As cities around the United States celebrated Pride this month — including here in Denver on Saturday — there’s been a great deal of attention given to the prominent role that transgender folks have played in the LGBTQ rights movement in the country.
There’s also been a serious look into the ways anti-LGBTQ jackals have disproportionately focused their attention on trans people and trans kids over the last few years.
But, as with every June, there is often less acknowledgment given to the fact that Indigenous LGBTQ people were the first people on this continent victimized by the white Christians who arrived as Bible-thumping invaders — Indigenous peoples who are not only accepted, but also often venerated by their own people.
To be gay, lesbian, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary or trans is a blessing to Indigenous peoples; it’s a spiritual role in many nations and tribes known as Two-Spirit. If a Native person is Two-Spirit, they are holy people.
Historically — as my Oglala Lakota elders told me as a kid — to be Two-Spirit means that you have the spirit of a man and a spirit of a woman. It means that you’ve been blessed by the creator with the lens of both, and that’s what we call good medicine.
A straight man, after all, has only the lens of a straight man, and a straight woman has only the lens of a straight woman. A Two-Spirit person has at least the lens of both — and sometimes even more lenses, as some nations acknowledge that there exists more than just men and women, and have a long list of gender identities.
But when Christians blundered onto our ancestral lands, they waved the Christian Bible in our ancestors’ collective faces and called any Two-Spirit person “a sin” and “an abomination against God and nature.”
They were, of course, already aghast when they witnessed Indigenous women involved in politics; they would go into fits of rage at even the idea of Two-Spirit people sitting among them during meetings or discussions.
And though the U.S. government only legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, such unions had been commonplace between Two-Spirit people and recognized within Indigenous communities for thousands of years before the Christian encroachers arrived.
White people showed up here, claimed to be more civilized than us and prided themselves on their faith and supposed logic, but then acted illogically, uncivilized and without the love for their neighbors as their Jesus preached.
Kayla Shaggy is Diné and Anishinaabe, and she’s Two-Spirit, which she points out is today a reclaimed identity, even among some Native peoples.
In part, this comes from specific white government policies: In America, the term was “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Together, the Catholic Church (predominantly) and the United States government worked to rid Indigenous children of their culture, language and spirituality by barreling through Indian country, preaching Jesus while forcing Indigenous children into boarding schools in the U.S. from 1860 through 1978. (Canada had a similar program in place from 1883 until the last one closed in 1996.)
As a result of the Christian brainwashing endemic in those often-compulsory boarding schools, there’s a whole generation of Christian Indians who have largely forgotten or will not acknowledge the spiritual significance of Two-Spirit individuals; they shun them and speak (in the way of the white man) by referring to anyone like Shaggy as “a sinner.”
“That effect of colonization and the boarding school era created that animosity,” Shaggy said. “It’s a learned cycle of hate.”
Non-Native LGBTQ people should not identify as Two-Spirit because it’s not a synonym but an ancient role in our communities.
Still, long before the white man and their Bible came to this land, Two Spirit individuals were holy, healers of the people, and they still are today. “It’s more than just an identity to take on,” Shaggy said. “It’s a ceremonial role.”
Two-Spirit is, indeed, exclusively Indigenous; it is not synonymous with all people who are LGBTQ, and non-Native LGBTQ people should not identify as such because it’s not a synonym but an ancient role in our communities.
“It was something we had to reclaim after colonization and an attempted erasure” Shaggy said. “If people want to be supportive and have solidarity with us, then they should have respect for that and not co-opt it.”
I’ve seen for myself the respect that Two-Spirit people command among our elders. One day, years ago, I was at the Four Winds American Indian Council Center in Denver when an elder with bad knees struggled to stand; his grandson told him to “sit down,” and that he’d get his grandfather whatever he needed. The elder told his grandson that he was standing in respect of the Two-Spirit who’d just arrived at the center, and then thanked the Two-Spirit for bringing good medicine into the space.
This is what Christians didn’t understand when they stumbled our way, and some still don’t today: It’s a blessing to be LGBTQ, and it’s holy to be Two-Spirit.