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Exalting an ‘Anti-Colonial’ Gender Identity

In a new report, Canadian educators are instructed about a Two-Spirit LGBT subcategory that, even the authors admit, lacks any real definition.

· 7 min read
Exalting an ‘Anti-Colonial’ Gender Identity

On August 28th, Justin Trudeau’s government announced “Canada’s first federal 2SLGBTQI+ action plan: Building Our Future With Pride,” which was described as “a whole-of-government approach to achieve a future where everyone in Canada is truly free to be who they are and love who they love.” One aim of the $100-million plan, the government explained, is to convince Canadians to adopt the term “2SLGBTQI+” in place of “LGBT”—on the basis that 2SLGBTQI+ “is more inclusive and places the experiences of Indigenous 2SLGBTQI+ communities at the foreground as the first 2SLGBTQI+ peoples in North America.”

The two characters given pride of place, “2S,” signify “Two-Spirit,” a term that’s been a form of self-identification among Indigenous North Americans since the 1990s. But the descriptor doesn’t appear to be in wide everyday use outside Canada. And so non-Canadian readers will sometimes ask me to explain its meaning—at which point, I have to admit that I can’t. And I’m hardly alone: While most Canadians know that the “Two-Spirit” category is connected to Indigenous identity in some way, there’s an unspoken rule against requesting more specific information.

Last week, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the province’s elementary-school teachers union, published what the authors present as a primer on Two-Spirit identity, a document written in close consultation with 2S-identified Indigenous people. Since the report’s target audience consists of workaday teachers who educate young students, I imagined that Niizh Manidoowag: Two-Spirit might finally provide me with a straightforward explanation of what the 2S identifier actually means.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. In fact, one of the main themes of the 32-page document is that the task of defining the Two-Spirit concept is (quite literally) beyond the powers of Western language and epistemology. And in any case, the category is almost completely open-ended: The act of proclaiming oneself Two-Spirited could be a statement about one’s gender, or sexual orientation, or both, or neither. Or 2S can be a statement about one’s politics, spirituality, or simply one’s desire to present as “anti-colonial.”

According to the ETFO report, there are only two non-negotiable elements of a Two-Spirited individual—both of which are spelled out multiple times in the document, and in bold letters. Neither rule is concerned with sex or gender, but rather with race and political orientation: To be Two-Spirited requires (1) that you are Indigenous; and (2) that you are engaged in a “decolonizing act of resistance”:

There is no one way to prescribe usage of the term [Two-Spirit] … There is no one way to define the term Two-Spirit. Two-Spirit people and their roles predate colonial impositions, expectations, and assumptions of sex, gender, and sexual orientation. Where colonial worldviews often frame concepts as linear, compartmentalized, categorical, and hierarchical, Indigenous worldviews tend to be understood as non-linear, reciprocal, (w)holistic, relational, and independent of Eurocentric perspectives and framings. As such, identifying as two-spirit is a decolonizing act of resistance in and of itself.

The term Two-Spirit was first popularized in 1990, at an inter-tribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian summit in Winnipeg, and is derived from the Ojibwa words Niizh Manidoowag. By one account, delegates were looking for a term that would “distance Native/First Nations people from non-Natives, as well as from the words ‘berdache’ [a European term suggesting deviancy] and ‘gay.’” But lore has it that the true originator is a Fisher River First Nation woman named Myra Laramee, who experienced a vision of the world as seen “through the lens of having both feminine and masculine spirit.”

On the surface, that sounds like what today might be called “non-binary.” But that analogy fails on a fundamental level. The idea of gender identity relates to the (perceived) nature of oneself. Two-Spirit people, on the other hand, are described in the ETFO report as possessing a savant-like power (or “lens”) that channels truths about the nature of the external world.

The Two Spirit concept is also entirely distinct from run-of-the-mill gender dysphoria. In everyday progressive gender parlance, it is typically insisted that trans women are just like other women. Two-Spirited people, by contrast, are presented as an entirely unique specimen whose arrival within traditional Indigenous societies was “celebrated”—“highly valued” “gifts” who “possess the best of both gendered identities.”

While the authors of the ETFO report were careful to source their work to Indigenous writers and interviewees, it’s interesting to note that all of the listed societal roles attributed to ancient Two-Spirited people align uncannily with the avant-garde outlook of a white 2022-era environmentalist who’s embraced intersectional conceptions of gender: “Historically, and traditionally, two-spirit people assumed a variety of important roles within their communities. For example, two-spirit people may be mediators, medicine people, healers, social workers, or land protectors.” Needless to say, Two-Spirited people also have an inveterate ability to “see beyond the trappings of binary thinking.”

