Fighting the Silence: How LGBTQ Native Americans are Making Their Voices Heard

by Andy Smith

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 3, 2020

Fighting the Silence: How LGBTQ Native Americans are Making Their Voices Heard
  (Source:CREATISTA/Getty Images)

Life for many of today's LGBTQ Native Americans looks like the worst of queer white America before Stonewall, with indigenous communities coping with disturbing levels of poverty, violence, job and housing discrimination, suicide, and, perhaps worst of all, invisibility.

Grassroots efforts from advocacy groups, universities, and local governments are trying to reconcile and repair centuries of oppression, but generational trauma runs deep, and the U.S.'s increasingly conservative federal government continues to suppress equality efforts.

The history of oppression and violence against LGBTQ Native Americans dates back more than 500 years when missionaries compelled Native Americans to convert to Christianity, and explorers like Vasco Nez de Balboa reportedly ordered 40 LGBTQ Native Americans in Panama thrown to his dogs.

Attempts at reparations for unjustly seized lands and well-documented violence against Native Americans have had a long, controversial history. It took until 2009 for the United States government to apologize for the "many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States." And that apology was buried in a defense spending bill.

But recent reports confirm that the atrocities inflicted on Native Americans have a new face: that of their LGBTQ community, also known as "Two-Spirits."

Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, a transgender Lakota woman from South Dakota, was the second trans person murdered in 2017, six days into the new year. Mattee Jim, a Navajo transgender and HIV advocate, knows fellow transgender Native Americans who must hitchhike miles to medical facilities for hormone treatments. A teacher spent half a year assuming that Two-Spirit Sherent Harris was a girl. And Lenny Hayes, a therapist in the Midwest, sees many indigenous LGBTQ adults struggling with the impact of physical, emotional and sexual abuse they suffered as children in their homes, communities, and schools.

Overall, LGBTQ minorities experience higher levels of discrimination, poverty, HIV, homelessness, suicide, physical and sexual abuse than the general population, but statistics for LGBTQ members of North America's 573 federally recognized Indian Nations are alarmingly high. Over 19 percent of Native same-sex male couples and 13.7 of female couples live in poverty. The numbers are even more unsettling for the Native transgender population, where 56 percent of respondents to a national survey reported attempting suicide at some point in their lives.

Only one Indian Nation has hate crime legislation and 24 percent of trans Native Americans report being sexually assaulted in grades K through 12. In Utah, Native American homicide rates are so high that the state has named May 5 "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and LGBT+ Awareness Day."

While change slowly begins to unfold, few — even within the mainstream LGBTQ community — understand the historic complexities facing today's indigenous queer community.

Sherenté Harris
Sherenté Harris  (Source: Photo provided by Sherenté Harris)

Defining Two-Spirit

While many members of indigenous communities use "gay," "lesbian," "bi," "trans," etc., an increasing number use "Two-Spirit," a term introduced around 1990.

Before colonization and the impact of Christian missionaries and strong-arm assimilation efforts, hundreds of indigenous communities celebrated gender fluidity. Most tribes had terms for three or even four genders, a level of acceptance that, in many ways, outpaces modern understanding.

The Tribal Equality Toolkit defines Two-Spirit as "people who traditionally have special roles within our communities, our cultures, and our ceremonial life. Two-Spirit expresses the concept of balance within a person."

The toolkit, published in 2017 as a collaborative effort among more than a dozen organizations including the National Congress of American Indians, the National LGBTQ Taskforce and the Human Rights Campaign, is a benchmark document that advocates for Two-Spirit and LGBTQ community members by identifying discriminatory tribal laws and setting forth recommendations for equality.

An engraved illustration image of U.S. military fighting Native Americans from a vintage Victorian book circa 1880.
An engraved illustration image of U.S. military fighting Native Americans from a vintage Victorian book circa 1880.  (Source: TonyBaggett/Getty Images)

Assimilation, Colonization and The Diné Marriage Act

When asked about the causes of oppression and the specific challenges their communities face, experts from a range of tribes, regions, backgrounds and socio-economic categories blame a few stubbornly consistent factors: forced assimilation in schools; the centuries-long impact of colonization; and the discriminatory Din Marriage Act, which prohibits same-sex marriage within the Navajo Nation despite the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Native Americans are used to dealing with oppressive laws, of course. The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 essentially stripped away Native American identity, as indigenous youth were regularly sent to boarding schools far from home, often under the coercion of police and government workers.

