A Look into Aboriginal Queer Issues

Graphic Julia Wolfe

‘Two-spirit’ is a recently recovered term revisited by Aboriginal communities to draw together the cultural, sexual, spiritual and historical aspects of their identity. The term refers to Aboriginal individuals who identify with both—or neither—gender.

Historically, many Aboriginal tribes, rather than stigmatizing Two-spirited persons, looked to them as leaders and as beneficial to their tribe communities, since they held both masculine and feminine traits. Two-spirited persons could do both the work of men and of women and slip into, between, along and through gender roles.

Most Aboriginal tribes held intersexes, androgyny and feminine-males and masculine-females in high respect. In fact, to be a Two-spirit was considered a spiritual gift.

However, as a result of the residential school system in Canada, which sought to destroy Aboriginal culture, Two-spirited individuals now have to uncover, re-discover and re-appropriate the term into their identities and their culture.


In the past, feminine-males were referred to as “berdache” by early French explorers in North America, a term that implies a male prostitute and was widely considered offensive.

As homophobic European Christian influences increased within the Americas in the late 20th century, respect for same-sex love and androgynous persons greatly declined. Two-spirited people were often forced—either by government officials, Christian missionaries or their own community—to conform to gender roles as a result.

The residential school system was designed to strip Aboriginal youth of their language, spirituality and any other connections to their culture, community and family.

Gil Lerat, a counsellor from the Two-Spirited Youth Program in Vancouver, said that “the religious dogma of the residential schools have erased a proud and rich history of Two-spirit people in most Aboriginal communities.”

This, as Michelle Cameron, author of Two-Spirited Aboriginal People: Continuing Cultural Appropriation by Non-Aboriginal Society, points out, is an unacknowledged side-effect of the horrific abuse many Aboriginal children encountered in the residential school system, including the separation of male from female children or vice versa.

“Heterosexist and homophobic thought have permeated the teachings of some of our Elders due to the imposition of Christian values imposed on them in the residential schools,” wrote Cameron. “Decolonizing our collective minds includes an honest acknowledgement of the way things were, and of the valued place two-spirited people should have in our communities.”

Traditionally, Aboriginal sexuality is based on three—but up to six—different gender variants.

“Two-Spirited Aboriginals do not subscribe to or neatly fit into the Western dichotomies of human sexuality. We are either/or; we are neither/nor,” wrote Cameron.

“Rather than dividing the world into female and male […] we distinguish between what is animate and what is inanimate,” Alex Wilson explained in her essay N’Tacimowin Innan Nah: A Coming In Stories. Wilson is a leading voice in Two-spirit issues, and comes from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation several hours north of Winnipeg.

Use of berdache was replaced with Two-spirit, a term originating in Winnipeg, Manitoba during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in 1990. The newer version of the term was meant as a self-descriptor for LGBT Aboriginal people.

It was chosen to distinguish Aboriginal people from non-Aboriginals, as well as liberate themselves from words like berdache and to reclaim a cultural queerness that was uniquely theirs.

Keeping the term true to its context

“Because the term itself covers a wide range of understandings, there are a number of ‘definitions’ of what Two-spirited means. For example, originally the term was used to describe biracial people (people with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry),” said Wilson.

“One misconception today is that it means someone is part male/part female,” continued Wilson. “While some Two-spirit people may identify as transgendered or intersexed, I would say that this is a major misconception and also a big part of why many people who formerly identified as Two-spirit are no longer identifying that way.”

Wilson said that an important thing to note is the presence of the word “two” in the hybrid word. “Because there is the ‘two’ in the term, people make the assumption that the two refers to male as one and female as the other, or vice versa,” said Wilson. “In my view the ‘two’ refers to a range of possibilities, such as being in a doorway and being able to see both rooms because of perspective [which has nothing to do with gender].”

Typically, as Michelle Cameron pointed out in Two-Spirited Aboriginal People, Two-spirited Aboriginals have been oppressed by the act of being categorically grouped with terms such as bisexual or transsexual.

Cameron also mentioned that Two-spiritedness tends to “fall between the cracks in academic curriculum” and that university courses do not adequately cover the concept in LGBQT content. This, in turn, adds to a lack of general knowledge in the queer and community at large, adding to the issue of non-Aboriginals incorrectly appropriating the term.

Cameron said that there is an emerging trend of non-Aboriginals to self-label as Two-spirited. This is problematic, she argues.

“The term Two-spirit has a specific cultural context,” wrote Cameron, “and removing it from that context simply because one likes the meaning of it is an act of colonization and must be resisted.”

By many academics, to be a Two-spirit is considered a spiritual gift, but for Wilson, this is considered an idealized notion of the term in relation to one’s identity.

“[Aboriginal queer issues have] been internalized by some Aboriginal people, so I think it can be dangerous to assert [romanticized ideals of Two-spiritness] because Aboriginal LGBT youth have the highest suicide rates, so it does not reflect the reality of most queer Aboriginal youth.” Suicide rates for Aboriginal youth in Canada are currently five to seven times higher than for non-Aboriginal youth.

Coming into

“In Winnipeg, in the Aboriginal community, I would say that most people have heard the term and use it comfortably to refer to queer Aboriginal people,” said Wilson. “In my home community, Opaswayak Cree Nation, I would estimate that many younger folks have heard the term and educated folks have heard the term and use it. In Saskatoon and in the academic community, I would say it really depends.”

The term and its cultural importance is still an emerging phenomenon in most communities.

“Some First Nations are extremely homophobic,” said Wilson. “In places where there are less Aboriginal people, for example Toronto, the understanding of Two-spirit is very romanticized and idealized. [The term] tends to be more academic.”

Wilson began using the term in the ‘90s when it first came about. “I originally liked the term because to me it meant more than just LGBT—it had a spiritual and cultural component to it.”

For the Two-spirited, it is about “coming into yourself” as opposed to just “coming out.”

“Two-spirit identity is one that reflects Aboriginal peoples’ process of ‘coming in’ to an empowered identity that integrates their sexuality, culture, gender and all other aspects of who they understand and know themselves to be,” wrote Wilson.

However, although the term does reject Western values, it does not exist for that purpose. “It’s more about recognizing and validating a Cree or Indigenous worldview,” said Wilson.

The residential school system forced Aboriginal children “out” of their culture and personal identities. It is integral for terms like Two-spirit and other Aboriginal-specific terms be present in the everyday language of communities so there can be a “coming into oneself.”

In order for this to happen, knowledge is key. In order for understanding to occur, Two-spirit individuals must continue to inform themselves and the world around them about sexuality issues that are unique to Aboriginal history, culture and identity.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 16, published November 30, 2010.