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A life of two

A life of two


I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a gay man and native American. We were once revered on the reservation. Can we find the same respect again?

I recently became a New York project coordinator for the Honor Project--a federally funded survey that will analyze the heath and wellness of LGBT native Americans who live in urban areas across the United States. We are in the process of collecting data, and that means asking participants a spectrum of questions that include their views on having multiple sexual partners, HIV and risk behaviors, depression, that feeling of being "too white" for their tribes, and that feeling of being too native American for the gay mainstream.

Needless to say, this experience has gotten me thinking about what it means to be a gay man and an American Indian.

I grew up on a reservation outside San Diego as a Kumeyaay. There was a time when LGBT native Americans were honored as "two-spirits." Long before the Stonewall riots--even before Greek antiquity--those of us who entered into same-sex relationships were considered holy and treated with the highest respect. They were the historians, the healers, and the people of empowerment. They possessed a delicate balance of male and female and were often honored for being unique and having a different spiritual calling. For their people, they served as mediators between the spirit world and natural world. That time has since passed as Christian ideologies have replaced important tribal traditions.

When I came out, it was a two-step ordeal: coming to terms with my sexuality and with being a two-spirit.

I traveled to a "two-spirit" gathering in Tulsa, Okla., and it was like coming out all over again. On the second night they held a powwow, and I had never seen so many beautiful LGBT natives. There was so much pride in who we were and where we came from. We were all accepted--even the six-foot-tall transgender two-spirits who were dressed in feathers and beads topped off with that distinct flowing native hair. The next morning we had a talking circle, and there were plenty of cries for our people. Gay men lamented the way their brothers, sisters, and parents had disowned them for putting on dresses instead of pants or ribbons instead of baseball hats. Others told stories of being beaten by their tribes for being different. We all prayed for our families, that they could have understanding in their hearts.

When the Honor Project is completed, it will likely conclude what LGBT native Americans have realized for years: we have serious concerns that need to be addressed immediately--including substance abuse issues, mental health, and the acceptance of our sexuality. Most native gatherings I attend are drug- and alcohol-free because most of us are in some type of recovery. I learned that even though my people are very proud and like to laugh, it merely covers what is at the surface of years and generations of pain, poverty, and bigotry. It is sad that most of our pain comes from old ideas about ourselves learned from growing up on reservations.

Hopefully, the study will give us the numbers to prove to policy makers that funding needs to be set aside, that action needs to be taken, and that community organization needs to be advocated. It will no doubt also tell us that reconnecting with our culture, spirituality, and traditions means a healthier life.

By participating, I hope that I have taken small steps that will cause large ripples in the two-spirit community. Each day I ask myself how I can help. My creator shows me the next right step, and it is up to me to take the action.

If you are an LGBT native American and live in Tulsa, Okla.; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; Denver; Seattle; or New York City, contact the Honor Project at (866) 685-0764 to take part in the anonymous survey. There is compensation for your time.

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Kevin VanWanseele