Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Tribe Called Queer

via Out Magazine, by Jon Roth

Gay couples can’t marry in Washington. But near Seattle, tucked away off the Puget Sound, there’s a sovereign nation whose citizens can marry whoever they choose.

They’re called the Suquamish, and they were there before Washington was a president, much less a state.

The Suquamish enjoy the right to same-sex marriage, thanks to Heather Purser, a 29-year-old lesbian tribal member who grew up near the reservation.

She’d already tried to come out of the closet twice during her childhood, and retreated both times before she arrived at Western Washington University and started attending LGBT events. “I saw that I could be safe there,” she says. “I decided I wanted to have that feeling back home, too.”

Purser began speaking with her tribe about same-sex marriage in 2007. A year later, she addressed the tribal council, which cautiously encouraged her cause.

She did her research: contacting a tribe that had recently passed a similar law, requesting copies of their ordinance, reviewing it with an attorney, and translating it into Suquamish.

After three years, she put her petition to a vote at a council meeting. “Everyone said, ‘If you do that, it’ll kill your dream. We have to do this slowly,’ ” she says.

Purser demanded a vote anyway. In a room of 300 people, not one dissented. In August of 2011, her dream became law.

This isn’t the first victory for queer Native Americans. In 2006, the First Nations Two Spirit Collective formed, creating a political platform for LGBT native people.

In 2008, the Coquille tribe of North Bend, Ore., became the first to allow same-sex marriage. This summer, the Suquamish became the second.

Two months later, the Oglala Sioux tribe of Pine Ridge, S.D., issued a proclamation in support of LGBT equality, declaring it “time to ignite the civil rights movement of the 21st century.”

This may sound progressive, but Native Americans’ recognition of queer people predates Columbus. The Navajo call them nadleeh, the Lakota say winkte, the Plains Cree use iskwekan -- there are almost as many terms as native languages.

One word you probably won’t hear is berdache, a pejorative (something between a catamite and a male prostitute) introduced by early French colonists. In 1990, a queer Native American caucus settled on “two spirit” as an umbrella term to describe indigenous people of alternative gender or sexuality.

“In traditional communities, ‘gay’ wasn’t even a category,” says Dr. Karina Walters, an out member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and Director of Washington University’s Indigenous Wellness Research Institute.

“Quite often there were third gender statuses, sometimes up to seven,” Walters notes. “These relationships weren’t homosexual, they were heterogendered.” Two spirits often inhabited the in-between spaces, working as medicine people and mediators between rival factions, living on the outer ring of camp to serve as buffers from outsiders.

Some two spirits were even present in Washington, D.C., during treaty negotiations. At best, they were revered. At worst, they were tolerated, sometimes teased.

Like smallpox and whiskey, homophobia was a Western import, codified once the U.S. and Canada became nations. Government-run boarding schools spearheaded this reeducation: Students were given Western names, clothes, and haircuts, along with a set of foreign values.

Dylan Rose, 24, who describes himself as a mix of Plains Cree, Scottish, Irish, and French, deeply resents the lasting cultural impact of those schools, which flourished through the 1970s.

“They taught us not to be Indian,” he says. “We’re devalued because of same-sex relationships now, and that’s not how it used to be.”

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