Why I Am Not Two-Spirited

Particularly in Canada, much is made of the “two-spirit” identity claimed by many queer indigenous people in North America. It might seem natural for me to claim it, as part of my assertion of my Taíno heritage as having primacy over the Spanish within my experience of my Hispanicness. No such ease appears to me, however. Two-spirit is an idea I cannot claim, for many reasons.

As I have mentioned previously, Taíno culture exists now as the cultures of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other denizens of Taíno-majority locales colonized by Spain. Pre-contact Taíno culture was not particularly well documented by the Spanish, and its lack of a written record of its own means that, when Spain severed institutional continuity in Taíno society, it was able to cut us off from a large chunk of our own past. Whatever we were before, we have since become in part what the Spanish made us. Trying to thoroughly reclaim the ancient practices and social organization of our forebears is a fraught task, partly because of the scarcity of solid information on what that would even mean, partly because trying to uncritically revive a culture that effectively froze in the 17th century means turning one’s back on notions of secularism, pluralism, and egalitarianism with more recent pedigrees and embracing ancient Tainidad’s rigid caste system, among other ills. This reality, and the magical and conspiratorial nonsense that follows it into revivalist organizations and pages, makes me deeply suspicious of the whole project.

One of the aspects of pre-contact Tainidad that is lost to modern scholars is whether it had an analogue to what French explorers disparagingly called “berdache” and modern First Nations people call two-spirited. Many tribes across North America placed no challenge before people previously regarded as boys or men who wished to assume the social role and responsibilities their tribe normally assigned to women, or vice versa, and had specialized terms for such people. The term “two-spirited” itself was devised by Canadian indigenous people in 1990 to describe their experiences, and popularized thereafter. Pre-contact Taíno society was strongly gendered, and it stands to reason that they may have had similar space set aside for the gender-variant among them—or perhaps they were as hostile to those who would not conform with their assigned gender as the Spanish were. The truth is unlikely to surface, with some Taíno revivalist groups adopting the Canadian-named two-spirit concept and others continuing to acknowledge the Catholic mores that dominate Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.

In any case, the Antillean Hispanic communities that the Taínos became are, by and large, intensely queer-antagonistic and in particular trans-antagonistic, a legacy of longstanding, institutionally favored Catholicism that has become entangled with Hispanic cultural identity. These societies do not have concepts for various subsets of gender and sexual minority; they have slurs, most of which do not make necessary distinctions. The Taíno heritage that came to me did not offer the honor of being a Two-Spirited paragon of humanity. It offered the scorn of regarding me as an offense against god and family, ongoing, probably forever.

But the thing is, even if I had a cultural link to the Two-Spirit concept, it would not describe my experience. My gender does not come with any desire to be recognized as an intermediate or hybrid category. The masculinity that I was expected to uphold is not a part of me that I accord any esteem or honor. It has no place alongside my natural and hard-won femininity. It is not another piece of my being, to be honored as half of a duality that my gender allows me to embody; it is a toxin hotly resented and emphatically rejected. I derive no satisfaction from currently possessing anatomy many wrongly regard as intermediate, by virtue of having both breasts and a penis, and aspire to correct this developmental error. I delight in being seen and treated as a woman in my everyday life, and the rare moments when I am read otherwise inspire seeping horror. It would be this way even without the terror of the person recognizing my past potentially being someone willing to do me violence for it. It is this way regardless of whether the “spirits” in two-spirit are meant literally or as a guiding metaphor. I am a woman with the adjective transgender, and these terms fit me.

Others can find themselves in this idea, stretched to fit their tribes. My place is elsewhere, with words that match my experience instead of being a loose conceptual jacket for others’ understanding.

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Why I Am Not Two-Spirited
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