“When I was a little boy, I knew something was different about me. I liked boys but I was scared of what people would say.” -Anonymous
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people go through this thought process of confusion, fear, and loss when they first question their feelings about their gender. Sadly, there is no organized community of LGBTQ elders who could lead the new generation in the right direction and mindset to develop their gender identity in a healthy manner. Instead, these young people decide one of two options: Keep it quiet or embrace their identity at the expense of their lives.
In Indian Country, many tribes use the word “Two-Spirits” to refer to today’s LGBTQ community. Before 1492, Two-Spirits held high position of social power in tribal communities. Two Spirits were also considered sacred because of their wisdom in understanding both male and female gender identities.Two Spirits became shamans and were responsible for the holistic wellness of their tribal community.
The elders of tribal communities distinguished Two-Spirits toddlers from the rest of the new generation in an interesting way. In one community, toddlers were placed in the center of a circle. In the center, toddlers played with toys like action figures, baskets of fruits, dolls, and so forth. The elders would light up a fire near the toddlers to scare them. Because of this, toddlers would grab the first item in the center of the circle and run to their parents. This was to test the child’s first instinct: whatever toy they chose was the one they felt safe with.
When boys grabbed action-figures, their gender was male. When girls grabbed baskets, their gender was female. When boys grabbed baskets and girls grabbed action-figures, their gender was Two-Spirits. They were carefully taken care of by the community and a Two-Spirits shaman. This was the way of our ancestors.
In the 21st century, Two-Spirits are lost in modern society. As children they grow up with no sense of identity. As teenagers they compromise to avoid bullying or intimidation. As adults they live a lie and comply with the rules of hetero-normative society. In 2013, Two Spirits people who were sacred in the past are now considered taboo by their own people.
“The PBS documentary Two Spirits examines the Navajo concept of nádleehí, the interrelationship between the feminine and the masculine within the individual, and mourns the death of a young Navajo, Fred Martinez, a male-bodied person with a feminine nature.” This documentary goes in depth of the Navajo understanding of four genders and explain how the concept of nádleehí allows fluidity and creativity when it comes to gender identity in the 21st century.
In 2006, A Mexican documentary Muxes talked about how the Zapotec Indians in Oaxaca, Mexico respect and kindly treat their Muxes with such reverence. Muxes are “a group of effeminate homosexual men whose socially defined roles within the Zapotec culture were established well in advance of the modern gay rights movement.” When a woman gives birth to a boy, she hopes he is a Muxe. They celebrate their identity and respect their role in Zapotec community.
Comuna Engabao and Montanita in Santa Elena, Ecuador also took first steps to protect their LGBTQ community in their communities. As part of Wankavilka culture, our Two Spirits people were also considered sacred in the past and lived in temples and shrines. Since comuneros are being discriminated for their identity, the people are making an active effort to rescue their Wankavilka culture, including restoring Two-Spirits in their society. They hope the re-claiming process will heal wounds and change gender dichotomy perspective in Ecuadorian society.
In my family, we have Two Spirits in multiple generations, and progressively discriminate less against each generation. My grandmother told me she had 2 Two-Spirits cousins who hid their identity in Ecuador. My paternal family has Two-Spirits people in every generation, but they follow heterosexual roles to protect their identity in a machista society. The consequence was drastic. Until 1998, a gay or a lesbian person in Ecuador could be sent to prison for homosexual gestures in public. Even though the constitution changed and promised the protection of gays and lesbians in 1999, Ecuadorian society still send gays and lesbians to correction institutions where they are forced to be “straight.” They get raped, tortured, and humiliated.
Today, we have three Two-Spirits in my maternal line, including me, and our struggle is evident in American society. When we express our identity in New York City, sometimes we retrace our steps and hide in our turtle shell as soon as we encounter hate crimes and discrimination.
There are millions of Two Spirits people in the United States who go through their lives living in constant fear and hurt. These are many first steps our Indigenous communities are taking to allow other definitions of gender identity to protect and revere Two-Spirits in the 21st century.
One day in the near future, just like our ancestors said, we will come back into a full circle and relive the days when all of our people will live in harmony, peace, and tranquility with each other on Mother Earth.