Let’s Take a Deep Dive Into What It Means to Identify as ‘Two-Spirit’
In a recent interview with Billboard magazine, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Jason Mraz came out as bisexual but said his wife “calls it ‘Two-Spirit,’ which is what the Native Americans call someone who can love both man and woman.” But is Jason Mraz bisexual, is he Two-Spirit or is he both? What is Two-Spirit? Let’s take a look at Two-Spirit people (sometimes accounted for as a “2” in our LGBTQ alphabet) and how it differs from bisexuality.
What is “Two-Spirit”?
You might’ve heard of Native North American Two-Spirit people — tribal religious leaders and teachers believed to have the spirit of both man and woman within them. Two-spirit people lived across America at the time, but they weren’t seen as trans women and men, really. Rather they fell somewhere along the gender spectrum. Additionally, just being gay doesn’t make someone a Two-Spirit.
While Christian-influenced Latin-American and European settlers condemned Two-spirits as “sodomites” (and some of them did have same-sex or bi-fluid relationships), Native Americans focused instead on two-spirits’ spiritual gifts, allowing them to enter spaces meant exclusively for men or women, help raise children or accompany war parties as surrogate lovers. Female two-spirits also existed and would sometimes enter unions with other women in the tribe.
Brian Joseph Gilley, an anthropology professor and the author of Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country, has spent part of his career answering the question What is Two-Spirit?
He says Native American children who expressed interest in toys or activities associated with the other gender — like a boy interested in cooking or sewing, or a girl interested in hunting or combat — might be considered a Two-Spirit.
Before the term “Two-Spirit” came into fashion, more common among Native American tribes was the word “berdache,” a Persian-derived term commonly applied to people of a Two-Spirit nature. But the word isn’t a synonym for two-spirit, though, because berdache has more overt sexual overtones; it is similar to the Persian words for “lover” or “boyfriend.” Some people consider the word offensive now because of its derogatory use by some frontiersmen in the American Wild West era of 1865 to 1895.
Two-Spirit people often face queerphobia from other Native American tribe members
The term “Two-Spirit” was actually coined in the early ’90s at a conference for gay and lesbian Native Americans.
But even though there’s a rich Two-Spirit historical tradition across North American tribes, contemporary Two-Spirit people have trouble getting their contemporary tribe leaders to acknowledge them on tribal councils or honor them at ritual gatherings.
Here’s a film trailer for the 2009 documentary Two Spirits:
Throughout the 1800s, men — both Native American and immigrant colonizers — regularly formed deep and emotional friendships with other men that involved endearing language (like calling one another “my lovely boy”) and physical closeness. Some men regularly held hands, embraced one another from behind, sat on each others’ laps and shared a physical closeness that seems jarring to modern audiences.
While Christian settlers actively punished queerness among Native Americans across South, Central and North America, same-sex intimacy between heterosexual men altogether stopped in America during the 1900s as homosexuality was increasingly labelled as a “sinful” mental disorder.
So is Jason Mraz bisexual or a Two-Spirit? Unless he identifies as Native American, he’s more than bisexual. That’s because Two-Spirit is a distinctly Native American cultural identity. Mraz may appreciate the idea of Two-Spirits — the same way that some non-Native Americans talk about having “spirit animals” — and if his wife identifies as Native American, she can say he’s similar to a Two-Spirit.
But such claims to cultural identity are seen by many as appropriative, even if they’re based in appreciation, and lacking of the necessary nuance, ethnic identity and lived experience to declare one’s self as such. If you’re curious about the topic, check out this excellent piece addressed to non-Native American people using the term Two-Spirit.
Do you know any Two-Spirit people?
Featured image via the 2017 Native American Two-Spirit Powwow, Dance and Drum Festival