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'LGBTQ' Didn't Feel Right to This Actor, But 'Two-Spirit' Did

Ty Defoe

With purple cape flowing and feet stomping, Ty Defoe danced in place alongside Emma Gonzalez, Victoria Cruz, Kaia Naadira, and other LGBTQ community heroes aboard the float that led the 49th annual New York City Pride March in June.

Defoe left the march and headed to Broadway, where the two-spirit artist was starring in Straight White Men (which closed in September), alongside Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) and legendary transgender icon, Kate Bornstein.

“I’m super excited. It’s unbelievable,” Defoe said of working with Bornstein, the author of memoirs Gender Outlaw and A Queer and Pleasant Danger, who also appeared on Caitlyn Jenner’s reality series, I Am Cait. “She’s just such a rock star, and legend, and it’s great to be [with] queer family, making work.”

Defoe is also a playwright (the musical Clouds Are Pillows for the Moon), poet, interdisciplinary artist, educator, and Grammy Award-winning musician (Come to Me Great Mystery: Native American Healing Songs). He’s traveled around the world to dance, perform, and teach others. Among his many videos online (TyDefoe.com), one features him using traditional Native American dance to “reestablish being transgender.”

“I feel impelled to tell stories about people that are silenced and not heard, that we are still here, we’re among the people,” he explained. Though Defoe lives in New York City, he grew up in Wisconsin where he followed his parents’ traditions set by the Ojibwe Nation and the Oneida Nation.

A few years ago, when explaining why he no longer identifies with the term “transgender,” Defoe told The Fader, “As a kid I was more interested in tending the fire and learning the drum songs, which men do, than cleaning the cedar,” a task performed by women in the tribe. But, “[transgender] kind of implies going from one gender to the next, and I was like, ‘No, I think there’s something else.’”

He found it in the Native American tradition of two-spirits. As he clarified in an essay “A Red Face in the Crowd: Identities of a Native American Two-Spirit Writer,” Defoe wrote: “I chose the name Ty. Sky above is my Ojibwe name. Eagle is my clan. I am two-spirit (FTM/ Trans*gender male).”

“Two-spirit is a cultural role and responsibility,” Defoe later explained to The Advocate. “It’s something that has been in this country and Turtle Island and around the world for indigenous peoples since before colonization. So, it’s a way of talking about decolonizing things. There’s a whole group of people across the country that specifically have a role and responsibility in this circle, this Great Hoop of Life. We’re all connected.”

Connecting with the two million spectators lining the streets of Manhattan for Pride, Defoe said, “was amazing…. [It was] unbelievable to see all those beautiful faces and people — you could just see the love from everyone. It was so exciting.”

He continued, “I’m lucky to be here. I felt like it was important to represent the two-spirit community and the LGBTQ-plus [community], and it was just really great to see so many friends and people yell and scream at those of us on the float.”

Being recognized in public “always surprises me,” he added. “I’ll never get used to it.” After Pride and Broadway, he just may have to.

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