Today is National Coming Out Indigenous Peoples Day
October 11, 2021 is both Indigenous People’s Day and National Coming Out Day. As a queer trans man who is the direct descendent of a long line of Knights of Columbus, I feel a deep connection to these holidays occurring on the same day this year and officially for the first time. In leaving Columbus behind, it symbolizes for me a turning away from white supremacy and embracing the acceptance of peoples as they claim themselves to be. Respecting sovereignty is akin to honoring self identity. In my white skin, I do not wish to lay claim to a two-spirit identity, but I can recognize that my survivance is tied to the survivance of indigenous peoples on this land.
National Coming Out Day was inaugurated in 1988, the year I first came out as a lesbian. At that time, coming out of the closet to expose your sexuality could mean losing your job, your home, your children, or even your life. It was a response to the silence and denial around the AIDS pandemic and a bold claim for recognition, awareness, and basic human rights. Society was shifting, and I got to experience in real time the evolution of National Coming Out Day from an act of bravery to a joyful celebration.
As a lesbian, I participated in various counter cultural movements, one of which was to follow a more earth-based spirituality. My journeys among these “land dyke” communities took me to the Southwestern US where Native American culture was sometimes disrespectfully appropriated by well-intentioned white women. I participated in rituals where we called the four directions, but I refrained from chanting “Ho!” as was common even when everyone there was white. Then I had an experience that influenced my approach to spirituality from that day forward.
There was an annual Women’s Sundance that was very popular at that time. Originally, the event had been created by and for indigenous women who had been forbidden from dancing in their tribes. They broke away and created their own ceremony. They invited other women of color to join them and soon found an influx of white supporters. The discussion at the time was how to delineate the roles for white allies. On the one hand, white women brought financial support and it was generally deemed a good thing that white women wanted to be supportive. However, women of color began to feel overrun by the masses of white women who seemed to want to “be blessed” by the ceremony in a way that felt like commodification of the sacred and a bit entitled.
I sat on the periphery of these conversations, not being involved with the Sundance myself. I knew of the contention, but I stayed out of the argument. Then a friend of mine encouraged me to consider going to the ceremony with her and I said I wasn’t interested because they already have more than enough white women there. She countered that they needed more white women who were consciously aware of racism and that was why I should go. But I held firm because to my mind, being aware meant not going.
The same friend came back to me a week later and said that she understood why I didn’t want to go to the Sundance, but they were having a work party on the property were the ceremony is held. They needed to build an outdoor dining area. I had construction skills. Would I go and volunteer to help them roof the structure? Sure. That felt different to me. Of course, I would do that. So there we were in the Arizona sun, literally on a hot tin roof. The property was not very hilly, just a large expanse of shrubby high desert. From the roof top, we could see any vehicles coming up the dirt road. Late in the day, my friend was the first to spot a familiar pickup truck kicking up clouds of dust and rolling towards us.
“Pacal is here!” she shouted joyfully, “Let’s go! This means we might get a sweat.” She dropped her hammer and turned to let everyone else know that Pacal, one of the founders of the Women’s Sundance, was arriving and they all left their work to go and greet her. I shrugged and went back to work. The roof was almost secure enough to hold against the winds. I wasn’t willing to leave it yet. Some minutes later, my friend’s head emerged at the top of the ladder to confirm that Pacal was indeed setting up a sweat lodge and was incredulous when I declined to go with her. Something just didn’t sit right with me about the way they all ran to her like kids to an ice cream truck. I went back to work.
Then again, another head emerged at the top of the ladder. This time, it was Pacal. “Thank you for the work you have given to this place,” she said, “I would like to offer you a gift in return.” Her invitation made all the difference in the world. I accepted and she waited for me as I climbed down the ladder. I explained that I am deaf without my hearing aids and once inside the sweat lodge, I will not know what is being said. She took me aside and helped me to prepare tobacco pouches in different colors, signifying different realms of my life and community. She told me the basic format of the ceremony, and with that, I joined the others in the small fabric tent, circled around hot rocks from the campfire outside.
