The LGBTQIA+ community has made remarkable moves to establish a place in the world in recent years. Television provides increasing representation for young LGBTQIA+ individuals, and people in positions of power continue to come out publicly.
Similarly, Indigenous individuals and groups have advanced their causes and fought for justice after centuries of marginalization. There’s still much more work to do, but progress has been made. For instance, the land back movement has gained momentum recently, and more Indigenous people are getting involved in politics.
However, despite the accomplishments of queer and Indigenous movements separately, queer Indigenous people continue to be marginalized due to colonized attitudes about gender and sexual identity.
There is no guide for coming to terms with being a queer person in a world that is structured for heteronormativity. It’s even harder to be queer when you can’t go back to an accepting community at home.
For example, in Indigenous communities, homophobia often runs rampant due to a history of colonialism. The lack of community support for queer Indigenous people leads to a feeling that they must choose between one identity or another.
One study by the Wisconsin and Milwaukee LGBTQ community center gives statistics on discrimination against LGBTQ youth. Over 90% of LBGTQIA+ youth hear Anti-LGBT sentiment at school. Additionally, 84% of LGBT youth report verbal harassment at school because of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.
Given this level of discrimination faced due to gender and sexual identity alone, how does being Indigenous, too, complicate mental health?
The sense of alienation intertwines with many young indigenous people’s decisions to come out. Recent research from Edith Cowan University’s Kurongkurl Katitjin Centre for Indigenous Education and Research shows the disconnect that young indigenous people feel from their own culture as well as the LGBTQIA+ community. The research reveals that many participants experienced a constant negotiation of identities, surveying risks, or hiding parts of one’s self–all of which felt (understandably) exhausting. These factors contribute to difficulties in managing mental health.
Adding to the mental health impact of intersectional alienation, many young Indigenous people felt a lack of safe spaces for queerness within the community.
Prejudice runs rampant within the LGBTQIA+ community. Transphobia, racism and oppression continue to thrive in what most consider a “safe space” for queerness. This makes coming out and living as your true self even more of a stressor for young BIPOC.
So if you need to seek support, as an Indigenous person who identifies as LGBTQIA+, the queer community may not feel fully hospitable. On the other hand, many Indigenous communities remain harshly heteronormative. So you can’t turn there. And it’s even harder to know that your community would likely have accepted your identity more easily prior to colonization.
Many Indigenous communities have a long history of embracing gender-non conforming and queer members of society. Before colonization, many of the gender non-conforming people of society held positions of power and were well respected throughout the community. These individuals were highly connected to the spiritual world–a history that is so far from the European colonized mindset of closed-mindedness and homophobia.
The white settlers who “discovered” the great land that is now called America brought along their exclusionary views that are still deeply ingrained into our society. Colonizers used religion as a weapon, cutting down any cultural practices other than Christianity.
Fear is a powerful motivator and colonialism capitalizes off fear and the oppression of minorities. It was imperative to force the colonizers’ beliefs into the minds of the original people of the land–to successfully control the narrative and destroy years of culture.
Colonial fear and destruction of culture especially impacted queer indigenous people.
The goal of the colonizers was to erase the beauty of the diversity of indeginous communities for better control of that land and people. In order to do this, all deeply spiritual and cultural practices were demonized. For example, the acceptance of there being more than a binary gender concept that was widely embraced in many tribes.
The forced assimilation contributed to the brainwashing of many generations of Indigenous people.
Heteronormativity was and still is heavily enforced within society at large, but that’s especially true within Indigenous communities. During colonization through today, it became a way to shame any sort of difference or diversity within sexual orientation.
Patrick Vernon writes about the violence heteronormativity can encourage within social systems in his article, “Queering Genocide as a Performance of Heterosexuality.” Vernon explains colonial heteronormativity by sharing that that genocidal violence is driven by colonialism and colonialism is underpinned by (racist) heteronormativity. The beliefs that were molded and shaped by these white settlers to further their own agenda play a large part in the violent aspect of heteronormativity as well.
Colonial history goes to impact our personal views of queerness (and even internalized homophobia) by using shame and fear to discourage differences and erase entire centuries of cultures and traditions.
Language gives us a key to understand the difference between the way the western world views gender and Indigenous communities’ historical views of gender. Manuela L. Picq and Josi Tikuna go into detail with research on gender diversity in precolonial language.
Different languages have different mindsets about gender. For instance, over 150 Native tribes have words for alternate genders not found in the European binary view of gender. These have not been able to be translated into the English language. For example, the Lakota have winkte people who are said to have special powers. The Diné people have the word, nádleehí as a way to express gender beyond the male and female labels.
For some Indigenous people, the label of LGBTQIA+ does not begin to cover the variety of experiences which do not conform to the European gender binary.
Support is vital in the age of discovery and identity seeking. If there is no support backing a person then the pressures of the world easily sneak up and can discourage creativity and personal identity. This can emerge in the form of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety which can, in extreme cases, result in suicide.
Awareness of groups to support and educate the young people that need this support such as the Trevor project and many others provide safe spaces. Representation is important within marginalized communities. It provides hope and courage to stand in a world that does not acknowledge these groups of people.
Young Indigenous people already face so much adversity from the world and even within their own communities. It may be hard but finding peers who can relate to the experience of queerness within a marginalized community is vital to maintaining a healthy mindset.
The Trevor Project: An amazing organization dedicated to suicide prevention and support for LGBTQIA youth in America.
GLSEN: An organization dedicated to the success of LGBTQIA+ students and other students of marginalized communities.
NPAIHB: Providing access to safe, quality healthcare for members of the Indigenous community.
This world will be left to the young people of this generation. Education and knowledge of yourself and others go a long way, as does support from others who understand. The journey may not be easy but remember who you are and who you might be with a less colonized mindset about your own gender and sexual identity.