Four Transgender Indigenous and Two-Spirit People On What They Need From Allies

According to an analysis by the National LGBTQ Task Force, transgender American Indian and Alaska Natives often live in extreme poverty, with 23 percent reporting a household income of less than $10,000 per year, nearly three times the general American Indian and Alaskan Native population rate (8 percent) and nearly six times the general U.S. population rate (4 percent).

“These findings underscore the importance of recognizing that Two Spirit, trans, and gender non-conforming American Indians and Alaskan Natives are a significant and too-often-marginalized part of the LGBT communities, and communities that face substantial and sometimes unique challenges,” said Mara Keisling, the Executive Director of the National Center of Transgender Equality. “This research contributes to our long-held belief that policy makers must understand and act on the deep disparities that exist within people of color communities.”

Among other findings, American Indian and Alaskan Native transgender and gender nonconforming people had a very high unemployment rate at 18 percent, which is well over twice the rate of the general population (7 percent) at the time of the survey.

Transgender American Indian and Alaskan Native students faced alarming rates of harassment at 86 percent, physical assault at 51 percent, and sexual assault at 21 percent in K-12. The Task Force notes that the harassment was so severe that it led 19 percent of respondents to leave school.

Transgender American Indians and Alaskan Natives also face high rates of HIV, and 56 percent of respondents reported having attempted suicide.

Yet the Indigenous LGBTQ and Two Spirit communities are often left out of the broader LGBTQ conversation.

INTO spoke with four Indigenous transgender, non-binary, and Two Spirit people on what they would like society to learn and unlearn about their communities, in addition to what we all can do to increase visibility and become better allies.

Xemi, She/Her

My name is Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul, but you can call me Xemi. I’m the artistic director of Nelwat Ishkamewe, which is a group of Two Spirit artists.

As a trans woman of color, it’s very difficult to find access to work. But also as an Indigenous person, and especially as an Indigenous person that comes from a refuge background, it has been especially difficult to find access to healthcare and housing and education. These are the experiences of not just me, but all of my Indigenous sisters from central America that migrate here, escaping violence.

Particularly in the arts, it’s been almost impossible to find work, because there’s very little work for Indigenous people and there’s very little work for trans people, and the intersection is invisibilized because both groups are invisibilized. I was one of the founders of my group Nelwat Ishkamewe, and we created the group because of this exact problem: There was no work being created for us, so we created our own space.

The Two Spirit — specifically the trans Two Spirit  — community is already doing work to uplift ourselves and to better our lives against colonialism and transphobia. The best way that accomplices can help is by uplifting our efforts, the things that we are already doing, because only we know how to support the things that we need. Only we know what it actually means to be a Two Spirit, and at the end of the day, it’s down to us.

Two Spirit people are incredibly diverse  — we come from all parts. The term was created to describe people who are the intersection of being Indigenous and LGBTQ+. Many times in the conversation of Two Spirit people, transgender people are not centered. Gender diverse people are not centered and, really, cisgender, homosexual, and bisexual people are not centered in that conversation either. And so we really need to remember that we are a diverse community and all voices are important in the Two Spirit conversation, and also that there’s a lot of people that say there’s no Two Spirit tradition, nor culture  — that might be because of suppression of cultural ideas and colonialism in general, and to say that trans people did not exist in our ancestors’ cultures is trans erasure.

If you’re Indigenous and you’re LGBTQIA+ you have the right to claim Two Spirit because it’s a spirit name given to all of us by our elders.

Liam, He/Him

My name is Liam. I’m 25 and live in Texas, but I’m originally from a small, rural town in Alabama. I lived there for 22 years.

I feel I need to acknowledge that I realize I am a Two Spirit person of a certain privilege. I’m able to “pass” as white and cisgender, if need be, and I currently live in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. My experience is definitely not the experience of all Two Spirit peoples, nor do I speak for all of us.

With that said, I have been working on reclaiming my Native identity, and the term Two Spirit, over the last three years. Unfortunately, my family doesn’t like to claim their Native heritage or culture, so I was raised not knowing much about it.

Thanks to my Spirit Guide and other ancestors, though, I have learned that I am Navajo and Creek. On the Creek side, I would be of the Hutalgalgi Clan or Wind Clan. I haven’t found anything out about the Navajo side, yet. I’m very sad I didn’t get to experience my culture and learn from elders when I was younger, but I am grateful to get the opportunity now.

It is important to know that not every Two Spirit person is transgender, and not every transgender person is Two Spirit. I, however, am a Two Spirit transgender man. I came out in 2012, and I’ve been on hormone replacement therapy for nearly five years. Again, most of my family has not been very supportive of this. I am lucky to have a few on my side, and I have wonderful friends, as well as a loving partner, and beautiful baby boy.

I have experienced more discrimination online than in real life, which is another privilege, I would say. I’ve had someone call me a “filthy squaw”; someone say, “Two spirit? You only have one, and it’s been ruined!”, death threats, etc. I feel like I’ve developed thicker skin over the years, but I can’t say that these types of comments never worry me, especially in today’s political climate.

I absolutely do not believe society is doing enough to make the Indigenous trans community feel safe. Trans women of color, especially, are far more likely to experience discrimination and violence, of which is often fatal. Then, you have to add the disproportionate rates of homicide and missing persons cases amongst Indigenous women, on top of that.

