Shortly after coming out, dancer Tyler-Alan Jacobs was beaten so badly that his right eye was dislodged and the side of his face was caved in. Jacobs woke up in the hospital to the sight of his father leaving the room; his father couldn’t bear to look at him.
Jacobs, 29, is one of a few hundred Vancouverites that identify as two-spirit – a First Nations term for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, other gendered, and third/fourth gendered individuals.
According to the National Aboriginal Health Organization, two-spirited people are more likely to experience violence than heterosexual First Nations and they are twice as likely to experience assault (including physical assault, sexual assault, and assault with a weapon) than LGBT people in the general population.
Few statistics exist, but a survey of two-spirit youth aged 24 or younger, conducted by the Urban Native Youth Association in 2004, reported that 38 per cent of the respondents didn’t feel accepted in their communities, and 43 percent stated that they were suffering from depression. The results also revealed that 34 per cent felt more likely than non-two-spirit people to think about and attempt suicide, and same percentage agreed that they were more likely to become dependent on alcohol or drugs.
Historically, individuals with cross-gender identity were revered in First Nations cultures and looked to as leaders, visionaries, and healers. Embodying both masculine and feminine traits, two-spirit people were thought to be blessed with the ability to move between gender roles and were given important spiritual responsibilities as result.
Gender roles were fluid in pre-colonial societies. Words to describe up to six different gender variants, beyond the binary of male and female, have been found in 155 indigenous nations of North America. The Cree, for example, refer to them as Aayahkwew (“neither man nor woman”) and the Navajo refer to them as nàdleehé or “one who changes”. To help individuals determine the gender they were drawn towards, rites of passage were often used.
Jacobs says discovering the meaning of his two-spirit heritage and reconnecting with it was a revelation. Instead of competing against each other, he says his two identities now overlap; and where they meet is where he finds his biggest sources of pride.
Remember that being two-spirit is an exclusively first nations term. Please refrain from appropriating it if you are not first nations