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What on Earth is the ‘2SLGBTQQIA+’ movement?

The ‘two-spirit’ identity is based on a crackpot rewriting of Native American history.

Malcolm Clark

Topics Identity Politics USA World

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The LGBT movement is beginning to behave more like a religious cult than a human-rights lobby. It’s not just the Salem-like witch hunts it pursues against its critics. It’s also its flight from reason and its embrace of magical thinking.

This irrationalism is best illustrated by its recent embrace of the term ‘two-spirit’ (often shortened to ‘2S’), which in North America has been added to the lobby’s ever-growing acronym, meaning we are now expected to refer to – take a deep breath – the ‘2SLGBTQQIA+ community’.

The term two-spirit was first formally endorsed at a conference of Native American gay activists in 1990 in Winnipeg in Canada. It is a catch-all term to cover over 150 different words used by the various Indian tribes to describe what we think of today as gay, trans or various forms of gender-bending, such as cross-dressing. Two-spirit people, the conference declared, combine the masculine and the feminine spirits in one.

From the start, the whole exercise reeked of mystical hooey. Myra Laramee, the woman who proposed the term in 1990, said it had been given to her by ancestor spirits who appeared to her in a dream. The spirits, she said, had both male and female faces.

Incredibly, three decades on, there are now celebrities and politicians who endorse the concept or even identify as two-spirit. The term has found its way into one of Joe Biden’s presidential proclamations and is a constant feature of Canadian premier Justin Trudeau’s doe-eyed bleating about ‘2SLGBTQQIA+ rights’.

The term’s success is no doubt due in part to white guilt. There is a tendency to associate anything Native American with a lost wisdom that is beyond whitey’s comprehension. Ever since Marlon Brando sent ‘Apache’ activist Sacheen Littlefeather to collect his Oscar in 1973, nothing has signalled ethical superiority as much as someone wearing a feather headdress.

The problem is that too many will believe almost any old guff they are told about Native Americans. This is an open invitation to fakery. Ms Littlefeather, for example, may have built a career as a symbol of Native American womanhood. But after her death last year, she was exposed as a member of one of the fastest growing tribes in North America: the Pretendians. Her real name was Marie Louise Cruz. She was born to a white mother and a Mexican father, and her supposed Indian heritage had just been made up.

Much of the fashionable two-spirit shtick is just as fake. For one thing, it’s presented as an acknowledgment of the respect Indian tribes allegedly showed individuals who were gender non-conforming. Yet many of the words that two-spirit effectively replaces are derogatory terms.

In truth, there was a startling range of attitudes to the ‘two-spirited’ among the more than 500 separate indigenous Native American tribes. Certain tribes may have been relaxed about, say, effeminate men. Others were not. In his history of homosexuality, The Construction of Homosexuality (1998), David Greenberg points out that those who are now being called ‘two spirit’ were ridiculed by the Papago, held in contempt by the Choctaws, disliked by the Cocopa, treated by the Seven Nations with ‘the most sovereign contempt’ and “derided” by the Sioux. In the case of the Yuma, who lived in what is now Colorado, the two-spirited were sometimes treated as rape objects for the young men of the tribe.

The contradictions and incoherence of the two-spirit label may be explained by an uncomfortable fact. The two-spirit project was shaped from day one by complete mumbo-jumbo. The 1990 conference that adopted the term was inspired by a seminal book, Living the Spirit: A Gay Indian Anthology, published two years earlier. Its essays were compiled and edited by a young white academic called Will Roscoe. He was the historical adviser to the conference. And his work on gay people in Indian cultural history – a niche genre in the 1980s – had become the received wisdom on the subject.

Roscoe’s work had an unlikely origin story of its own. In 1979, he joined over 200 other naked gay men in the Arizona desert for an event dubbed the ‘Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries’. It was here where he met Harry Hay, the man who would become his spiritual mentor and whose biography he would go on to write. The event was Hay’s brainchild and was driven by his conviction that gay men’s lives had become spiritually empty and dominated by shallow consumerism. For three days, Roscoe and the other men sought spiritual renewal in meditation, singing and classes in Native American dancing. There were also classes in auto-fellatio, lest anyone doubt this was a gay men’s event.

To say Hay, who died in 2002, was eccentric is to radically understate his weirdness. For one thing, he was a vocal supporter of paedophilia. As such, he once took a sandwich board to a Pride march proclaiming ‘NAMBLA walks with me’, in reference to the paedophilia-advocacy group, the North American Man / Boy Love Association. Hay also believed that gay men were a distinct third gender who had been gifted shamanic powers. According to Hay, these powers were recognised and revered by pre-Christian peoples, from Ancient Greece to, you guessed it, the indigenous tribes of North America.

For years, Hay had been experimenting with sweat lodges and dressing up in Indian garb in ways that would now be criticised as cultural appropriation. Despite this, Roscoe took Hay’s incoherent thesis – that gender-bending and spiritual enlightenment go hand in hand – and turned it into a piece of Native American history.

Unsurprisingly, given its provenance, Roscoe’s work is full of holes and lazy assumptions. To prove that two-spirit people combine the feminine and masculine spirits, Roscoe searched for evidence of gender non-conforming behaviour among the Indian tribes. The problem was that he had to mainly rely on the accounts of white settlers who had little understanding of Native cultures. And even when he didn’t rely on those sources, Roscoe still jumped to the wrong conclusions.

Take, for example, the case of Running Eagle, ‘the virgin woman warrior’ of the Blackfeet tribe, whom Roscoe was the first to label as two-spirit. As a girl, she rebelled against the usual girl chores and insisted on being taught how to hunt and fight. She became a noted warrior and declared she would never marry a man or submit to one.

Of course, none of this really means that Running Eagle was two-spirit, or that the tribe she hailed from was made up of LGBT pioneers. It merely shows that the Blackfeet were smart and adaptable enough to recognise martial talent in a girl and were able to make good use of a remarkable individual. Nevertheless, Roscoe’s description of her has become gospel and Running Eagle is now endlessly cited as an example of a two-spirit.

This is a mind-numbingly reductive approach. It’s based on the presumption that what we think of as feminine and masculine traits are fixed and stable across time and cultures. It dictates that no Native American man or woman who ever breaks a gender taboo or fails to conform to expectations can be anything but two-spirit. This is gender policing on steroids.

The two-spirit term also does Native American cultures a deep disservice. It assumes that 500 different tribes were both homogenous and static. As journalist Mary Annette Pember, herself Ojibwe, argues, it also erases ‘distinct cultural and language differences that Native peoples hold crucial to their identity’.

In some ways, it is entirely unsurprising that the wayward ‘2SLGBTQQIA+’ movement has fastened on to two-spirit, an invented term with a bogus pedigree. Far from paying tribute to Native American cultures in all their richness, it exploits them to make a cheap political point. Harry Hay and his fellow auto-fellators would be proud.

Malcolm Clark is a TV producer. Find him on Substack here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics USA World

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