Two-spirits is what they call it—indigenous North Americans who might otherwise be identified as gay, lesbian or transgendered. Tracy Bear, who’s chairing the Born This Way conference that will take a look at two-spiritedness, says it’s as if the body houses both a male and a female spirit. Bear is a PhD candidate and in her research for her dissertation about indigenous sexuality she has spoken to many elders about the history of two-spiritedness and how it is viewed today.
“White folks waste people. In many indigenous societies there is a place for everybody, no matter what they turn out to be gender-wise or sexuality-wise,” Bear says, explaining that one elder said this to her about how two-spirit people were never treated as outcasts in the past. Many aboriginal societies would give a person designations throughout their lifetime instead of labelling them with a specific gender at birth. “They’d see how they were when they were born, they’d see how they turned out when they were a toddler, a teenager and, eventually, an adult. Recognizing that there’s changes and a fluidity in a person’s identity.”
In many indigenous communities these days, the acceptance of two-spirit people has diminished to the point where there is a lot of homophobia on reserves and it is a difficult issue to talk about. Bear says there’s a “hetero-patriarchal normative” that most people have now subscribed to, so those who don’t fit into that mould are snubbed.
“It’s such a stigma that they were having unidentified HIV/AIDS cases of people actually passing away and never even being diagnosed,” she says. “Or we’d have people who were diagnosed, but they wouldn’t go to the clinic to get their medicine because of the stigma attached to it.”
Born This Way is a chance to try and break the reproach of being two-spirited. Bear says that when leaving a small community to attend university with thousands of others, students begin to expand their knowledge and questions about their sexuality pop up. The conference will be a place where those questions can be answered.
“What you start to do is grow in your own identity and part of your identity is your sexuality, so I think there’s a freedom at university when you get off your small community or you leave your reserve, that you’re allowed to explore and express yourself a little bit more.”
Daytime Friday will be workshops for high school students and their teachers and the event for adults will begin Friday afternoon and continue on Saturday at the University of Alberta’s Campus St Jean. This is the first time a post-secondary institution has hosted a two-spirit conference. Born This Way is geared towards people who are two-spirited, people who work with two-spirited people and people who want to expand their knowledge about the subject. Register at aboriginal.ualberta.ca.
Fri, Nov 2 – Sat, Nov 3
Born This Way
Campus St. Jean