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Alberta Indigenous members of the LGBTQ community search for a place at Calgary Pride

'Two-spirit is a different conversation'

Some Indigenous people who identify as LGBTQ feel their white counterparts are leaving them and people of colour behind , writes Carrie Tait

Harlan Pruden, who is Cree and identifies as two-spirit.

Spirit River Striped Wolf remembers his first Calgary Pride. He was 21 and had been in the city for one year. It was celebratory and he liked that. But now, at 23, it isn't so simple.

Calgary's 11-day Pride festival wraps up Sunday with its annual parade. Pride parades in cities across North America are, in part, celebrations of progress and acceptance. And that is what makes Mr. Striped Wolf, an Indigenous gay man, uneasy. As a minority within a minority, he isn't feeling the same reasons for joy.

"It is important to understand the power differences within the LGBT community," Mr. Striped Wolf says. "It is starting to become a blind spot for LGBT white folks that aren't seeing the issues that Indigenous and black folks face in the city."

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Some two-spirit people – an umbrella term to describe and used by some, but not all, individuals who are Indigenous and identify as LGBTQ or elsewhere on the gender and sexual spectrums – feel their white counterparts are leaving them and people of colour behind. The broader LGBTQ community has made significant gains in the quest for equality, thanks to years of fighting for rights. But some members of the LGBTQ community who are not white feel overlooked because, while homophobia may be dissipating, they may still be on society's social and economic margins because of race.

So when members of the wider LGBTQ universe celebrate, some two-spirit and people of colour wish their counterparts would help them fight other inequalities with the same vigour as they battled homophobia.

Two-spirit people and their allies point to their relationship with police as an example of the rift within the LGBTQ world. Some – but not all – members of the broader LGBTQ community are increasingly comfortable with police officers participating in Pride parades as a reflection of improved relations and a sign officers support the LGBTQ community.

But because Indigenous people and people of colour, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, feel disproportionately targeted by police, two-spirit activists such as Mr. Striped Wolf do not want police to march in Pride parades in their uniforms.

"I don't look at police uniforms in a protective way," he says in an interview at Calgary's Mount Royal University, where he studies. "I don't feel what you're feeling."

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Ongoing negotiations between Calgary Pride and the police reflect this friction. Voices is a local group advocating for two-spirit people and others on the racial margins in the LGBTQ community. (Mr. Striped Wolf is one of its board members). Calgary Pride consulted with Voices and CPS and, as a result, this year banned law-enforcement officials from marching in their uniforms. That suited Mr. Striped Wolf and Pride highlighted Voices' logic when it announced the ban in late July.

"We acknowledge the historical oppression and institutionalized racism faced by queer/trans people of colour and Indigenous persons, and the potentially negative association with weapons, uniforms and other symbols of law enforcement," Pride said.

But Voices wasn't included in a later meeting Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi convened between CPS and Pride. The meeting's intent was not to reverse Pride's uniform ban, but to "develop a better understanding of the legitimate issues and concerns raised by members of the LGBTQ community about how CPS works with their community," Pride said in a statement Aug. 25. The mayor's office this week said Voices was not invited because it was just an "initial" meeting. Calgary Pride president Jason Kingsley, in an e-mailed statement, said Voices will be included as the discussions continue.

CPS, in an e-mail Friday, said it "remains committed to working with Calgary Pride and the LGBTQ+ community, as well as with visible minorities within that community, to ensure that we are serving these communities well."

The cleave between two-spirit people and their white counterparts extends beyond events such as Pride and equitable treatment in the legal system, according to Harlan Pruden, who advocates for the two-spirit community around the world. The PhD student at the University of British Columbia, for example, serves on the presidential advisory council on HIV-AIDS, providing information and recommendations to the White House. The researcher, who is a two-spirit individual with parental roots on the Beaver Lake Cree Nation and the Whitefish Lake First Nation in northeastern Alberta, uses the pronoun "it" because the academic says the word best reflects the English translation from Cree.

"Racism is well and alive within the LGBTQ community," it says. "Often our two-spirit people don't feel included within the broader LGBT queer framework. Two-spirit is a different conversation."

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The Calgary pride parade on Sept. 6, 2015.

The "non-Aboriginal" LGTBQ community, Harlan Pruden explains, is fighting for civil rights such as marriage and employment equality – hallmarks of western societies. Meanwhile, two-spirit people aren't asking for new rights and privileges but a return to the respected positions they once held in their Indigenous communities, the Cree person says.

"What's really important is we are holding a different conversation," Harlan Pruden says. "One of my biggest criticisms of the broader LGBTQ community is they are quite happy to work within their western frameworks and fight for equality, but no one has taken the time to pause and say 'Hey, there was a time on this land in which there were people who had full equality and full citizenship and were honoured and respected within their nation.'"

Even cosmetic changes would make two-spirit people feel more included, according to Michelle Robinson, an Indigenous straight woman who was a founding member of Voices. She argues if "2S" – shorthand for two-spirit – were added to the LGBTQ acronym, it would signal people are aware of the differences within the community.

"Most Prides, if you look across Canada, they don't include a 2 or 2S because it is not on their radar," says Ms. Robinson, who has family members in the two-spirit community. "It is the easiest thing to do for reconciliation – to just add a 2.

"If I see LGBT, I know that these people are not sensitive to Indigenous issues," Ms. Robinson says, including policy-makers in her argument. "I know that right off the bat."

Some two-spirit activists acknowledge that while they are frustrated with their white counterparts, they are making headway. The country-wide push to mend the relationship between Canada and Indigenous people is playing a role bridging the gap between the broader LGBTQ community and the racial minorities within that world, two-spirit champions note.

At the same time, two-spirit events are also gaining traction among those who believe Pride festivals should remain political. The Treaty 7 Dyke and Trans March, for example, will snake through a busy slice of Calgary on Saturday.

"Join us and march in resistance to the on-going internal marginalization of the LGBTQAI2S+ community, both within Calgary and on the international scale," organizers said on the event's Facebook page, using an acronym that can mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer (or questioning), asexual (or ally), intersex, two-spirit, and other or undecided. "The Dyke and Trans March is a POLITICAL event that aims to provide an alternative to commercialized and sponsored pride events. The march is a demonstration of visibility, resilience, and community."


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