"The act was, in effect, an effort to stamp out America's original cultural identity and replace it with one that Europeans had, not long before, imported to the continent," wrote Alia Wong for The Atlantic. "Over time, countless Native American children were taken from their families and homelands and placed in faraway boarding schools, a process that was often traumatic and degrading." Congress finally outlawed the process in the late 1970s — but trauma and degradation born of 150 years of oppression don't die quickly.

Hayes, Executive Director, Therapist and Consultant at Minneapolis-based Tate Topa Consulting and a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, runs support groups and works individually with many Two-Spirit people living with trauma originating from hate crimes, sexual violence and ostracism based on their gender identity.

In the 1880s and well into the 20th Century, missionaries worked to "whitemanize" Two-Spirit members of the Crow Tribe, wrote Samuel White Swan-Perkins on KQED.

"Obsessed with 'The Code of Religious Offenses,' a moral directive that forbade non-Christian spiritual practices, they began persecuting Natives over their dating and marriage traditions, which often defied the Christian European standard of lifelong heterosexual monogamy," Swan-Perkins states. "Throughout the 1920s, tribal members who refused to abandon their traditions were penalized or imprisoned and their families' treaty rations were cut or denied."

The Navajo Nation continues to encourage homophobia and ban same-sex marriage; the latter codified by the Din Marriage Act, an amendment to the tribal code enacted in 2005.

"The ban on gay marriage for the Navajo Nation is total discrimination to our community," said Jim, the Albuquerque-based transgender advocate and HIV educator with the organization First Nation, who prefers the term eDineh (meaning 'of the people') to the Western Navajo. "It came up because two women in Oklahoma wanted to get married, and our tribe jumped in to oppose it."

"This ban is still in place in the Navajo Nation, and it's totally influenced by Western concepts," Jim said. "I feel that colonization played a big part in this. I truly believe hate is learned. So much of what many of our people believe now was taught to us."

Jim added that although almost all tribes, including the Navajo nation, once had terms for Two-Spirit, "Now, they'll totally deny it, and that also plays a part in how we're treated in communities, too. There are no laws in the Navajo Tribe to protect LGBTQ people, although some communities within the nation are working on it."

Mattee Jim
Mattee Jim  (Source: Photo provided by Mattee Jim)

An Uphill Battle for Native Trans Population

Living life as a trans woman or man is uniquely challenging, especially for populations already facing myriad forms of discrimination, emphasizes Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project Director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, based in Washington, D.C.

"It's a compounding of issues in already marginalized communities," says Rodriguez-Roldan. The task force sees higher rates of poverty, homelessness and suicide in native trans communities because their problems are amplified by those native communities already face.

"A vast number lost to transphobic violence are people of color and many of these people are indigenous," she continues, "Combined with transphobia and the overall impact trans people face, when you combine it with trauma, family rejection and more, it is a particular experience that people (even trans people) with great privilege are not going to experience."

From a transgender person's perspective, Jim emphasizes that even at conferences and roundtables within the LGBTQ community—Native Americans and especially trans native people—are left out of the conversation or their challenges treated as no more significant than those faced by the white middle-class gay and lesbian community.

"I hear people saying we're all equal," Jim reflected. "I'll say, 'Why don't you try living as a trans person and tell me that.' A lot of times, they're dumbfounded."

Stop the Suicide

Ultimately, oppression and discrimination have led to a continued high suicide rate.

"Unfortunately, the suicide rate hasn't improved much at all over the past decade, and in many cases, it's worse," especially among young native women, where numbers have increased in recent years, said Erik Stegman, Executive Director at the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. "We still have one of the highest suicide rates in the country."

"We do know the biggest reasons are intergenerational traumatic structural systems that have been impacting native communities," Stegman added. These numbers mirror those among indigenous populations in Canada, Australia, and Greenland—all places that have institutions like boarding schools, where suicide rates are high, especially among students who identify as LGBTQ/Two-Spirit.

A few communities are taking action. In response to a 40 percent spike in suicides over the past decade, South Dakota is launching a new suicide prevention program targeting teens, farmers and "tribes."

Arizona Two-Spirit Powwow
Arizona Two-Spirit Powwow  (Source: Polaroid Phoenix)

A New Day of Inclusion: Native PFLAG & Two-Spirit Powwows

Across the country, advocates are beginning the process of addressing the crisis on a grass-roots level.

Sheila Lopez admits she wasn't the most understanding parent when both her teens came out to her on the same day. However, she quickly transitioned from reluctant acceptance to advocate and founder of one of the nation's few Native PFLAG chapters, which she organized eight years ago in Phoenix.

"Initially, I attended (standard) PFLAG meeting to learn more about the community, but there weren't a lot of people of color at the meetings," Lopez said. "In June 2011, we started meetings of Native PGLAG. Along the way, we learned we have to make our meetings a little different than traditional PFLAG meetings."

