Sacred Rights of the International Two Spirit Gathering
Gay and transgender Native Americans find acceptance in tradition
For more photos from the Two Spirit Gathering, visit the image gallery.
Image by Mike Dvorak
He checks his plaid skirt, stockings, and deep-cut white blouse. When another man’s eyes fall on his cleavage, Richard squeezes his breasts together and answers the silent inquiry: “They’re real!”
Beyond the bathroom doors, men and women dance around a drum in more traditional costume—feathers, fox pelts, moccasins, beads, and bells. They’re all here for the 20th annual International Two Spirit Gathering, a celebration of and for those who feel they carry both male and female spirits.
In late August 2008, some 85 Native lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from three dozen tribes in Canada and the United States traveled to the Audubon Center of the North Woods, 90 miles north of Minneapolis.
There, communing under the tall pines, they would sit in a sweat lodge, pray together at the sacred fire, engage in a water ceremony, and dance at the powwow. They would listen to a mother talk about her son’s struggle with coming out, hear the results of a groundbreaking health study, and receive a blessing from an elder.
They would also watch Sanchez—in full drag, lip-synching his version of “I Kissed a Girl”—win the event’s annual talent contest.
“We want people who face difficulties in their day-to-day lives to be able to stop and breathe,” says Richard LaFortune, a Yupik from Minneapolis and national director of Two Spirit Press Room, sponsor of the 2008 event. “We want people to walk away with new friendships, good memories, and something to restore themselves.”
Organizers have wanted to keep out spiritual and cultural tourists who may be well intentioned but nosy. In 2008, however, they decided to allow a few media representatives, including an Utne Reader writer and photographer, to attend in order to tell their stories to a wider audience.
The Minneapolis Native community hosted the first Two Spirit Gathering in 1988. “We didn’t have a lot of places to meet and socialize except with the mainstream LGBT community, which was in bars, and those aren’t a good place for us,” says LaFortune, one of the event’s original organizers. Since then, some 3,200 people have attended the alcohol- and drug-free gathering in locales including Montreal, Vancouver, Kansas City, Eugene, Tucson, San Jose, and Butte.
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