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Navigating between spirits

Two-spirited people still struggle to be understood

by Jacob Boon

Bryson Syliboy came out as gay at age 19.  At first, he says, his sexuality made him feel even more removed from his Mi'kmaq history. Now, however, as a proud two-spirited man, he's able to be himself while still embracing his Mi'kmaq roots.  Photo: Jacob Boon
Bryson Syliboy came out as gay at age 19. At first, he says, his sexuality made him feel even more removed from his Mi'kmaq history. Now, however, as a proud two-spirited man, he's able to be himself while still embracing his Mi'kmaq roots. Photo: Jacob Boon

“A lot of the hipsters, they love everything Native,” says Bryson Syliboy. “They're like, 'Oh, I'm two-spirited.' [But] you don't even know what the hell that is!”

This latest wave of cultural appropriation might annoy Syliboy, but the fact that being two-spirited is becoming trendy is in itself peculiar. Two-spirited is a term used to describe the Aboriginal LGBTQ experience, but even a generation ago, the term was not in widespread use. Before that, the residential school system made homosexuality a sin in the minds of thousands. Today, two-spirited people throughout Nova Scotia still face prejudice from their families and gay communities alike.

At 32, Syliboy has been working as a sailor for close to 20 years. He was already serving aboard tall ships when he came out as gay at 19. He now lives in Halifax, but grew up in Indian Brook First Nation. Although he was surrounded by his Mi'kmaq community in Indian Brook, Syliboy nevertheless saw how his Catholic-raised relatives frowned upon their traditional Mi'kmaq culture, and anyone not fitting heteronormative gender roles.

“We only had one really out person [on my reserve],” says Syliboy. “He was a transsexual, and everybody hated him. He was doing tons of drugs. I never really had any role models.”

At first, Syliboy says, his sexuality made him feel even more removed from his history. Now, however, as a proud two-spirited man, his outlook has shifted. He's able to be himself while still embracing his Mi'kmaq roots.

Understanding what two-spirit is, particularly across cultural lines, can be tricky. The term is a direct translation of an Ojibwa phrase, which means a person whose body holds both masculine and feminine spirits. Nowadays, it is the agreed-upon way to express gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender,  intersex and other orientations within Native culture. It's a way to free ideas of sexuality and gender from the European-created labels and colonial culture which has misunderstood so much of First Nations’ life.

“Fundamentally, two-spirit, for me, means my identity as a human being is not based on the European idea of who I have sex with or what my gender expression is,” says Dr. Randolph Bowers. “Our identity is based on who we are and how we live with each other. The quality of our relationships.”

Mi'kmaq and two-spirited himself, Bowers is an editor, lecturer and counselling psychotherapist currently based at the University of New England, in New South Wales, Australia. He's been researching the history of the Mi'kmaq two-spirit tradition for an upcoming book, and believes the label's resurgence is allowing Native peoples to embrace their heritage.

“Today, Native people can connect with their traditional culture and really articulate that in the wider world in a way that's really safe for them now. Which it wasn't, even twenty years ago.”

It was in 1990, with the AIDS crisis decimating gay and First Nations communities alike, that the term “two-spirited” was popularized. In Winnipeg, at an inter-tribal meeting between the 2-Spirit Nation of Ontario, the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network and other gay Native peoples, the term was chosen to describe the LGBTQ experience for all aboriginals and indigenous people in North America. It's since been embraced by both Canadian and American bands as a way to relate to their sexual and gender identities within a post-colonial culture.

The label's widespread use is new, but the idea of the two-spirit person dates far back in First Nations' histories. In centuries past, the two-spirited individual would manifest what were considered “male” and “female” attributes. Recognized as such by tribal elders, their gift would allow them to cross gender boundaries—allowing a greater personal freedom to be both hunter and gatherer. Two-spirited behaviours have been documented in hundreds of nations, from every region and culture in North America. That is, until the influence of European settlers, and especially the Catholic church, helped suppress any actions considered un-Christian.

“The church just came in and just wiped out all of our ideas,” says Bryson Syliboy. “There's been a slow resurgence of acceptance.”

In his own words, Syliboy's coming out “didn't go well.” His parents hated it then, and a decade later, little has changed. Though he usually returns to Indian Brook once a year, Syliboy says he keeps to himself when visiting. He isn't in contact with his father and his mother passed away a few years ago.

