Gender Identity and Indigenous People
By Margaret Robinson, PhD. Affiliate Scientist in the Social and Epidemiological research department of the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health.
In literature about gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) health it’s increasingly common to see ‘2’ or a ‘2S’, which stands for ‘two spirit.’ The term recognizes those of us who are LGBTQ and who are also strongly connected to our Indigenous identities. Many of our Indigenous cultures recognized people who expressed gender or sexuality differently, and such people often had special cultural responsibilities.
While mental health practitioners and community workers are increasingly encouraged to adopt culturally-based treatment approaches with Indigenous clients, little is known about two-spirit people or our perspectives on mental health.
Since 2012 I’ve been examining the identity and health experiences of two-spirit people through our Two-Spirit Roundtable Project, funded by a CIHR fellowship in Aboriginal Methodologies and two grants from the Evidence Exchange Network. As a member of the Lennox Island First Nation and a two-spirit woman, this work is important to me.
Using focus groups and interviews, we collected data from two-spirit people in the Ottawa and Timmins area. Interview questions focused on the meaning and cultural context of two-spirit identity, how two-spirit people define mental health, and which practices support positive mental health for two-spirit people. This community based research project was guided by two-spirit elder Blu Waters, and two-spirit artist and community worker Louis Esme Cruz.
Two-spirit people experience a number of intersecting oppressions that negatively impact our physical and mental health. In my research, two-spirit people reported a range of experiences in their home communities, from being treated with respect and inclusion, to dealing with discrimination and violence. Many also reported experiences of racism and prejudice within LGBTQ communities.
Another issue to emerge was the lack of access to elders and traditional teachings that supported two-spirit identity. In response to this disparity the Two-Spirit Roundtable produced fourteen recordings on two-spirit identity and held an online webinar with two-spirit elder Albert McLeod, Dr. Alex Wilson of the University of Saskatchewan, and Krysta Williams of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network.
In partnership with Melissa MacLeod, MSc, and community partner Louis Cruz, we also examined data on the 38 Aboriginal participants from the Risk and Resilience Study of Bisexual Mental Health. This is a population (bisexual Indigenous people) for whom information was previously unavailable, and a fact sheet detailing our findings will be published later this year from Dr. Lori Ross’ Re:searching for LGBTQ Health team.
Through our research we hope to gain a better understanding of how two-spirit people remain resilience, protecting their physical and mental health despite significant challenges, while also celebrating our diverse stories and rich histories.