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The two solitudes of two-spirit

Many queer aboriginal Canadians juggle different aspects of their identity to fit in

Panel moderator Paige Isaac sits alongside Gina Metallic (holding mic) and Akwiratékha Martin at the Native Friendship centre in Montreal on Nov 13 at a Two Spirits Today: Indigenous Voices from the LGBTQ community event. Credit: Megan Dolski

Gina Metallic doesn’t think anyone should have to choose between different aspects of their identity in order to fit into the mould of the conventional and socially acceptable.

And, she’s not going to anymore.

“I’m queer,” says Metallic, who is a Mi’kmaq woman originally from Listigouche, Quebec. She is speaking to a packed room at Montreal’s Native Friendship Centre. “But, I’m also aboriginal, and these two things are really important to me.”

While Metallic once felt the need to forfeit her aboriginal culture in favour of her sexuality, she has come to realize that there is space for her to embrace both. When addressing both native and non-native people, Metallic identifies as two-spirit.

Depending who you ask, the term can be defined and interpreted in a variety of ways. Generally, two-spirit people have long been considered integral to indigenous society — and often held healing and teaching roles within their communities. These roles differ greatly between aboriginal nations and have been diversely affected by colonization over time.

Metallic says the term two-spirit expresses that she is part of a sexual minority, being lesbian, while also implying that she belongs to an indigenous community.

“The Western world uses the word ‘queer’ as an umbrella term to encompass all of the little labels that people either choose to take or not, which is what I think two-spirited is — it’s like our umbrella term,” she says, adding that the term ought to be used exclusively by aboriginal people and does not belong to anyone else.

Metallic only recently began embracing a two-spirit identity and hadn’t even heard of the term until she moved to Montreal in 2005.

Since then, she’s received a master’s in social work from McGill University, with her thesis focusing on two-spirit identity development — an experience that has been enlightening, both personally and professionally.

“Growing up in a small community, I wasn’t exposed to too much,” she says. “We didn’t really talk about gay people or gay things.” She says her move to the city opened her eyes to a new, diverse array of people and offered her an opportunity to explore options no longer limited to heterosexuality.

But the move didn’t come without cost.

“When I started to go to the gay village in Montreal, I actually lost my culture,” she says. “I felt like there was so much racism in the gay community, so there was a need to reject my culture.”

Metallic says that through her own extensive research, she’s realized that her experience of feeling the need to choose one or the other —“full lesbian or aboriginal” — was not uncommon among two-spirit people. While she felt like she couldn’t completely be herself in the city, she also experienced a similar phenomenon when returning to the reserve.

“I think there is more homophobia in communities that are located in more rural areas,” she says. “They aren’t as exposed to as many different types of people.”

Metallic says that while her maternal family embraced her “two-spiritedness,” her paternal side hasn’t really spoken to her since she came out.

Akwiratékha Martin is a language teacher from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, located just south of Montreal. He also identifies as two-spirit, but his family and community are extremely accepting of his identity. “I got very lucky with my surroundings and my people,” he says. For Martin, though, his experience in the city wasn’t as easy.

“I didn’t fit in. It was really hard, because they didn’t understand different aspects of my culture. I felt I had to explain myself all the time.”

Martin believes that it is extremely important to participate in one’s community, whether it happens to be located on a reserve or in the city.

“That’s what two-spirited is about; it’s about giving back to the community and contributing to it,” he says. “Not to just be gay or be lesbian, but to do your own thing — for me, my role was learning and teaching my language.”

He says that as a two-spirit person it is important to be open to dialogue and be responsive to people’s curiosity, even when it may come off as ignorant.

Metallic agrees, and she is adamant that improving education will ease the current struggles faced by two-spirit people. “In the schools this is still very taboo,” she says, pointing to a lack of literature and resources available on the subject of two-spiritedness, a void that she believes is perpetuating the silence around it. “We need more resources, to build a community, to hold events — we need to have a spot in the Pride parades, and we need an organization.”

Metallic thinks Montreal is lagging behind cities like Toronto in terms of available material and community groups. “Until those things are really set in place, I think people will continue to experience that duality of choosing between the queer lifestyle and the aboriginal lifestyle, without realizing that you can actually have both.”

The difficulty of juggling and potentially dropping different aspects of one’s identity isn’t a struggle faced exclusively by two-spirit people, but it is a challenge that stands to affect anyone belonging to a minority.

“Each one of us has many identities that we try to manage in our lives,” says Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, a scholar and activist. “I’m a mother, I’m a woman, I’m Palestinian, I’m Bedouin, I’m Israeli and I’m a feminist.”

Those don’t all work harmoniously together, she says, noting that in order to be accepted in society, something — or in her case, multiple things — had to give.

“People who are oppressed, for the sake of the oppressor, need to be one thing. When we become more than one thing it becomes a challenge for them,” she says.

Alh’jooj came to Montreal’s Native Friendship to see how the aboriginal population had dealt with this issue, as it was one that has similarly affected her and many others in her home community. “So many people that I know have given up,” she says. “I wanted to see how these people have dealt with facing a national challenge, being aboriginal, but also personal challenge in terms of their sexual orientation.”

The answer, vocalized repeatedly at the centre, is a need for open-minded dialogue and more education.

Metallic is doing her part in paving the way, by being vocal about her identity, both on- and off-reserve. She was named 2013 role model in her community, and her two-spirit identity was proudly plastered on posters in town. “If people are uncomfortable with it, that’s their issue,” she says. “I’m not going to continue to hide myself. There is nothing to be ashamed about.”