Native American LGBT Organizations and Periodicals

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NATIVE AMERICAN LGBT ORGANIZATIONS AND PERIODICALS

The history of Native American LGBT organizations began in 1975 with the founding of Gay American Indians (GAI) in San Francisco by Barbara Cameron (Hunkpapa Lakota) and Randy Burns (Northern Paiute). The two were seeking to address the double discrimination faced by Native American gays and lesbians resulting from racism within the mainstream lesbian and gay movement and the homophobia of Christianized Native societies. GAI started as a social group that offered Native gays and lesbians opportunities to meet each other in a safe, welcoming environment. But it quickly evolved into an organization that provided a wider range of services to its constituency and also functioned as a lobby group working to bring its members' concerns to nongay Native groups and non-Native gay groups. By the 1980s GAI was a thriving group that had made gains in raising the profile of Native gays and lesbians. It had also made progress in encouraging Native, mainstream, and gay organizations to improve their outreach to Native American gays and lesbians. By the time it celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1985, it had about six hundred members nationwide.

GAI engaged in many other roles and activities as well. As young Native American gays and lesbians continued migrating to San Francisco to connect with others like themselves, GAI helped them find housing, jobs, student loans, and social opportunities. It also involved itself in the quest to learn and publicize more about the history of alternate gender roles (formerly called berdache) in Native American societies. One of Randy Burns's inspirations in co-founding GAI was his discovery of this history through a gay newspaper, and other group members were interested as well. GAI collaborated with historian Will Roscoe in compiling a bibliography of sources on alternative gender statuses, which was published in 1985 as A Bibliography and Index of Berdache and Gay Roles among North American Indians. Not long after, it compiled the very first anthology of writing by Native American gays and lesbians, titled Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology (1988). Over twenty writers contributed to this groundbreaking collection of stories, poems, artwork, and essays.

GAI was the only Native American lesbian and gay group for more than a decade after its founding. Only in 1987 was it joined by American Indian Gays and Lesbians (AIGL), based in Minneapolis. The Minneapolis group began with goals similar to those of GAI, wishing to offer gay and lesbian Native people safe spaces in which to meet and to provide culturally appropriate support grounded in an understanding of Native traditions. AIGL rapidly made its mark by establishing a new institution for Native gays and lesbians in the form of an annual gathering. In 1988 AIGL hosted a gathering called the Basket and the Bow: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Native Americans at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, drawing over sixty participants from Canada and the United States. This gathering was so successful that it became an annual event, later renamed the International Two-Spirit Gathering. After its inaugural celebration in Minneapolis, the gathering began to shift location each year; gatherings were subsequently held in Manitoba, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, New Brunswick, and British Columbia, among other places. For the tenth annual event, the temporarily dormant AIGL was revitalized to organize and host the International Two-Spirit Gathering in Minneapolis. Subsequently, it continued to change venues annually, hosted by local two-spirit groups in various places in the United States and Canada.

The HIV/AIDS Challenge and the Proliferation of Groups

By the late 1980s new Native gay and lesbian organizations began to spring up in cities throughout the United States and Canada. At the same time, a vitally important new issue had arisen, one to which GAI was also turning its attention: the HIV/AIDS epidemic. GAI members founded the Indian AIDS Project in 1987, and the next year they joined a larger group to establish the American Indian AIDS Institute, focused on providing support services to those affected by HIV/AIDS and on public education as well. By the early 1990s many members of AIGL were so busy organizing around HIV/AIDS that the group decided to become dormant for a time, only to reemerge in 1997 to host the International Two-Spirit Gathering.

In New York City in 1989, WeWah and BarChee-Ampe was established by Native lesbians and gays, taking its name from two historical alternate-gender individuals discussed in GAI's publication, Living the Spirit. Facing the alarming rate of HIV/AIDS infections in New York City, the group immediately became involved in dealing with AIDS-related issues among Native people, working with the American Indian Community House to create the HIV/AIDS Project in 1990. It also organized a new type of conference in 1991, Two Spirits and HIV: A Conference for the Health of Gay and Lesbian Native Americans.

Also including services for HIV-infected Aboriginal people among its primary goals was Gays and Lesbians of the First Nations (GLFN), founded in Toronto in 1989. The group was the first of its kind in Canada and it grew quickly. GLFN offered a wide range of activities for its members, including talking and healing circles, a newsletter, drag shows, award shows, and the Two-Spirits Softball Team, in addition to HIV/AIDS services. By 1992 the organization had grown to three hundred members hailing from sixteen Aboriginal nations. The same year it changed its name to 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations, reflecting the newly developed terminology of the Native LGBT community.

The period between the late 1980s and the early 1990s generally witnessed a blossoming of gay and lesbian Native organizations in cities across North America. In Winnipeg, Nichiwakan was formed, and in Seattle, Tahoma Two-Spirits. Vancouver Two-Spirits was founded in Vancouver, and San Diego activists formed Nations of the Four Directions. In the next few years, organizations also arose in Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tennessee.

A New Concept for Self-Understanding

One of the most significant developments of this period, in addition to the growth of Native lesbian and gay groups, was the emergence of new language and understandings of self. When the Third Annual International Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Native Americans was held in Winnipeg in 1990, a new term for Native lesbians and gays was suggested and enthusiastically taken up. The term was "two-spirit" (or "two-spirited"), an English translation of the Ojibway niizh manitoag, expressing the idea that Native gays and lesbians were people who united the spirits of both sexes in one person. The term and the idea have proven immensely popular for a variety of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, the language and concept of two-spirit were generated by two-spirit people themselves, providing an alternative to the adoption (yet again) of Western, colonizing discourses on sexuality. The term "two-spirit" builds on Aboriginal worldviews and philosophies and is a powerful reminder of the affirmation and integration historically experienced by two-spirit people within most Native American societies. In addition, as Will Roscoe has suggested, the word "two-spirit" conveys both racial and sexual identity and avoids the gendered division embodied in the non-Native terminology "lesbian and gay." In celebrating and reviving their Native traditions, two-spirit people can simultaneously embrace their own heritage and draw strength from a past in which their predecessors were accorded cultural honor, spiritual value, and social acceptance.