I think society has an incredibly long way to go before we Indigenous individuals, trans and otherwise, feel safe; and, to be honest, I don’t have a super great answer for how people can better support us when it comes to violence and phobia. Listen to us. Listen when we tell you something is harmful to our culture. Stand with us, when we need you to. If you see one of us is in danger, and you’re able, step up. That goes for anyone, though!

If I could offer a final message to the ones reading this, I’d say, Two Spirit folk have always been here. We are still here. We will be here until the end of time. Respect existence, or expect resistance.

Please, visit these links:

https://www.csvanw.org/mmiw/

https://www.navajowaterproject.org/

http://mitakuyefoundation.com/

Andrea, She/Hers

My name is Andrea, I live in Washington State and I’ve just turned 23 years old.

I think my experience as a wíŋkte, which tribally is the nationally specific term for my gender (it falls under the wider category of Two Spirit), is similar to a lot of non-western gendered Indigenous people. You fear coming out to your parents, family, friends. You fear finding a job, being discriminated against, being beaten or killed, all of those sort of things. But there are two big things which differentiate my experience from that of other Indigenous people.

First, I’m white-coded, which means that people see me as white until I tell them that I’m Lakȟóta. Second, I didn’t grow up on the reservation. Those two things privilege me in a lot of ways and make my experience much different (and importantly, much safer) than that of other Indigenous people. But my experience isn’t all negative. I love being wíŋkte, I love talking with other Lakȟóta people and Indigenous people about what it means to be wíŋkte, I love talking with other Two Spirit people. There’s a lot to be glad about.

I have dealt with discrimination. When someone thinks you’re trans, discrimination is something that immediately comes with the territory. You’ll be discriminated for that anywhere. At school, at work, on the street, in the house, anywhere. But when you start explaining that you’re actually not trans, you’re wíŋkte, people just totally turn off or become violent. They’ll immediately start saying much more racist things than they ever did before. They don’t want to hear any of it and will attack you not only for not fitting into the “normal” conception of gender, but then also for not even fitting into the “new” conception of gender which includes trans and non-binary people. I deal it by talking with other Two Spirit people. It’s good to be able to have a support network of people who understand what you’re going through. And that’s important to have, especially when you start looking at things like suicide rates for our community.

I don’t think society is doing enough. Indigenous people are the racial group most killed by police, Indigenous women face daunting statistics in regards to the likelihood of facing sexual violence or death (for example, 94 percent of Indigenous women in Seattle have been raped), there’s a high poverty rate (especially on reservations), among other issues. All of this is amplified when you don’t conform to gender in the way that settler-colonial society wants you to.

I’d like to see a lot in how everyone in the US sees Two Spirit people, but I’d mostly like to focus on the queer community. The queer community usually sees Two Spirit people as “Indigenous people, but gay” and that’s not at all accurate, and is a type of discrimination. Each nation has its own concept of gender and sexuality, and within our nations we exist as just normal people to some degree. We’re not seen as queer, we’re seen as our gender which has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years. Calling ourselves queer is trying to adapt to the concepts of gender that settler-colonial society has forced upon us. This is to say, we don’t always see ourselves as queer (I don’t at all), but it’s politically necessary to label ourselves as queer so that we have some way to push for our rights within settler-colonial society.

The queer community needs to understand that although we participate inside queer circles, we may not identify as such and may be there just to be with other people who share some of our experiences in gender or sexuality. Seeing us as more than “Indigenous, but gay/trans/non-binary/etc.” is important for us to be able to function within queer communities. A lack of understanding always leads to discrimination.

My last message would be that the problems that Two Spirit people face are specifically problems that come with the United States being a settler-colonial society. The United States occupies hundreds of Indigenous nations, and as long as the United States exists, the best that can be done is that these problems are ameliorated, but not solved. Settler-colonialism must be undone and gender decolonized in order to completely solve the problems that Two Spirit people (and Indigenous people at large) face.

Ruth, She/Hers

My name is Ruth, I am 19 years old, and I live in Alaska and go to school in New York.

Being Indigenous and Two Spirit means a lot of learning. There aren’t many sources of support for us, whether that’s the U.S. in general or within our Native nations. So many of us have to learn to be strong, learn who we are by ourselves. There aren’t many people to guide us, both what it’s like to be trans in wider society and what it’s like to fill our cultural gender roles within our communities. I’m always learning, and always making mistakes.

It’s hard to communicate all the different forms of discrimination Two Spirit and trans people face. The worst things that have happened to me, I’ve done to myself. Changing myself, shrinking myself, hurting myself so cisgender, heterosexual people will accept me. So society will feel safe around me. So much of the time, society doesn’t even have to attack us directly, because the threat is always hanging there. I’ll dress different, act different, speak different, think different — the anti-trans, anti-Two Spirit forces are so strong it’s hard to unlearn these ways we suppress and harm ourselves right away.

So much of our society is designed to hurt Indigenous Two Spirit and transgender people. There is so much more that needs to be done for us to be accepted, welcomed, and safe.

It’s really important that Indigenous trans and Two Spirit people are not only given a platform, but our voices must also be taken seriously. Visibility isn’t enough in itself. Many trans and Two Spirit people are uniquely vulnerable to violence and discrimination.

Indigenous trans people, Two Spirit people are wonderful. Our roles and identities within our communities are powerful, and not to be denied. We understand that, and the sooner others do as well, the better off we all will be.

Header image via Getty


Serena Sonoma

Serena Sonoma is a writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

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