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Connor Van Ligten
Indian Country Today

If you live in Florida or Texas, you’ve probably heard of the various bills that have angered the LGBTQ+ community.

In Florida, a law known as the “don’t say gay” bill, limits what teachers in public schools can teach students about gender identity and sexual orientation.

And in Texas, the governor and attorney general directed the state Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate and prosecute parents of transgender children for child abuse.

These laws are concerning to the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, but Two-Spirit youth are also at great risk.

Two-Spirit people have been around Turtle Island long before colonization. It’s a direct translation of the Ojibwe term, Niizh manidoowag. It typically means that someone’s body simultaneously houses a masculine and feminine spirit.

“Before colonialism, American Indians identified with more than two genders,” Navajo Two-Spirit Trudie Jackson said. “Federal Indian policies have played a role in the erasure of Two-Spirit and gender non-conforming identities. The federal Indian policies reflected mainly the gender binary and a lot of tribal leaders and communities embraced Christianity where the stories and traditions of Two-Spirit were basically swept under the rug. ”

Marlon Fixico, a Two-Spirit Cheyenne and Seminole elder, is a part of the International Council of Two-Spirit Societies and is the editor of a Two-Spirit news page NativeOUT. Fixico spoke on the history of Two-Spirit erasure.

“The conquistadors, they would gather them, beat them, and feed them to the dogs, and this was the beginning of the erasure. These [Two-Spirit] people were helpful, they made medicine, they gave the settlers water, but you hardly see that in the history books,” Fixico said.

That historical aggression towards Two-Spirit people has come up again as trans youth are under attack in mostly Republican-led states. Some states have passed laws restricting transgender athletes. At least 10 states have banned transgender athletes from participating in sports in a way that is consistent with their gender identity.

The NCAA in January adopted a sport-by-sport approach for transgender athletes to document testosterone levels before championship selections. For high school sports, states have a hodgepodge of policies.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, Cherokee Nation, signed a bill in late April explicitly prohibiting the use of nonbinary gender markers on state birth certificates, a ban experts say is the first of its kind in the nation.

Alessandra Angelino is the co-author of an online toolkit called “Celebrating Our Magic.” She is a resident physician at UNC's Children's Hospital in North Carolina. The toolkit shares resources for Native youth, families and medical professionals.

In a recent appearance on 'ICT Newscast with Aliyah Chavez,' Angelino said one of the main goals for the toolkit was to create something "culturally grounded."

"There's a lot of resources for general diverse folks but not for Native youth who identify as Two-Spirit or LGBTQ."

Watch: Alessandra Angelino talks 'Celebrating Our Magic' with Aliyah Chavez.

Both the Texas and Florida laws bring new challenges and difficulties for Two-Spirit Native youth.

If Texas parents are providing support and affirmation to trans children, they could be tried for child abuse. This could result in them potentially losing custody of their children, which is especially problematic for Indigenous families who don’t live on recognized tribal land.

“Tribal sovereignty takes precedence over federal law, so whatever is happening within the states is only applicable outside the boundaries of a tribal sovereign nation,” Jackson said. “But for someone who is transgender and lives outside of tribal land, their parents can be prosecuted if they are seeking hormone therapy or health care.”

“A Native youth that is American Indian and identifies as trans, (they) could be removed from their household, placed with a non-Native foster family that might not embrace their trans identity or Two-Spirit identity,” Jackson said. “So, this individual’s connection to their identity, their culture, their language, and their traditions could be lost.”

Lukas Soto, a Chile Mapuche Two-Spirit, said the laws are “not protecting anybody, it’s about control.”

“Laws like this just further marginalize, further erase, and further create barriers for people that already aren’t getting their needs met,” said Lukas Soto, a Chile Mapuche Two-Spirit. “I think these laws are created to make a boogeyman out of something that isn't real. Nothing about this law is based on any actual fact.”

Control is a notable aspect of the Texas law, but it can be also seen in Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” bill. Outlawing LGBTQ+ material or discussions in classrooms can have an unfortunate effect on Two-Spirit youth who may be attending those schools. The state of Texas has three federally recognized tribes while Florida has two.

Soto said that they believe this law is similar to censorship of civil rights books or history books. They claim that as certain concepts or ideas become more visible in media, certain individuals will aim to cut off the conversation.

In doing so, the effect can often be harmful, especially for Two-Spirit youth who may not have many fellow Two-Spirits to relate to.

“Banning people from not talking about these things is going to have direct public health results, it could result in higher HIV transmission, higher STD transmission, higher substance abuse, and so on,” Soto said. “The lack of education for Two-Spirit Natives is a problem. Even with Indian Health Service, you might not know about testing and protection. But there’s also a general lack of people in tribes talking about issues that pertain to the LGBTQ+ community, so there’s still a lot of knowledge gaps to fill to ensure Two-Spirit people have a better quality of life.”

Fixico estimated that only around 40 federal recognized tribes recognize gay marriage. Large tribes that do not recognize gay marriage include the Navajo Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, the Muscogee Nation and the Seminole Nation. However, one of the largest in the Navajo Nation, that could change as tribal lawmakers are looking at the possibility of legal gay marriage.

“It’s interesting in some communities that there’s a lot of people who don’t believe in the church but they still abide by this anti-Two-Spirit bias,” Fixico said. “They still have that mentality that there’s something wrong with being Two-Spirit, even though they’re not Christian. So, the challenge is how we get over that mentality because it’s not traditional, it comes from Christianity.”

Matee Jim, Navajo, who is a transgender advocate in New Mexico, believes that colonization and Christianity did so much damage to Two-Spirit people that it has resulted in tribes becoming assimilated into the anti-Two-Spirit mindset.

“Looking at the history of our Native people, colonization happened and our people have been assimilated and acculturated throughout the generations, we’ve gotten so assimilated that we now even hurt our own people who are different,” Jim said. “... If you look at the statistics that say one in ten youth are with gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, and you calculate that among the thousands of native kids that went to boarding schools or were forced to go to schools, you wonder how many of them were Two-Spirit and what they did to them.”

Jim is talking about Native American boarding schools that lasted in the United States from the early 1800s to as far as the 1970s. These schools have resurfaced in the national news in the last year and a half due to the discoveries of unmarked graves at various former residential schools in Canada.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, released the Interior's Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative on May 11. The report is more than 100 pages and includes historical records of boarding school locations and their names, and the first official list of burial sites.

A difficult path lies ahead for Two-Spirit people, and the fight for equality will be long and tough.

Jim had some advice for Two-Spirit children in these difficult times.

“Hang in there, it'll be okay,” Jim said. “It's a fight. Hang in there, try to seek out people who will support you. The road may be hard, but things are changing. We're fighting for change and for equality.”

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ICT’s Aliyah Chavez and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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