.”

And so May fought for good marks in school to get into university and away from it all. “It breaks my heart to say this, but when I was a child, I made a promise to myself that I would leave my reserve so that I could be myself,” said May. They moved to Toronto for school in 2007. Five years later, at age 25, May started transitioning and eventually identified as two-spirit and gender queer. “It was wanting to honour being Indigenous and to have my Indigenous identity tied into my queer identity,” said May, who’s now 30. “I was also excited to reclaim and take back these two-spirit roles and responsibilities and incorporate them into my life. Honouring the historical origins of our two-spirit communities and carrying that forward.”

May says that over the last 15 years or so, they’ve noticed the reserve has started to embrace LGBTQ and two-spirit identities, something May wished was the case when they were a kid.

They also hope the renewed awareness around being two-spirit helps bring about changes they’ve noticed happening back home on Six Nations already and might translate to the other Indigenous communities that are “entrenched in old world homophobia and transphobia, which is an impact of colonization,” said May.

“Bringing attention to the whole world as opposed to being just ‘token Indians.’”

There’s been a Pride celebration on Six Nations for the last few years, something that is still shocking to May. “Fifteen years ago, I could never imagine it,” they said. “There’s also a youth drop-in group there for LGBTQ youth … I know some youth who are transitioning on the reserve, which is amazing.” May says they often think back to what it would have been like to be who they were on reserve, and hopes that in the future, more children will have the opportunity to be embraced as two-spirit.

Neno Ochrym, a former worker at Ode who is now coordinating the two-spirit presence and events for Pride Toronto, pointed out that Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, will be marching with the group as well, in addition to Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister for Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

Ode outreach poster. Photo from Ode Facebook

“What we’re doing with Pride Toronto is making a political statement,” said Ochrym. “Bringing attention to the whole world as opposed to being just ‘token Indians.’”

“This moment is a stepping stone for our community, a small blueprint of what is to come of our community in the future.”

But with this embracing of two-spirit identity comes the harsh realization that two-spirit Indigenous youth disproportionately live at the margins of society and experience poverty, addictions, and insecure housing, especially after they leave home for cities, by choice or other means.

“They might have been taken from home, or raised by a foster family,” said Melissa Carroll, a researcher and social advocate who helped found Ode. “A lot of youth come from reserves to Toronto, which is heralded as the epicentre for opportunity for anyone who’s diverse … They come to the city to realize they can’t get into a shelter, and if they can, they’re told to go back into the closet or become someone different.”

There’s no emergency youth LGBTQ2S housing anywhere in the country.

For example, Ezra says they and their two-spirit friends face constant discrimination when it comes to housing and getting jobs. “I’ve been struggling to find a place, I’ve faced eviction, thankfully I’m not living on the streets yet.”

Research has consistently shown for decades that LGBTQ2 (the 2 stands for two-spirit) youth have been overrepresented among Canada’s homeless youth populations. While Statistics Canada has found that around 6 percent of all youth in Canada are Indigenous, they can make up around half of homeless youth in some major urban centres. Yet the first housing programs for LGBTQ2 only opened in the past two years, in Calgary and Vancouver in 2015 followed by a transitional housing facility for LGBTQ2 youth opened in Toronto last year, however these spaces aren’t often run by Indigenous and two-spirit people, and the wait lists are lengthy. On top of that, there’s no emergency youth LGBTQ2S housing anywhere in the country, said Carroll.

Two-spirit members of Ode march in the Toronto Pride Parade in 2016. Photo from Facebook.

Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed the first special advisor on LGBTQ2 issues, although it’s unclear what projects will be pursued for two-spirit people.

Carroll says that most of the non-Indigenous shelters and organizations don’t understand what it means to be two-spirit, and therefore can’t help these youth, or push them away. “A lot of mainstream organizations are trans-ignorant and transphobic. If you’re a young trans or two-spirit woman who identifies as a woman, but you’re chucked into a dorm with a bunch of men because they don’t have a special place for you, that can be very dangerous. And a lot don’t understand what it means to live on the streets. They want you clean and sober and pure and in bed by 8pm.” And that just isn’t based in reality, she added.

And that same ignorance or lack of understanding about what it means to be two-spirit can be found in LGBTQ and Indigenous groups as well, said Carroll. Many groups will “slap on” the “2S” to the end of “LGBTQ,” without the proper knowledge. She added that the next urgent step needed in the city, and across Canada, is access to housing that’s for, and run by, two-spirit people.

“At first I was nervous to even come here, because I was born black and Native.”

Forming Ode was a way to connect with young Indigenous people with teachings, ceremony, and provide access to employment skills and housing. “This stuff is so important because kids on the streets have access to a lot of stuff that can hurt them, and they gain survivor sills, but not access to the good things like traditional foods, safe spaces to talk about life and how shitty it can be, and to grieve without being judged,” Carroll said. “And many of the youth we work with are given the opportunity to become youth mentors. We create jobs for them, so they get paid to do what they love.”

That’s what happened with Amica, who goes by “they” pronouns and started working as a coordinator for Ode in January, just a couple months after they attended the group for the first time. “At first I was nervous to even come here, because I was born black and Native,” said Amica. “And I would feel discouraged from learning about my Native side, from my mom. Sometimes I felt like people who are mixed and Native didn’t exist, people like me basically … I’ve now been brought back to my culture and to a sense of community that I didn’t realize I actually needed in my life.”

Now, Amica is leading a new project called Ode Juniors that will open up programming to Indigenous pre-teens and children. “For the future of us and for two-spirit people, I envision Native people, mixed Native people, and I just imagine it as a loving community.”