“Trying to be accepted by the older generations, a lot of them are devout Catholics,” he says. “My parents grew up in the 1950s. The idea was gay people were still going to get prosecuted back then.”

Diane Rowe isn't surprised by Syliboy's experiences. A lawyer with Nova Scotia's Department of Justice for the past 16 years, the two-spirited Rowe spent three years involved in Indian Residential School litigation across Canada.

“I did get to see, first hand, in a lot of the communities and with a lot of my clients, what happens when people who are given the message that it's not okay to be who they are,” she says. “It's extremely negative...It's challenging to be gay anyway, and it's that much more challenging to be Aboriginal and gay.”

Now living in Halifax with her fiancé, Rowe grew up with her grandparents in Newfoundland. Ojibwa on her mother's side, Rowe says both her mother and grandparents were always very supportive of retaining her cultural history. That support structure allowed her to take the “unusual” step of coming out in high school. Doing so in the 1980s, in Newfoundland, as Native would assumedly ostracize her, but Rowe's family always made her comfortable. Her mother, fluent in Ojibwa teachings, had never believed the anti-gay lessons she was taught in residential school.

But for everyone like Rowe, whose traditional family embraces her identity, there's someone like Syliboy, who's been shunned due to internalized prejudices. Oddly enough, both sides seem united by the discrimination they've faced from the gay community.

"Let's face it, Aboriginal people are not a big part of the gay community, and we have different experiences, by far,” says Rowe. “Aboriginal people have more kids, more grandkids, we have interrelated family relationships that I certainly didn't experience in the other, wider, more mainstream non-aboriginal gay community.”

Rowe says she's found her non-aboriginal partners don't understand her culture, her traditions or the complexity of being two-spirited.

“When I became a mother, when I became a single mom, I had a lot more resistance in the white lesbian community, more negativity, than I did in the Aboriginal gay community,” she says. “If anything, they're like, 'Oh yeah, geez I've got three grandkids. Good for you.' Just a very different approach.”

That isolation is part of what caused Rowe to help form the Wabanaki Two-Spirit Alliance over two years ago. Now with close to 140 members on Facebook, the group connects Aboriginal, two-spirited people from across the Wabanaki Confederacy (consisting of the five principal nations located mostly in Maine, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick).

“I think most of us were just excited to be in a room with people who have experienced the same sorts of challenges in our home communities, challenges in the gay community too,” says Rowe, who met her fiancé, Jessica Rose Jerome, through the Alliance.
“She just kind of fell for how crazy I was,” says Jerome. A Mi'kmaq two-spirited artist and graphic designer, she believes the group offers a home to those who feel isolated by their identity.

“I think it helps, not just with the awareness, but it helps people come out, really,” she says. “We could reclaim that spot. We could reclaim what it means to be two-spirited in that culture. It helps us survive.”

According to a report from the Canadian Institute of Child Health, the suicide rates among First Nations men is four times higher than non-aboriginal rates. For women, it's six times higher. One of the reasons the Wabanaki Alliance came together was to help train each other in suicide prevention. The group now hopes to reach out to two-spirited youth, struggling to be understood both on and off the reserve.

“A lot of the baggage that you come with from the reserve, comes to the city as well,” says Syliboy. “Being in the city, you feel so alone.”

To combat that loneliness, the Alliance gathers at least once a year for a formal conference, though Syliboy says they will often informally meet to socialize. An international two-spirit gathering is set to be hosted by the Wabanaki Alliance in 2014.

By that time, Dr. Bowers will have published his book, which he hopes will inspire a new generation of research into the barely scratched surface of Mi'kmaq two-spirit history. He's also hopeful his efforts help two-spirited individuals trying to establish their sexual identity in relation to their heritage. That balance is something Bryson Syliboy is still trying to find – navigating between his past and his future.

“When I feel overwhelmed by stuff, I try to go back to my culture,” he says. “That really ties into who you are. It really centres yourself.”

He tries not to define himself solely by his two-spirit identity, but Syliboy is nevertheless proud to have found a way to embrace both his sexual and cultural selves.

In his time as a sailor, he's travelled to many distant shores. He's enjoyed visiting places that he considers more open and  more understanding than Halifax,where he still experiences racism and homophobia. And yet, he says he won't ever leave Nova Scotia for  long.

“My family's been here for countless generations, over thousands of years. It's my home. I love it. I want to change it, you know?”

This story is the first in our 'Sexual Writes' series, made possible with contributions from Venus Envy.


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