The intersection of my identity as a gay man and a Chippewa Cree tribal member begins at the intersection of Route 87 and Highway 448. The unpretentious hamlet of Box Elder, Montana, on the Rocky Boy Reservation is home to a humble population of 800 and the monuments of sovereignty of my ancestors.
My parents believed that if they didn’t like the road we were on, we needed to pave a new one. So they moved the family to the nearest metropolis: Spokane, Wash. What my parents gave us was opportunities and choices that we never had in Box Elder, protecting my sister and I from an unknown future (I was clearly, queerly different at a young age).
But pieces of my heart remained at the intersection of Route 87 and Highway 448.
Years later, I remember my family discussing a lesbian relative and her sexuality in hushed voices, their faces pink with shame. The shaky voices and unfamiliar syllables floating into the room shook me to my core. At that moment I decided to pave my own road, driving myself away to a safer and more secretive place.
I made an explicit choice to deny my heritage while out on my own. I exercised selective perception to cast my culture as unaccepting and intolerant. I allowed others to project European-colonized, homophobic beliefs onto my people. The shield of conformity was my peace, but it drove an invisible wedge between my identities—gay and Native American. What was left was a crater in the intersection, and an unavoidable internalized racism.
At 21, with amplified trepidation, I came out to my parents. Their response?
“We’ve known for years, was there something else?”
With relief, I learned that being gay really was nothing of serious concern to them. With the blessing of their love, I felt empowered to be proud of my identity as a gay man. My parent’s reaction was indicative of a broader tenderness extended by the rest of my family and Native community. Yet, what was born of that gay pride magnified the pride I could have as a Native American.
My past indicates that I am capable of embracing pride in my identity. While serving in the Peace Corps, I led a secret LGBTQ youth group in Orange Walk, Belize, a majority Catholic community. One of our biggest projects was painting a peace and equality mural, a large rainbow with words of love and acceptance inscribed within each color. This large expression of pride was incendiary; local preachers condemned my group and numerous threats were made on my life and job as a volunteer. As a safety precaution, I was rushed by Peace Corps to Belmopan, the capital.
During this time, I was forced to process what it meant to be gay. What it meant to be true to who I was. I looked for comfort and clarity, searching out places of acceptance and affirmation, finding that one of the greatest pieces of that fabric of my identity was found in the history of Two Spirit people. I was compelled to reexamine the moment my family discussed our lesbian relative.
Culturally, the term Two Spirit has been generally accepted as those with a special gift—being in and of two worlds at once, both physical and spiritual world. They were keepers of ancient traditional stories of creation, development and healing, and best possessed the four traits of our culture: warrior, nurturer, scholar, and community activist.
More so, they were the protectors of our spiritual traditions, recognized for their unique gift of being “between.” Many Native groups rejected the dichotomy of gender and sexuality. How they chose to express gender and their orientation were fluid and beautiful; a poetic contradiction to European tradition. My ancestors valued this fluidity on the gender continuum, not an either/or model. Historically, Native Americans in more than 150 tribes across the country rejected the Western, Colonial view of LGBTQ Natives, or Two Spirits. Native American tribes of the Southwest and the Great Plains revered their Two Spirit members.
In reconnecting with my Native American culture, I’ve awoken to the progressive nature of my people. It’s the people of the Rocky Boy reservation, like Shane, who does HIV/AIDS prevention work. Shane taught me how the reservation’s Westernized concepts of LGBTQ people conflicts with the Elders’ traditional respect for Two Spirit people. And, a younger Native generation boasts examples of challenging the status quo of colonized beliefs—like an out, male cheerleader. Or, my friend Joe, a Coeur d’Alene tribal member, who grew up with two moms and knows nothing different. His coming out was seamless. Or Heather Purser, who pursued marriage equality on the Suquamish Reservation and watched it pass unanimously, making way for Washington’s marriage equality win.
However, to intersect our identities and community we must deconstruct the colonization of our hearts and minds.
When I was most afraid in Belize, I explored my history, my culture. I embraced redemption. For this reason, I’ve arrived humbly back at Route 87 and Highway 448; and, as I look around I’ve found the intersection of my heart and my people. I know this place for the first time.
Zachary Pullin owns Hwame creative, a small, Pacific Northwest communications strategy and web design consulting firm dedicated to serving LGBTQ, low-income, women, and minority organizations. Prior to working in communications, Zachary was the Logistics Coordinator for the 2012 Soulforce Equality Ride and served in Belize, Central America as a Peace Corps volunteer. Twitter: zacharybob or subscribe at Facebook.com/zacharyrpullin