LGBT Native tradition has two spirits

Published: July 28, 2011

Like many others before him, Chuck Lafferty left his village as a young man. Born to the Dene Nation in the Northwest Territories, Lafferty later found himself in Vancouver and was soon immersed in urban life.

Lafferty also came into contact with the queer community. Although he wasn’t entirely open about his sexuality in his hometown, coming out in the big city became a natural process for Lafferty.

But his self-discovery wasn’t complete until he heard about an international gathering of two-spirit people, a term that refers to aboriginal lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. That was 1991, and Lafferty headed to Eugene, Oregon.

“I got invited to this two-spirit gathering, and at first I just didn’t have any concept about what it was around,” Lafferty recalled in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “All I knew was that there was going to be outdoor camping. And there’s going to be great food, and there was going to be some wonderful people and some traditional and cultural practices that were going to happen.”

Indeed, traditional practices such as sweat lodges were available, but what surprised Lafferty was that a gay man like himself was welcome to participate in these Native activities.

“It was an awakening to discover that I wasn’t alone and that I could be involved in cultural practices and some traditional cultural protocols and there would be no issues,” Lafferty said.

The International Two-Spirit Gathering, which brings together aboriginal LGBT people in North America and their friends and families, is an annual event that started in Minnesota. Now in its 23rd year, it provides opportunities for Native individuals to learn about their culture and heritage.

This year, the four-day gathering is being held on Gambier Island in British Columbia’s Howe Sound until Saturday (July 30). Participants may take part in traditional rituals and activities, like the sunrise-ceremony feast and canoeing.

The subject of two-spirit people was one of the many topics covered by First Nations 101, a book authored by Lynda Gray and released in June this year. (Details are at

A member of the Tsimshian Nation, Gray is also the executive director of the Vancouver-based Urban Native Youth Association. In 2008, she cochaired the first national aboriginal GLBT summit, which was held in the city’s West End.

Traditionally, two-spirit people were believed to embody both masculine and feminine spirits. “They were thought to be more spiritually attuned,” Gray told the Straight in a phone interview. “It wasn’t based on sexuality. It was based on the person and their being.”

She said that these people were accepted in their communities and even revered for their unique gifts. They performed various functions like being medicine people and leaders of sun dances.

“Homophobia came about with colonization and Christian values being forced upon us,” Gray noted.

According to her, two-spirit people are faced not only with the challenge of finding acceptance in broader society but also within their aboriginal communities.

“They are burdened with the task of trying to make our communities reaccept our traditional beliefs about two-spirit people, so they’re really unique in that way,” Gray said.

Like other LGBT individuals, two-spirit people need services for their health and well-being.

A 2007 paper on self-inflicted deaths among Natives published by the Ottawa-based Aboriginal Healing Foundation noted that the relationship between sexual orientation and suicide among aboriginal individuals has received “limited attention”. It pointed out that studies among the general population have established that homosexual and bisexual youth are at “increased risk for suicidal behaviour”.

A May 2004 update by the Public Health Agency of Canada showed that although injection-drug use remains the main mode of transmission of HIV/AIDS among Natives, 34.7 percent of AIDS cases were attributed to what is referred to as MSM (men who have sex with men). A smaller number, 7.9 percent, of HIV-positive reports were also due to MSM.

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