When Susan Allen was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2012, she became the first openly lesbian Native American woman to win office in any state legislature. But framing that achievement as one for the lesbian community alone obscures another aspect of Allen’s identity, and one that is directly connected to her Native American ancestry: Allen also identifies as “two-spirit.” While Americans are increasingly familiar with the elements that make up our modern LGBTQ abbreviation, other, often older queer identities like two-spirit remain unappreciated to the point of erasure. But if Allen and other two-spirit folks have their way, that’s going to change.
For Rep. Allen, coming out as lesbian wasn’t a huge struggle; her mother called her to ask if she was gay. “She said thank you for telling me, and that was the end of the phone conversation,” Allen recalled in an email. “I was relieved that she asked. I didn’t ask why. I don’t remember any follow-up conversation. Coming out made me feel closer to my family.” From then on, there was no real divisiveness in her family or her tribe. She even ran for office advocating for marriage equality—there’s no question that being an out and proud lesbian is important to her. But that word only describes her sexuality and is thus only part of the story. To grasp a more complete picture of Allen’s queerness, you have to consider gender—and that’s where two-spirit comes in.
Having grown up on various reservations as a member of the Lakota and Rosebud Sioux tribes, she knew from a very early age that she was a two-spirit person, an ancient belief in indigenous American culture that some people possess both male and female qualities in their spirit. “My identification as a two-spirit person happened as young as 4 or 5, when I preferred not to wear dresses and later resented school dress codes in elementary school,” Allen explained. “The only rule imposed on boys was that they tuck in their shirts, but girls had to wear dresses. When my younger brother and I were not in school, people thought we were brothers—this always made me smile.”
While we may think of discussions around gender and sexuality as a modern phenomenon, many cultures have had models beyond the male/female binary and heterosexuality for centuries. In fact, views on these subjects in certain Native American traditions—as they existed before colonial disruption—might be seen as progressive by today’s standards. Before European occupation, two-spirit individuals like Allen were viewed in terms of spiritual essence rather than biological or psychological identity, with the specifics of gender expression varying from tribe to tribe. For example, Navajos have four genders and a rich history of same-sex marriage. While the term two-spirit does not directly translate to homosexuality, a two-spirit person was allowed to marry a person of any gender. Being partnered with a two-spirit person was seen as a sacred gift. Generally speaking, two-spirit folks are seen to have a spiritual gender that doesn’t match their physical being and are viewed as having a special link to their ancestors. As Robert Wolf Eagle of the Comanche Nation said in the documentary This Is Family, “By definition, two-spirit people are not gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender. They’re just who they are. Two-spirit is definitely a spiritual designation.”
The history of what happened to this unique view of gender is, unfortunately, not hard to guess: As with many Native American practices under colonialism, two-spirit people were forced to conform to the gender norms imposed on them by colonizers. When Native American children were taken away from their families in the reservations and sent to boarding schools that would assimilate them, two-spirit people greatly suffered. They were forced to live by a single gender, conforming to all of the norms assigned to that gender. As Diane Anderson-Minshall wrote in a Curve magazine article on the subject, “Missionaries did not understand, or approve of, gender diversity. They called us berdache, a demeaning Persian word for boy prostitutes. Within a generation or two, queers became the jokes of our people, and in many tribes, women became equally disenfranchised.”
For many Native Americans, assimilation was necessary for survival as they were forced off their land and deprived of food, shelter, and their entire way of life. Deeply rooted customs and world-views were turned upside down, and it’s been an uphill struggle to reclaim that heritage. This is why high-profile Native American figures like Allen are so important. In her career as a legislator, she can actively work to give a voice to Native American issues as well as queer issues. Rep. Allen says that a major motivator for her work fighting for equal legal protection for Native Americans and gay people is resistance to assimilation. “I don’t want to be assimilated and that comes both as a Native American and a two-spirit person and then as LGBTQ,” she told me. “I resist the motivation that I can somehow only be accepted if I’m part of the mainstream, if I assimilate.”
These feelings are echoed among Native American members of the LGBTQ community in other lines of work. From celebrated poets like Chrystos to filmmakers like Sydney Freeland, proudly announcing not only their sexuality and gender identities, but also their Native American identities, is seen as the most important act in fighting for equality. For Allen, the fight for justice for LGBTQ Native Americans continues as she puts herself on the front lines to fight for legislation. We should view her much the same way as two-spirit people are viewed in their tribes: as someone with great power and wisdom, worthy of having all parts of her identity honored.