Some of the content in the ETFO report might be properly described as “meta.” At one point, for instance, we are told of Marie Laing (a self-described queer Kanyen’kehá:ka writer), who sees Two-Spirit as a “container” for collecting “multiple distinct understandings” of gender diversity. At other points, the tone is religious, with the authors citing lessons from “the Creator” in regard to the storytelling of Two-Spirit narratives. In several sections, Two-Spirited people are lauded as vessels of Indigenous “spiritualism.” But most of the jargon consists of generic anti-racist slogans. We are told no fewer than nine times, for instance, that the authors are following an “anti-oppressive” approach. Colonialism is denounced more than a dozen times, including in its “heteronormative” (three times) variant.

On page 11, we learn that, for some, the Two-Spirit descriptor may not have anything to do with one’s individual identity whatsoever, but rather signals an ideological commitment to collective Indigenous “sovereignty.” In fact, even Dr. Laramee’s own foundational description seemed to imagine the Two-Spirited individual as summoniing a mystically inflected nationalist spirit than binds soul and soil: “It is sacred and is more than just words—it is a spirit/heart language … When Two-Spirit is used, it invokes our sacredness and reminds us that we have always been here, and we will always be here.”

It may not surprise readers to learn that the documented historical basis for the ETFO’s claims is quite thin. And at one point, the report’s authors even concede that “in traditional Indigenous communities, gender roles were very distinct.” But much of the blame for that, we are told, goes to “the harsh indoctrination of Christian teachings”—with Two-Spirited individuals now being cast as Edenic Lorax-like figures who will cleanse Indigenous societies of such Christian contaminants while guiding them back to their ancestral ways.

And yet, for all these lofty themes, some of the actual biographical details offered by self-identified Two-Spirited individuals described in the ETFO report seem quite hard to distinguish from old-fashioned sexist stereotypes—by which men wear pants and exhibit strength, while women wear skirts and nurture their young. A self-described queer 2S individual named Ash Moreau, for instance,

described their own feelings as ‘being split,’ in the sense that they are comfortable in traditionally female gender roles such as mothering and nurturing, but are also comfortable assuming traditionally male roles … Ash gave the example of wearing a skirt when drumming. Generally, women wear skirts during traditional ceremonies in Indigenous communities. As a two-spirit person, Ash wears pants and is accepted because they are honouring masculine energy by doing so. Conversely, a two-spirit person could choose to wear a skirt in a traditional ceremony, and thus would be honouring feminine spirit while doing so.

In a remarkable 2013 essay, pseudonymous writer Deirdre Bell noted that progressive mysticism surrounding traditional Indigenous attitudes toward gender often have served to obscure such sexist realities. In particular, Bell poured scorn on “the white trans person who points to American Indian cultures as some kind of more accepting place for people with dysphoria, because many of these cultures had a ‘third gender.’” In most cases that we know of, Bell argued, Indigenous third-gender categorization was a mechanism to negotiate a useful societal role for non-conforming men. Women weren’t eligible. As Bell wrote:

In some third gender societies, Two-Spirit was simply a way to handle homosexuality within the group: homosexual men were considered not fully men, a halfway gender that wasn’t quite ‘normal.’ In others, it was a way to handle intersexed people in societies with rigid sex binaries. In still others, it was for men who specifically preferred women’s work and roles, like weaving and cooking.

The politicized nature of the Two-Spirit concept isn’t an isolated development. The same phenomenon can be observed in other 2SLGBTQI+ categories. For years, militant sects within Pride organizations all over the Western world have been at war with the upbeat, corporate character of modern LGBT celebrations. In 2020, a New Yorker writer even claimed that Democratic presidential aspirant Pete Buttigieg wasn’t gay enough for the LGBT community because he wasn’t sufficiently angry and radicalized. Just as the Two-Spirit designation often signifies an “anti-colonial” Indigenous person who happens to be exhibiting some (at least vaguely expressed) gay or trans affect, the larger umbrella term “queer” itself now is increasingly used to denote anti-bourgeois political postures.

All of which is fine enough on a personal level: People should be free to self-define with whatever words they choose. But it’s time to stop pretending that policy instruments such as “Canada’s first Federal 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan: Building Our Future With Pride” are merely about “who [people] are” and “who they love.” In the case of the 2S category, in particular, this is clearly just as much about ideology as identity.

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