It can be hard to imagine a society where strict gender binaries are not the standard, but a better world—one without rigid boundaries—is possible. The model for that society was here in North America long before any Europeans arrived. Many Indigenous societies function without imposed binaries, and individuals are free to experience and express gender and sexuality on their own terms. That may be a strange concept for some Americans to accept, but it’s one worth striving for, as it can help to improve the mental health of people who exist outside of the imposed norms of heterosexuality and the cisgender experience.
Before we get into all the benefits of a post-gender binary America, we need to talk vocabulary. Within different Indigenous communities and nations, there are many words for modes of gender, but one of the most widely used is Two Spirit. The term—first coined in 1990, at the Inter-Tribal Native American/First Nations Gay and Lesbian American Conference—is used as a gender and sexuality umbrella, and it may only be claimed by Indigenous people. It is not meant to replace nation-specific words for genders or sexualities (some of which have no direct correlation in European culture), but to allow space for Indigenous people to explore their identities outside of the Eurocentric gaze.
There are many historical examples of people who would likely have identified as Two Spirit, had the term existed during their lifetimes. Ozaawindib is one such person. A warrior from the Makandwewininiwag people, a band of the Ojibwe people, in the Cass Lake region, they were mentioned in writing by white authors for their gender non-conformity and status as a chief in the early 1800s. A more recent example is that of Ralph Kerwineo, an Afro-Potawatomi person who garnered national attention in 1914 for “passing” as a man and marrying two women in Milwaukee.
But not all Indigenous communities are the same, nor are they static. There have been many arguments, agreements, and disagreements regarding the status of Indigenous people who might or might not now be called Two Spirit. Kai Minosh Pyle, an Indigenous researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota, gives one example from the Ojibwe Nation: “There is some evidence that male warriors sometimes insulted enemies by calling them ‘women.’ Yet Ojibwe women also had high statuses and roles, too, and there were people in Ojibwe society who we might call transgender women today who were treated equally, as any other woman.” Even gender roles were less constrictive: Someone accepted as a woman might have been able to participate in a traditionally male ceremony without pushback, due to the assumption that they had a calling which must be respected.
But even though some societies valued personal experiences and self-identification over social expectations, Pyle doesn’t think the ultimate goal should be to recapture or recreate those gender systems. “The world is different today, and everyone is not going to want to fulfill the same exact gender roles as they would have 200 or 500 years ago,” they noted. “But I think we can reclaim some of the wisdom and ways of those ancestors, while working towards a world that doesn’t place so much value on an exclusionary binary of male and female.”
If we are able to move in that direction, the mental health benefits could be significant. The stigma that is still attached to 2SLGBTQ+ personhood in many communities often leads to depression, poor self worth, and anxiety. And in a multi-year survey of Indigenous people founded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), researcher Karina Walters, PhD, found that 43 percent of Indigenous transgender women experienced depression and 53 percent of the total Indigenous transgender population expressed risk of suicide. Missy Merchant, LLPC, a Michigan-based counselor who works with Indigenous and 2SLGBTQ+ identified youth, says living in a more accepting society would improve the mental health of this population. “I love that traditional Indigenous beliefs not only accept gender non-conformity, but actually celebrate it. What better builder of self-worth than to have your community and your family at large to embrace you for who you are,” she says. “Acknowledgement and acceptance in any situation helps to boost mental health, physical health, and spiritual strength—especially in marginalized populations.”
In fact, the modern Two Spirit community has pushed for changes to make Indigenous nations—and larger communities—more inclusive and to uplift marginalized groups. One example is the work of organizers Monique “Muffie” Mousseau and Felipa De Leon, who inspired the Oglala Nation to pass a comprehensive anti-hate crime bill, the first of its kind for South Dakota’s Native American Nations.
Hopefully, destigmatization of identity will become the norm throughout the world—not just in Indigenous communities. “Just as someone wouldn’t be considered a diabetic as their primary identifier, but rather as someone who has diabetes, someone should not be though of as ‘a transgender’ but as ‘a person who is transgender,’” says Merchant, giving just one example of what’s possible. As America’s Indigenous communities have shown us, a world beyond binaries is possible.