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Reclaiming the Two-Spirit identity

August 18, 2016
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Teddy Syrette shares his thoughts on LGBTQ advocacy, Two-Spirit awareness raising and self-care

Teddy Syrette is an LGBTQ advocate, writer and public speaker from Rankin Reserve of Batchewana First Nation of the Ojibways, now living in Toronto. We recently spoke to Teddy about Two-Spirit identity and reconciliation, how to get your foot in the avocacy door and how to take care of yourself when you’re working hard to make the world a better place.

Read the Q&A below:


Why is it important to educate others about being Two-Spirit?

Two-Spirit is a modern term that Indigenous folks use to self-identify when it comes to gender and/or sexual diversity, expression, community roles, culture and spirituality. Aspects of trans and queer identities have always existed in different tribes and Indigenous groups before colonisation.

Indigenous-queer folks are starting to reclaim the identifier as being a ‘Two-Spirit,’ after facing many aspects of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, etc. during and after European contact. Many groups have their own cultural terms for different types of ‘Two-Spirit’ folks. This includes character components that can include gender, gender expression, sexuality, communal and sometimes ceremonial roles within their respected communities. Some Ojibwe people use the term ‘agokwe’ for queer identified folks.

It’s believed that every living thing on Turtle Island has a spirit. Two-Spirit people are believed to have a harmonious balance between masculinity and femininity or having a male and a female spirit within themselves. There are elders and knowledge keepers who believe that a Two-Spirit person carried a lot of gifts and roles. Some were medicine people, seers, healers, teachers, hunters, gatherers, storytellers, artists, tricksters, warriors, etc. There are also aspects of Two-Spirits having a direct connection to the Creator, and provided visions and knowledge to their people.

This was lost after colonisation, when European and religious explorers discovered tribes that practiced same sex partnerships and different forms of cross-dressing. Suddenly, you had a group of people who were once included and sometimes honoured in their communities seen as abominations in the eyes of others. Two-Spirits were met with a lot of violence and hardship during these times. This included assimilating to their assigned gender at birth, giving up partners and lovers, physical violence, death and banishment. The names for these people and their teachings were also lost or abandoned.

The challenges for Two-Spirit people today are evident in high rates of suicide, mental illness, out migration, poverty, homelessness, prostitution, substance abuse/use and concurrent disorder, when it comes to intersectional identities of Two-Spirits or Indigenous LGBTQ people. Systemic racism is another factor that Two-Spirit people can face, even within the non-Indigenous LGBTQ community. Which is sad, because a lot of times Two-Spirits leave their First Nations or small communities and relocate to larger urban areas like Toronto for a stronger sense of queer identity, community and culture. And when they arrive they’re met with marginalization and stigmatization from their own queer peers, who aren’t Two Spirit.

Another item to contend with is surrounding cultural appropriation and having non-Indigenous people claiming the identity of being a Two-Spirit person. This is wrong because the term isn’t just a title that was created. It combines spirituality with gender and sexuality, but it’s also a political term of reclamation of Indigenous folks who are/were sexually and/or gender diverse but weren’t comfortable adopting an identity that’s been imposed on them by concepts based on western ideologies.  

I always think of a feather headdress when discussing cultural appropriation and taking on the identity of a Two-Spirit. You can be fascinated by a feather headdress and take teachings and research everything there is to know about a feather headdress, but it means something entirely if you are a non-Indigenous person, and you choose to wear that feather headdress when you really shouldn’t.


What role does everyone’s understanding of the Two-Spirit identity play in reconciliation?

Non-Indigenous folk need to not claim Two-Spirit identity as their own, and learn why this is important when it comes to identity reclamation and cultural appropriation.

Indigenous folks need to become more aware of all the social, physical, emotional, spiritual and mental impacts that their Two-Spirit community members face. A lack of inclusivity and recognition of gender variant and sexually diverse people contributes to the violence and alienation that our people can face. There are plenty of Indigenous advocates and knowledge keepers out there who are continuously advancing Two-Spirit narratives. Harlen Pruden, Thomas King, Waawaate Fobister, Albert McLeod, Jack Saddleback, Margaret Robinson, Sharp Doplar, Blu Waters, Kent Monkman and Ma-Nee Chacaby are all incredible Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous people who have created many platforms to provide Two-Spirit people with a voice. More role models, youth and elders are needed to begin having conversations about sexuality and gender diversity within all First Nation communities, both on and off reserve, as well as in Métis and Inuit groups.

Traditional knowledge keepers and followers need to create space for queer identified First Nation, Métis and Inuit people. This is important when it comes to ceremony and cultural practices. Some are reluctant to create inclusive ceremonies because there isn’t enough awareness about sexaulity or diversity inclusion. A lot of this ignorance or blatant discrimination can stem from impacts of enforced Christianization and colonization that introduced extreme elements of hatred and violence towards sexual and gender diverse bodies.

What work still needs to be done?

