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Two Spirit: The Trials and Tribulations of Gender Identity in the 21st Century

Two Spirit: The Trials and Tribulations of Gender Identity in the 21st Century

Devin Etcitty, a 21-year-old from the Navajo nation, stood before a circle of 12 Native American students at Columbia University. He asked them to introduce themselves by name, tribal nation and preferred gender pronoun.

“She, her, hers,” said one. “But any are welcome.”

“I like the gender non-conformity,” said Etcitty.

Gender identity is a common topic on college campuses these days. But this group’s focus was unusual: how to cope as a Native American gay living off the reservation.

“Do gays here even have an indigenous experience?” Etcitty asked of these New York City newcomers. 

Kyle Sebastian, 20, had an answer: “I went to a queer-based workshop, and said I identify as Two Spirit. Everyone looked at me confused.”

No one in Etcitty’s group looked confused, though. Each is grappling with the identity Sebastian named: Two Spirit, a term used in a number of Native American cultures to describe a third gender that is embraced by some non-heterosexuals.

In early Native American society, those who identified as Two Spirited were respected as spiritual leaders within the tribe. They dressed in both men’s and women’s clothing, and they often served special roles such as storytellers, counselors, and healers.

Two Spirit traditions were threatened, though, when Europeans colonized the Americas. The notion of a third, fluid, male-and-female gender conflicted with the colonizers’ heterosexual views, and in 1879, the U.S. government removed thousands of Two Spirited people from their tribes. They were sent to live in an Indian boarding school. Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was the flagship Indian boarding school in the United States from 1879 through 1918. Founded in 1879 by Captain Richard Henry Pratt under authority of the US federal government, Carlisle was the first federally funded off-reservation Indian boarding school, according to Dickinson College historical records in Pennsylvania.

Today, views of Two Spirits vary among the more than 800 tribes in the United States and Alaska. Depending on a community’s adherence to religious traditions, Two Spirits may be respected in one tribe but not recognized in another community. To find a sense of belonging, some Native Americans seek support in urban LGBT communities.

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But those communities are not always comfortable, in part because Two Spirit history predates the LGBT movement, according to Harlan Pruden, founder of New York's NorthEast Two Spirit Society. “We’re not reinventing, unlike the LGBT community. They’re creating rights based off the examples of the civil rights movement,” he said. “For us,” Pruden continued, “it’s this reclamation in which we were honored and celebrated before colonization.” Pruden further defined Two Spirit identity as a gender analysis as opposed to an LGBT sexual orientation analysis.

In Native American societies, an individual could come out as gay first, and then begin the Two Spirit “coming in” ceremonies. Urban LGBT communities have difficulty understanding this merging of tribal and gay identities, said Pruden, which is why he founded the Two Spirit society a decade ago. The organization seeks to educate the public about the Two Spirit tradition and to revive the ceremonial “coming in” process for people like Devin Etcitty.

Etcitty says his Navajo family accepted his gay identity when he came out to them at age 18. But the family followed Mormon religion, not Navajo tradition, and did not recognize him as Two Spirited. Etcitty was relieved they accepted him as gay, even though it went against their Mormon beliefs, so he hesitated to ask his family to recognize him as Two Spirit as well. “They are OK with me being gay, but knowing I’m not part of Mormon religion creates a barrier to full-acceptance,” he said. “They say, ‘sure, you’re gay, and it’s an experience,’ but they don’t think of me as gay in the traditional Two Spirit way.”

After coming out to his family at age 19, Etcitty moved from New Mexico to New York for college in 2011. He sought support in the city’s LGBT communities. But he still felt like an outsider.

“I was this exotic or mysterious ‘other’ because I’m Native,” Etcitty said. “I didn’t feel like we were really equal.”

Etcitty turned to a book, "Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America," for more understanding of what it meant to be both gay and Native American. The book told a traditional story, about a conflict between Navajo men and women. Two Spirit people – the third gender – resolved the dispute because of their ability to speak with both sides.

“I just felt this big load off my shoulders when I read about these people being respected,” said Etcitty, who described his feeling as “proud to be indigenous and gay.”

At Columbia, Etcitty organized discussion groups for Native American students to talk about identity challenges for Native American students on an Ivy League campus – including the challenge of explaining Two Spirits to non-Native Americans who have trouble with his dual identities.

“I’m either indigenous, or I’m queer,” said Etcitty. “Non-indigenous people tell me they didn’t think Natives still existed, much less could be gay. But it really shouldn’t be that complicated.”

When asked if he’s gay or Two Spirited, his shoulders tense up, and his face shows the inner confliction he feels. “Gender identity, for me, is why I want to reclaim being Two Spirited,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be in a relationship because I don’t know what it’s like to fully embrace, and be recognized, as Two Spirit. I don’t feel like I’m wanted. I don’t know if I’ll ever be happy. Maybe I will when I reach the Spirit World,” he said. The Spirit World refers to the Native American spiritual journey after death. And the need for understanding Native American gender identity is an urgent issue, Etcitty said. He continues to organize campus gatherings to help others reclaim their Two Spirit identity in an urban environment, a Native American identity few people are aware of.

Samantha Mesa-Miles, Yaqui/Chicana, is a multimedia storyteller reporting on critical issues through the lens of a culture and identity. Mesa-Miles currently studies at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.