My family frequently gives each other books for Christmas. A couple years ago when I was first starting to talk about being gender questioning, my sister gave me a book called Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature, edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Daniel Heath Justice, Deborah Miranda, and Lisa Tatonetti. I finally got around to reading it this week after being reminded of it at Montana Pride, marching near the Montana Two-Spirit Society.
For people unfamiliar with the term ‘two-spirit’ (it is the 2 in one of the longer forms of LGBT: LGBTQIA2), I think it is worth quoting the introduction to the book at length. The introduction does a good job of defining two-spirit and situating it in relation to other queer or LGBT identities:
“In brief, ‘two-spirit’ or ‘two-spirited’ is an umbrella term in English that (1) refers to the gender constructions and roles that occur historically in many Native gender systems that are outside of colonial gender binaries and (2) refers to contemporary Native people who are continuing and/or reclaiming these roles within their communities. It is also often used as an umbrella term within grassroots two-spirit societies… meant to be inclusive of not only those who identify as two-spirit or with tribally specific terms, but also GLBTQ Native people more broadly.”
“Not all queer Native people identify as two-spirit or see their sexualities and genders as connected to two-spirit histories in their communities, just as many people who identify as two-spirit or with tribally specific terms do not identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Still others identify as both GLBTQ and two-spirit but see these identities as inhabiting different social and cultural spheres, and many people shift between labels and terms depending on their contexts.”
“Though ‘two-spirit’ originally stemmed, as Jacobs, Thomas, and Lang point out, from the desire of queer Native people to distance themselves from inaccurate terms used by anthropologists and/or from a generic GLBTQ identity that is often implicitly tied to whiteness, today ‘two-spirit’ is not necessarily in opposition to these other identities but instead is a term meant to do distinct work and, importantly, to signify the often separate concerns of Native people.” (pgs 4-5)
The introduction also explains the purpose of the book and situates it the context of the two-spirit literature that had been previously published. Sovereign Erotics is a book designed “by and for the People” “as a collection of maps and stories for those who come after and for those who may already be on their journey, but who have journeyed without guides or fellow travelers” (pg 1). Its purpose is to help Native people communicate across differences and to “imagine together a decolonized future that includes the full complexity of who we are as Native peoples” (pg 2). Being white, I cannot speak to its effectiveness at achieving these aims. However, I can speak to the side benefits it provides for white members of the queer community and all those who would be allies to two-spirit and queer Native people.
First and foremost, for anyone who has ever struggled to understand their own gender outside the binary, Sovereign Erotics is a book full of stories and poems by and about people involved in the same struggle. Anyone involved in that struggle can use the works in this book to help themselves think about how they are and how they want to present themselves to the world. Two-spirit is a term that encompasses both sexual and gender diversity and some of the works in this collection address one and not the other and some address both and some don’t address either. However, I think it is fair to say that there is much more literature available for sexually diverse people than gender diverse people and that makes this collection more valuable to gender diverse people in general. If you are anything like me, just knowing other people identify and live outside the gender binary helps make it easier for you to do the same and reading stories from the perspectives of those people can help you understand and provide you with new tools for how to think about your own unique experiences. This doesn’t mean I would ever identify as two-spirit, simply that as a human struggling with gender, it helps me to read about other humans struggling with gender.
Secondly, if we want to be allies, we have to take the time to educate ourselves and take advantage of all the materials that are available to us to help us better understand the experiences and issues of those we wish to act in solidarity with. Sovereign Erotics, along with the scholarly collection Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics and Literature edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen, provides would-be-allies with an introduction to the perspectives of queer Native authors and activists. Sovereign Erotics includes works by both the authors who wrote the earliest contemporary two-spirit and queer Native literature and works by authors just emerging into the literary world. It also includes works from authors who belong to a variety of different tribes and traditions. Both of these levels of diversity help to reflect the endless range of experiences lived by queer Native peoples. Additionally, as a collection of creative rather than academic works, Sovereign Erotics provides access to a more gut-level, experience-based understanding of that diversity. This makes it an invaluable tool for allies.
I do not think it can be said too many times that the larger LGBT and queer communities should want to be allies to all gender and sexually diverse people. If we truly want a more equal world, we cannot abandon or ignore the people and groups for whom the struggle to gain rights and visibility takes on different forms and has different endpoints. We need to know about the intersections between race, class, sexuality and gender. We need to take it upon ourselves to seek out other perspectives. We who are marginalized must not be content to fight only for our own rights when others are still marginalized, especially when we participate in their marginalization. We need to read books like Sovereign Erotics. We may not understand every story or every poem, but even having the experience of interacting with those works and recognizing that we do not, cannot, understand them because our lived experiences are so different is a step in the right direction towards becoming allies.
The works in Sovereign Erotics are so human that if you are looking for yourself and words that speak to your experiences, you will find yourself. The works are also culturally specific enough that if you are looking for greater understanding of the perspectives of two-spirit or queer Native peoples, you will find that as well. Either way, it is a valuable book that is worth multiple readings to discover as much of what it holds as possible.
Queerview Mirror is a semi-regular feature where Queereka contributors review a variety of media. Look for Queerview Mirror posts on Friday afternoons.