The Contributions of Native Two-Spirit Writers

The proliferation of Native LGBT two-spirit organizations has occurred in a symbiotic relationship with the establishment and expansion of a network of Native two-spirit writers, artists, and intellectuals willing to be open about their sexual identity. The first Native American writer to come out as gay was Mohawk poet Maurice Kenny, whose pathbreaking article "Tinselled Bucks: An Historical Study of Indian Homosexuality" appeared in the periodical Gay Sunshine (Winter 1975–1976) and was reprinted twelve years later in Living the Spirit (1988). In the spring of 1981 an article by mixed-blood Laguna Pueblo writer Paula Gunn Allen, "Beloved Women: Lesbians in American Indian Cultures," was published in the journal Conditions; it was reprinted in her book The Sacred Hoop in 1986. Both were taking a considerable risk, given the widespread problem of homophobia in Native communities, especially on some reservations. But as Paula Gunn Allen later stated, it was profoundly important to speak out on behalf of the many young Native two-spirit people living on those reservations: "I decided I could take the risk—I don't live there. But there are young gay Indians who do and they have to hear this" (Roscoe, 1998, p. 101).

Other Native lesbian and gay writers also went public about their sexual orientation in the 1980s. Two Native lesbians, Barbara Cameron and Chrystos, published writings in the now-classic 1981 feminist collection edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. In 1984 Mohawk writer Beth Brant's collection, A Gathering of Spirit: Writing and Art by North American Indian Women, included the work of eleven Native lesbians. Brant herself was open about her sexuality from the outset of her writing career. In 1988 Living the Spirit greatly expanded the list of open lesbian and gay Native writers. Since then many more writers, artists, and intellectuals have come out, including Canadian Cree playwright Tomson Highway, Cree actor Billy Merasty, Six Nations writer Daniel David Moses, Odawa actress Gloria Eshkibok, and Métis writer Gregory Scofield.

The work of so many dedicated LGBT two-spirit writers and activists has had a significant impact on the acceptance of two-spirit people in Native communities. This process has also been facilitated by the revival and revitalization of Native traditions that began in the 1960s, a project to which those same writers and activists have contributed enormously. In addition, the publication of academic research into alternate gender statuses in historic Native societies has helped to further understanding and acceptance of two-spirit people in their own communities. The most important of these publications include Walter L. Williams's widely read The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture (1986) and GAI's Living the Spirit. Subsequently, historian Will Roscoe's Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America (1998), provided another detailed exploration of historic Native alternate gender roles. All of this has helped to create a climate of greater acceptance for Native people who identify as LGBT, or two-spirit.

The State of Two-Spirit Organizations

At the turn of the twenty-first century, two-spirit organizations are more numerous and robust than ever. GAI still exists in San Francisco, as does American Indian Gays and Lesbians in Minneapolis. The New York City group has changed its name to Gay and Lesbian Indigenous People, NY, while retaining the name WeWah/BarChee-Ampe for its newsletter. Toronto's 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations remains active and is preparing to host the 2003 International Two-Spirit Gathering to be held in Ontario, Canada, near Mnjikaning First Nation (Rama). In Seattle the Northwest Two-Spirit Society is active, offering monthly meetings and a separate drumming group along with other activities. The Two Spirit Society of Denver meets twice a month at the Denver Gay and Lesbian Center, maintains its own drum group, and organizes musical events, picnics, and other social gatherings. San Francisco now boasts a second two-spirit group, Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS), which meets twice monthly, alternating its location between San Francisco and Oakland. The mission statement posted on its Web site expresses ideas common to most of these groups: "Bay Area American Indians Two-Spirits (BAAITS) exists to restore and recover the role of Two-Spirited people within the American Indian community by creating forums for the spiritual, cultural and artistic expression of Two-Spirit people."

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Native American LGBT organizations had made tremendous gains in forging a unique identity centered largely around the two-spirit model. A number of these organizations maintain Web sites, and the Internet offers several online forums for two-spirit people to discuss issues of interest. In addition to the annual International Two-Spirit Gathering, several smaller-scale, local and regional gatherings are held. Three decades of Native LGBT organizing and publishing have created a flourishing two-spirit community across North America that declares, affirms, and reinforces the pride of its members.

Bibliography

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

"Bay Area American Indians Two-Spirits." Available from http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/Castro/8260.

Brant, Beth, ed. A Gathering of Spirit: A Collection by North American Indian Women. Rockland, Me.: Sinister Wisdom Books, 1984.

Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1981.

Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St Martin's Griffin, 1998.

Roscoe, Will, ed. A Bibliography and Index of Berdache and Gay Roles among North American Indians. San Francisco: Gay American Indians, 1985.

——. Living the Spirit: Gay American Indian Anthology. Compiled by Gay American Indians (GAI). New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Robin Jarvis Brownlie

see alsoallen, paula gunn; brant, beth; burns, randy; cameron, barbara; chrystos; kenny, maurice; native americans; native american religion and spirituality; two-spirit females; two-spirit males.

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Native American LGBT Organizations and Periodicals