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The term two-spirit does not have one rigid meaning, but instead has multiple contemporary definitions. Often the term two-spirit is used to refer to an Aboriginal person who identifies as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer). Some consider Aboriginal peoples who have both a feminine and masculine spirit to be two-spirit, and it can be used by individuals to refer to their gender, sexual and/ or spiritual identity. For others, it denotes an Aboriginal person who embodies both traditional male and traditional female gender roles, and identifies with the LGBTQ community. For some, two-spirit is not an identity but a cultural role. The term two-spirit was created as an attempt to bridge contemporary understandings with past understandings of LGBT roles and identities. Traditionally, in most Aboriginal nations, people who embodied both male and female spirits, or a third gender, were highly regarded and held important, and often sacred, cultural roles within their society.
In 1990, the term two-spirit was established in Winnipeg, Manitoba at the Third Native American/First Nations Gay and Lesbian Conference by activist Albert McLeod and others. With the belief that naming is a political act, which enables discussion and exploration, the group created the term to reconnect with Aboriginal traditional views related to gender and sexual identity, to emphasize the fluidity of identity creation, to fight against colonialism and Eurocentric categorization of sex and gender identities, and to unite Aboriginal LGBT peoples.
Since the mid-1970s, Aboriginal gay and lesbian organizations have sprung up across North America, and major growth has been seen since 1988. Two-spirit organizations and gatherings were created in order to connect two-spirit individuals and offer a network of support, understanding, and advocacy. These organizations and gatherings seek to address and change the social stigma two-spirit people face due to pervasive racism and homophobia. The latter of which exists in both their local communities and society more broadly. The Basket and the Bow: A Gathering of Lesbian & Gay Native Americans held in Minneapolis in 1988 marked the first gathering of two-spirit people, and was attended by eleven delegates from Winnipeg. Events from the gathering were recorded in Mona Smith’s 1990 video, Honoured by the Moon. Two-spirit gatherings and conventions often contain workshops, as well as sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, sharing circles, elders, a pow-wow, smudgings and traditional crafts and singing. Often they are held outside of urban centers and are alcohol and drug free events. The high rates of suicide, and HIV-AIDS rates within the two-spirit community are often major discussion topics at the gatherings.
Albert McLeod, one of the Two-Spirited Movement’s most active and visible members, collected the Two-Spirited Collection. Albert McLeod is Metis, descended from Cree and Scottish families, and identifies as a two-spirited, gay male. During the 1960s and 1970s, he was raised in Cormorant and The Pas in northern Manitoba, and currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Since 1986, McLeod has been actively involved in the Two-Spirit Movement, and as a human rights advocate. He has actively advocated for the rights of Aboriginal LGBTQ people, has pushed for their visible and meaningful inclusion in the Canadian Aboriginal Movement and the LGBT Liberation Movement, and has fought against pervasive homophobia and racism. He co-founded a number of organizations devoted to improving the life of two-spirit people by advocating for education, housing, health services, employment training and cultural development. He co-founded the Manitoba Aboriginal AIDS Task Force and was its Project Manager from 1991-2001; he co-founded the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS network in 1997; and is one of the co-founders of the Two-Spirited People of Manitoba Inc., established in 2006. He has helped co-ordinate a number of two-spirit conferences and gatherings as a way to enable two-spirited people to meet with each other in a safe, encouraging environment where traditional cultural practices are integrated with educational workshops. He is also an experienced crafter who creates both traditional regalia and couture dresses. He is currently working for the 595 Prevention Team as a Community Development Coordinator, and as a free-lance educator devoted to Aboriginal cultural reclamation, textile art and community development.