Exploring the joys and challenges of Indigenous sexuality, gender and identity

When Europeans colonized North America, they brought very specific ideas about gender and sexuality. Following the 2022 CBC Massey Lectures, Tomson Highway joined panellists to discuss Indigenous sexuality in the aftermath of colonialism — from Cree mythology to the Vancouver dating scene.

'When I came out ... my family turned their backs on me — then I turned my back on my own culture."

Three Indigenous people stand shoulder-to-shoulder, posing for a picture. They are all smiling and wearing glasses.
Comedian and activist Sasha Mark (l), playwright and author Tomson Highway (c) and two-spirit activist and health researcher Harlan Pruden discussed Indigenous conceptions of gender and sexuality at the Vancouver Public Library with Nahlah Ayed. (Matthew Lazin-Ryder/CBC)

*Originally published on Nov. 21, 2022.

"In the beginning… there were only two human beings in this world. A man, and a woman. The Native Trickster however is neither, or both, at one the same time. First and foremost, she/he is a shapeshifter," Tomson Highway says in his fourth CBC Massey Lecture, which examined sex and gender through the lens of Cree mythology. 

After delivering his Massey lecture to a live audience at the Vancouver Public Library, IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed sat down with a panel to discuss two-spirit and Indigenous queer identities, philosophies, and experiences. 

From Cree mythology to the Vancouver dating scene, comedian Sasha Mark, health researcher Harlan Pruden, and playwright Tomson Highway shared the joys and challenges of Indigenous queerness. 

Harlan Pruden on internal racism

"In Wab Kinew's beautiful book, The Reason You Walk,  he so poignantly points out that Indian always had an adjective, like 'dirty' Indian, 'stupid' Indian, 'drunk' Indian. Growing up I knew my place and I was reminded on a minute-by-minute basis — both from the colonizers and the settlers. But I remember being in the kitchen and I was cutting carrots with one of my aunts, and a piece fell on the floor and I picked it up and I popped it my mouth, and my aunt was like: 'Don't be an Indian.'

"These are the messages that I received. And so I was so ashamed of being an Indian, and then me being a little sissy queer boy, and living in the shadows. And so when I came out when I was 17 as gay, my family turned their backs on me — and then I turned my back on my own culture. There was no place for me there."

Sasha Mark on two-spirit identity

"When I think of two-spirit, I think about it as an umbrella term. Folks identify as two-spirit, but I think there's more history behind it. I think when it comes to two-spirit identity, that identity comes from connecting with your communities, learning your traditions, learning the language and the languages and the systems that exist within your nation, and looking at that and your relationship with that.

"So for myself, I think I'm on a journey still, of figuring out where I sit with my identity. I don't count myself as two-spirit, that could change. I also think it's a great way to keep white people from calling themselves two-spirit – like: what nation are you from, you know? No, thank you."

Tomson Highway on reclaiming gender

"Because God in the dominant society is a heterosexual man, that leaves the rest of us out of the picture. We have no position. We have no place in that great design. And now we are in the process of regaining that position. We're asking for it back, and that is the responsibility that two-spirited people have been given. We're asking for our gender, which is a sacred gender, to be given back its rightful place in the great design."

Guests in this episode:

Harlan Pruden is an Indigenous Knowledge Translation Lead at Chee Mamuk, an Indigenous health program at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, co-founder of the Two-Spirit Dry Lab, and an Obama appointee to the U.S. Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

Sasha Mark is a stand-up comedian, activist and manager at Blind Tiger Comedy.

Tomson Highway is an author, playwright, musician, and the 2022 CBC Massey lecturer.

*This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder.

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