In 2019, backed by a grant from Phoenix Pride, Lopez helped organize Arizona's first Two-Spirit Powwow. Similar events include San Francisco's Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit Powwow (BAAITS), and Haskell Indian Nations University's Two-Spirit Powwow in Lawrence, Kansas.

"It just kind of happened, and it happened quickly," Lopez said. While a traditional Powwow has specific men's and women's categories, "we let people dance in whatever category they wish to."

More than 800 people attended the inaugural event. "We had vendors come to sell arts and crafts and nonprofits like HRC and GLSEN, as well as Native American Connection and other native groups," Lopez said. "The Powwow is about providing healing for the community and access to allies. It's also a great opportunity to share support for the LGBTQ community."

Sherenté Harris
Sherenté Harris  (Source: Photo provided by Sherenté Harris)

A Defiant Dancer

Inclusive and Two-Spirit powwows are helping erase invisibility and increase acceptance, but pockets of hostility continue to fester. Young leaders like 19-year-old Sherent Harris are fighting this discrimination by speaking up, serving as role models and having the courage to be themselves.

Harris' acclaimed dance performances accentuate the importance of developing Two-Spirit Powwows and offering greater flexibility for Two-Spirit people to participate in events. A student at Brown University and a member of the Narragansett tribe, Harris comes from a family of dancers. In 2019, Harris was named an LGBT History Month Icon based on work within the powwow circle. Harris is also an articulate speaker and recently gave a TED Talk at TEDxURI.

"I began my dance journey as an Eastern War Dancer. In the powwow circuit, there are traditional dance staples. No matter which Powwow you go to, they will have certain dance categories," Harris said.

Gradually, Harris was drawn to the dances performed by his/her mother, a fancy shawl dancer.

"Most of us began dancing before we could walk, or before we were born. My mother, like many mothers, went out into the circle while she was pregnant with me," Harris recalled. "I remember being five or six at a large Powwow. I watched the shawl dancers come in and talked to my father about how beautiful they were and how much I envied them and wanted to dance like them."

"I grew up dancing like my father, but I wanted to dance like my mother."

Since becoming a shawl dancer at 16, Harris has experienced tremendous support from many community members, but "during this last Powwow season, I was called some really nasty things. It's an ongoing issue. Many people are not okay with me dancing like this or living like this."

Harris does see positive generational change. "Before this modern surge of acceptance, Two-Spirit people were ostracized and kicked out of the circle in ways that are much worse than what happened to me."

The Fight to be Heard

Aspen Institute's Stegman credits outspoken youth leaders with taking the initiative to be more inclusive of Two-Spirit tribe members. "The Center for Native American Youth has developed and builds partnerships with Teen Vogue, MTV News, and other youth-oriented media outlets," he says, adding that this media advocacy has led to more affirming coverage.

"One of our single biggest challenges as tribal communities is the invisibility factor, and the false narratives we continue to suffer with," he said. "You see front page features that talk about poverty and drug use, but they never talk to our youth leaders, who are out there trying to change the impression... and reclaim their culture."

Stegman adds that most members of the youth populations with whom Aspen works are concerned about the treatment and representation of its Two-Spirit and LGBTQ youth. In September, the institute released Indigenizing Love: A Tool Kit for Native Youth to Build Inclusion, "written to support Native youth, tribal communities, Two-Spirit and Native LGBTQIA+ collectives, community leaders, and partners who intend to better understand and support our Two-Spirit and LGBTQIA+ communities."

In another promising development, California and a handful of other states have begun including LGBTQ history components in textbooks, with sections that acknowledge Two-Spirit populations.

Harris is proud to have inspired other youth. "Young people said I had empowered them to start grass dancing," says Harris. "It is a beautiful thing that this change is happening, slowly but surely."

Jim sees life improving, even among the Native trans community. "Depending on who you speak with, you'll get different answers, but I do see subtle changes taking place. For example, in New Mexico, we recently passed a birth certificate law. So, it's a lot easier for trans people to change their gender in New Mexico than in Arizona, for example. We're fortunate to have that."

Overall, Rodriguez-Roldan is guardedly optimistic. "I am hopeful for the future precisely because of the work so many others are doing, but we have a long way to go. One of the challenges facing our movement is acknowledging the indigenous community whenever we talk about people of color in this (LGBTQ rights) movement. Acknowledgment is a key part of making change, and there has to be a conscious effort within the mainstream LGBTQ community for inclusion," she said.

"It must be a bigger priority to include indigenous LGBTQ people," says Rodriguez-Roldan. "These communities are working to be heard."