Two spirit: gay, indigenous and out

June Chua
Daily Brew

[Massey Whiteknife of Fort McMurray, Alta., and other indigenous Canadians have embraced their two-spiritedness. FACEBOOK]

Massey Whiteknife recalls having to go to the bathroom during classes as a kid growing up in northern Alberta and not during breaks at school to avoid the bullies.

“It was horrible. I was very feminine. I would get beat up if I went during the break,” the 37-year-old businessman from Fort McMurray told Yahoo Canada News.

Whiteknife and other indigenous Canadians have come a long way. They have embraced their two-spiritedness despite the challenges. Whiteknife, from the Fort McKay First Nation reserve, runs a multimillion-dollar occupational training and safety business: he is out of the closet to everyone and is sometimes in public as Iceis Rain — a drag queen and recording artist.

“I used to perform on my own in the basement when I was a kid,” he explained. “She was reborn when I was 18. She does her own thing and I do mine.”

As an adult, Whiteknife came to understand the indigenous term of two-spiritedness, which has helped him embrace all his facets. His 2014 record, The Queen, garnered six nominations at the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards. He was the first two-spirited person to perform in drag.

“[Iceis Rain] has become a leader and mentor in her own community.”

It’s a bitter and rough road for many indigenous youth who are two-spirited, says Alex Wilson who’s from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba. Wilson heads the Aboriginal Education Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. Her focus of study is two-spirit identity development.

“We use the two-spirit term [to refer] both to sexual orientation and gender identity,” Wilson, who is also lesbian, told Yahoo Canada News.

“In our language it makes sense because we have roles and places for various gender and sexual identities.”

Colonization trashed two-spirit notion

Wilson says colonization, the precepts of Christianity and Catholicism and the horrors of the residential school system have squeezed out notions of the two-spirit person.

“Going back to our origin stories, you can see we had a long history in which two-spirited people were an integral part of the community,” she pointed out. “They were valued for who they were. [When the Europeans arrived], our own practices were forced into this binary enforcement of gender and sexuality.”

Wilson recalls the homophobism of her high school.

“My teacher wouldn’t allow me to wear hockey skates in case people thought I was a dyke,” she said. “These micro-aggressions take a toll. The only option is to get away from the community and you end up severing ties to the people who could help you.”

Many drop out of school — “as young as third grade” according to Wilson — or take their own lives.

It’s a symptom that bears out across the country. Albert McLeod from Two-Spirited People of Manitoba Inc. told CBC News that one-third of suicides in indigenous communities are committed by LGBTQ people. Wilson adds that there are trans people among the 1,181 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls — a fact that is often ignored.  

Wilson points out many also have to deal with racism, poverty and sometimes, sexual abuse. It’s something Whiteknife understands.

“I was molested when I was four by a member of the community and that continued for years until I got older. He was a pedophile,” Whiteknife said. “Then I was gang-raped when I was 16.”

[A native liaison worker helped Ronny Ann Agawa, an Ojibway bisexual woman from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.]

‘I oppressed a lot’

After that, Whiteknife turned to alcohol and drugs and ended up homeless. His story has some echoes with Ronny Ann Agawa, an Ojibway bisexual woman from the Sault Ste. Marie area of Ontario.

Agawa, 27, now lives in Brampton, outside of Toronto.

“I’ve had trauma from my childhood and my brother committed suicide,” Agawa revealed to Yahoo Canada News. “I oppressed a lot.”

She came out at 21. Although her community and family were fairly accepting, she felt the need to leave for Toronto. She was also addicted to drinking and drugs.

“It was overwhelming. I ended up in a homeless shelter and then, I assaulted someone,” she said. “I was put in a correctional facility and that’s when a native liaison worker told me about being two-spirited and the meaning behind it.”

Agawa says she’s still learning more about it. Meanwhile, she has cleaned herself up — attending Narcotics Anonymous — and holds a part-time job.

“I was confused when I arrived in Toronto in 2012, but now I’m figuring things out.”

Successful businessman

For Whiteknife it was a dark descent that led to drinking and homelessness in Fort McMurray.

“One night, I was on the street, praying to God and hugging a wall saying ‘give me a sign and I will do everything to change my life,’” he divulged. “I woke up, called a friend who got me a job as cleaning staff [for oil companies] and started to work.”

About 11 years ago, Whiteknife launched  ICEIS Safety group of companies, which helps train and employ indigenous people in the oilfield. Due to the big fire in Fort McMurray, he’s currently working out of his office in Edmonton.

“I go to the grocery store as Iceis Rain. In 2009, I came out to all my clients and told them that they should judge me by my professional services. A lot of companies gave me the chance.”

Whiteknife says he was “probably the first gay person to come out in Fort McMurray.”

Two years ago, the town held its first gay pride parade.

His business has also captured a couple of awards in Alberta as well as his Get Ready program for indigenous youth.

Two-spirit resurgence

Wilson credits a recent resurgence or pride and interest in indigenous cultures with the boosting of two-spiritedness.

“There are now two-spirit drum groups and powwows are more open to different gender categories so people can choose which gender they want to be in,” she noted. “We create community — ‘come in’ versus ‘come out.’”

Agawa agrees that it’s better now than when she was growing up.

“My uncle has struggled and it was painful as a child to watch him. He’s now fully-accepted that he’s gay…he’s in his 50s. I know it would have helped a lot of people to understand the two-spirit thing.”

For Whiteknife, it marks the difference between life and death.

“Iceis Rain saved me.

“She is strong and beautiful. She was never bullied or raped. She is admired and people love her.”