When I speak to a lot of youth, they tell me, “If the older homophobes die, then queer folks can have a better life.” And I can see where they’re coming from. But I point out to them that each of us are knowledge keepers and holders of our own truth, and with whatever knowledge we possess we try and transfer that information to others. It might be easy to just let those old homophobes die, but they weren’t born homophobic. They learned it from someone who also held onto those beliefs of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, etc. So it isn’t about waiting for homophobic people to die off, it’s so much more beneficial that the thought or idea of homophobia be changed through awareness raising and education.

These people may not learn anything at all. But if you plant the seed of progressive inclusivity, that seed might take and someone could grow to be the most accepting individual of queer folks since Bette Midler. Or not. I’m realistic that when I go do a talk or workshop somewhere, I know there will be folks who want to be there and there are going to be folks who are “supposed to” or “forced” to go to. In that case, I’m just open with them and mention that I don’t speak on behalf of all queer folks or all Indigenous folks. I just remind them that I will be discussing aspects of homophobia and racism and use the word queer throughout my talk. And if they don’t like it, then that’s fine, because after 45 minutes of my talking they can go back to their daily programming, and I’ll go back to my gayly programming.

If they don’t take anything away from what I have to say, they’ll always remember me as that bearded lady wearing a cute dress or red high heel shoes. They usually laugh, but it encourages them that I’m not there to make anyone feel bad. I’m simply there to share my story with them, and how the world impacts me and how I impact the world. And more people need to be able to build those spaces to have their voices and other queer voices heard. Because it’s time we do that everywhere. Queerness has always been here. And there are thousands of cases of queer behaviour in many species. Hatred, is found in only one: humans.

Advocacy and activism can be stressful and difficult at times. What do you do to recharge your batteries?

I used to go out to social gatherings and advocacy or arts events and told myself this was self-care, and not work. Then I’d get so stressed or burnt out. So a wise friend, Rebecca, told me that maybe I should just spend time at home more often and do nothing. So I did and now I watch Star Trek: Voyager and horror movies for self-care.

I also like to write. I’m in the process of formulating a book of poetry and stories that I want to get published. I always liked to write stories as a child. Then I began to journal as a teen and youth, and now I like to write when the right moment is ready and I can find the right energy and rhythm.

I also spend countless hours on social media. It is kind of my jam. Before Facebook I felt pretty shy. Now I’m just shy, but with an impressive presence on social media.

Do you have any advice for youth who are itching to get involved with advocacy work?

Don’t! Just kidding. What I'd tell youth that if they want to get into advocacy, is to question everything! It is one thing to be included and taught something, it is another thing to question what you are being taught and why you are being mandated to learn it. Clarification can lead to gaps and inequities, and once those inequities are questioned, then maybe there’s a chance for change to occur.

Build a strong and reliable support team. This work is very draining, spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally and sometimes sexually (I really questioned my sexuality, after the first year I helped plan Sault Pridefest, but that was mostly due to exhaustion). Always have folks that you can rely on to ground you, listen to you, bring you food, chill with you and if need be hold and hug you, because you will make mistakes and you will get burnt out.

On the topic of burning out, it’s always good to listen to your own needs. Finding that balance and having the strength to distance yourself to gain access to self-care is crucial to this work. Also, check-in with yourself to see if this work is still the work you want to continue doing. “Is this the work I should be doing, right now?” is a question I face a lot. I’m sometimes unsure of answering ‘no,’ because before I do there’s usually some hurtful act of discrimination that occurs to someone or a community that is queer related and I get angry. I then use that energy to empower myself to try and do something. It isn’t about me, it’s about assisting with teaching others about acceptance and understanding.  

Another item I’d tell them is to volunteer and make space to say ‘yes’ to a lot of different opportunities, because you don’t know where your advocacy can take you. A lot of it is based on your own interests and gifts, then using those gifts to capitalize on your interests to be doing the type of advocacy you want to be doing. But you need to do a lot of work, and do a lot of work that others want you to do for them, before doing the work that you want to be doing. After enough time and saying ‘yes’ to a lot of things, you can start to create a name and a brand for yourself. Cultivating networks, skills and personal relationship within your field can help your own advocacy work be recognized and respected among your peers. After this, you can begin to say ‘no’ to opportunities that aren’t suited to your kind of advocacy work. However, you can create an opportunity for someone else, who might be just getting their foot into the door of advocacy.

It is also important to remain truthful to yourself, and to what your needs are, when doing this work. Many organizations, advocates and systems are still very colonial and oppressive. It is a matter of asking for help from your supports.

Finally, if you need to walk away, do so. Everyone makes mistakes, but it is more important to learn from them before walking away. Try. Learn. Repeat. If you want to do something, try doing it. If it works, repeat that process or advance it. If it doesn’t work, learn from that process and adapt what you’ve learned so that you can try again. If not, try something else.

You can find Teddy’s writing on his website

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