6 min

Indigenous activist Jessica Yee talks theory, practice and making progress

Working the intersections, differences and overlaps toward real liberation

"I'm ready to receive criticism of my own analysis of things. My mentality though isn't that we're all one. I don't think it's safe to be all one yet. I don't think that all our struggles are the same," says Jessica Yee. Credit: Courtesy of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network

Jessica Yee is a 23-year-old indigenous reproductive and youth rights activist. She’s been an outspoken force to be reckoned with in queer, aboriginal and pro-choice communities (and beyond) for several years now — most certainly since she founded the Native Youth Sexual Health Network in 2006, a North America wide by-youth-and-for-youth sexual health initiative that is sex-positive, based on aboriginal traditions and teachings, and quite extensive in the spectrum of sexual issues it tackles. These include gender expression, sexual orientation, abortion, reproductive justice, questions of access to health services and how colonization affects the sex lives of indigenous youth and other communities of colour.

In February of this year, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published an anthology of essays and stories, edited by Yee and written by young people of colour, called Sex Ed and Youth: Colonization, Communities of Colour and Sexuality. Yee will be in Ottawa this week, in part to be a panellist at the OPIRG Carleton-sponsored event, Two Spirit and Queer Liberation Movements on Wed Nov 25. Capital Xtra caught up with Yee by phone in Toronto, where she is based.

Capital Xtra: Are you excited about the event coming up on Wednesday night?

Jessica Yee: Well, I’m not an academic, but I’m interested to find out more about what the practical application of queer liberation theory is. To me, from what I know of the queer liberation movement, it’s very academic. Does that apply on a community level with real people, people who really need to be liberated or could benefit from theories like that? That’s always my question. Particularly with a cultural lens — I’m not so sure that queer liberation applies to my community. I think that being queer-positive is part of our culture and should be.

CX: Do you think that homophobia is part of the effects of colonization?

JY: I’m a very critical person when it comes to theoretical things because I don’t always see how, on a community-based level, that’s helping outside of left-leaning circles that don’t want to admit that they are privileged to be there.

I do think that anything that’s empowering for somebody is great, whatever it is. If wearing green socks is empowering, and you want to start your own green socks movement, that’s great. But I think to tell other people that they need to wear green socks [to feel empowered] is a different thing.

I see this in certain natural forms of birth control too, like fertility awareness methods or [menstrual products like] moon cups or diva cups. People are not acknowledging that indigenous women have been doing this for centuries, and now you have descendents of [colonizers] who are benefiting off of it and thinking that people who don’t subscribe to it are not progressive.

It happens with gender, too. Prior to colonization, gender fluidity was normal, it was sacred. It was actually a very empowering thing. Then you get told by people that it’s wrong and you get it beaten out of you and you get Christian [indoctrination] and then you get the same community saying, “Get with the times” because they’ve evolved. That’s an interesting thing to look at. I’m very mindful of that lens when it comes to queer liberation.

CX: Do you think that what you’re bringing to the table on Wednesday night is going to broaden the scope of the discussion when it comes to liberation struggles?

JY: I mean, I hope so. I’m all for people calling it whatever they want to call it for their own selves. My caution is [when people] say it’s going to solve everyone’s problems. Similar to how other things have failed people. I might say I’m a feminist, but is feminism going to work for somebody in their own community? Maybe not. Maybe they think it doesn’t look like them or apply to them or whatever. Those are the types of things that, I think, in our different struggles, we have to be prepared to admit and deal with and learn from and also get challenged to be better.

CX: Would you say that you’re careful not to prescribe anything in particular across the board in terms of what we need politically for social change to happen?

JY: I would say that, generally. I would also say that I’m ready to critically analyze and I’m ready to receive criticism of my own analysis of things. My mentality though isn’t that we’re all one. I don’t think it’s safe to be all one yet. I don’t think that all our struggles are the same. There’s a thing that Loretta Ross says of SisterSong [a national reproductive health coalition in the US]: ‘Sistersong is a collective of women of colour and indigenous women who are singing different songs in unison.’ That’s what I believe. We’re not singing the same song, but we can sing in harmony and in unison. So one of the things that I want to ask Gary [Kinsman] is who are you writing for, and does queer liberation have to exist because of certain things?

CX: What do you mean?

JY: I mean are there certain pretences that have to exist for queer theory to make sense as a movement? For me, I’m more interested in having a discussion about decolonization. I think that if we did that successfully, we would get back to reclaiming queer identity as part of the whole gamut.

CX: Of human experience and identity?

JY: Yes. It’s important not to romanticize indigenous history and say everything was rosy. Of course there were problems and issues, but we had systems to deal with them. To know that there was a very strong identity — and I’m talking specifically about two spirit identity, which is a powerful position in our communities — and these [people] were selectively killed off.

CX: During colonization?

JY: Yes, and it’s ongoing in the internalized colonization that people [experience]. In our community, people think that being two-spirited is a new concept and that it’s a white thing, or being gay is a white thing. People say things like that because they don’t know.

CX: Do you find that people conflate ‘gay’ and ‘two-spirited?’

JY: They conflate it a lot. People conflate it with being gay, which to me is incorrect. Some people say that the word two-spirited was coined in the 1990s when aboriginal people were working with white people in the queer movement and they didn’t feel like it spoke to them, and some people say that two-spirited is an English translation for [the concept of a] dual spirit, a male and female spirit, that has existed for centuries.

CX: And what do you say?

JY: It’s definitely inclusive of being gay or queer or whatever identity you want to pick. For me to describe myself as two-spirited in English, this is what I would say: I’m bisexual. In my community, I would say I’m two-spirited. For me, I know that I have a male and a female spirit. I know that I will always be attracted to women and men, and there are different days when I take on more of a female identity versus a male identity. But I know a lot of female chiefs, particularly in British Colombia, who are two-spirited but they’re not sexually attracted to other women. My partner is like that. He’s two-spirited, and he clearly has days where he’s more feminine or more masculine, but he’s not sexually attracted to other men. I mean, yet. I don’t know. I always say you’re as gay as your options.

CX: [laugh]

JY: [laugh] A lot of people look at our partnership and think, “Ooh, how does that work? Somebody who presents as male and somebody who presents as female, both being two-spirited.” As somebody who has been polyamorous for my whole life, I’m trying monogamy with him for the first time because I’m able to. I was polyamorous obviously by choice, but I also needed to be with women and men at the same time. With him, monogamy only happened because I was fulfilled on that level. So it’s interesting.

CX: You do a lot of work about intersectionality of experience. Can you define what you mean by that and go into those ideas a bit?

JY: [With intersectional feminism] we’re getting away from the first wave, second wave, third wave thing and more just focussing on humanity. Not humanist feminism, but [addressing] the separation, the division, the infighting that’s happening, and the generation gaps. Intersectionality, for me, means that I’m not any one thing first and foremost. I would say I’m a woman, I’m aboriginal, I’m two-spirited, I’m a sex worker. I would never say that any of those things comes before the other. I experience all of them simultaneously, and I would hope that feminism would apply to any of those domains. There’s this idea [in feminist circles] though that if we don’t appear united, everyone’s going to eat us. But one single issue is never going to fix us all.