As we progressed through the ritual, water poured on the rocks filling my lungs with steam, I entered a metaphysical state. Afterward, Pacal asked me if I connected with the ancestors. I said I did. “What did they tell you?” she asked. I shared that they affirmed that, while my experience in the sweat lodge was good, I need to connect to my own culture, find my own way. That has been my journey since, turning to ancient pagan rituals. But also, recognizing my privilege, I seek to support indigenous peoples and people of color in sustaining their ways and rights as well.
Several years later, I moved to Berkeley, CA and came out again, this time as a trans man. Berkeley had already replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Growing up in a Catholic family of Sicilian descent, we used to celebrate Columbus not only as a commemoration of colonial conquest, but it was also supposed to counter the persecution of Italian immigrants in the 19th century. My father and both of my grandfathers were respected members of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Fraternal Order. Despite all of that, it didn’t take long for me to realize that Columbus was no one for me to feel proud of. I hardly need to enumerate all the atrocities he committed against the people who saved him when he was lost at sea. I was glad to live in a city that refused to celebrate him and gave the rightful honor to the indigenous people whose land we stole.
Meanwhile, the queer community had gained some traction in their movement for civil rights, but National Coming Out Day became conflicted for me. Some of the lesbian community felt like my transition was a betrayal. Some of the gay men’s community did not want me to invade their space. Was NCOD for trans folks like me, while we faced hostility not only from the mainstream, but also from within the gay and lesbian community? I had two children now for whom I had to struggle to secure parental rights. I was again in a position where all aspects of my life were in jeopardy, even medical treatment. Insurance companies at the time retained the right to deny services of any kind on the basis of my being transgender.
Around this time, I got an invitation to a conference for FTMs (female to male) that was happening in the South. The name of the conference was the first time I heard the term two-spirit. Two-spirit, I learned, is an umbrella term embracing accepted positions for tribal members who crossed gender roles. In many indigenous cultures gender variance was not only accepted, it was sometimes considered sacred. The term was quite new then and was trendy among many trans folks who wished to eschew white colonial ideology. I don’t think we understood yet how the term was meant to distinguish from non-Native queer folks. What I gained from learning about the existence of two-spirit identities was to cement my trust in indigenous knowledge and forever dispel what I had been taught about the superiority of white imperialism. This society that demonized me for my honesty was supposed to be more advanced than indigenous cultures that found ways to blend these differences into the fabric of their society?
In fact, in my journey to find my way, I began to notice the parallels between an earth based paganism and the values and beliefs of indigenous cultures. I became drawn to the Radical Faerie community, finding meaning and centeredness in being in nature, communing with a river, stewarding a forest. Whereas capitalist culture says “I own this land. It belongs to me,” paganism and indigenous cultures say “I belong to this land.” It is humbling to decenter oneself and instead position yourself within the web of existence. This way of seeing calls me to act in concert with the world around me, in balance, in care. My trans identity is also finding my true place, and there finding peace.
What I sense now as I think about my relationship to National Coming Out Day is that trans folks are now starting to gain some ground just as gay and lesbians did before them. We still have a long way to go, of course, and it’s mostly white trans folks who are the beneficiaries of the gains. But I am seeing how non-binary folks are now getting caught in between oppression from the mainstream and rejection from within the queer community. I now enjoy the privileges of masculinity and finding a place in a world that insists on binary gender presentation. I have heard trans folks like me disparage the non-binary community calling them too extreme or too demanding. What goes around comes around it seems.
I come out today as a trans man and also as a member of a society that is coming to terms with itself. Let us embrace each other on this day and honor however someone self identifies. Conformity confines us. Allowing for everyone to be their true self builds a more perfect union. That NCOD happens to fall on Indigenous Peoples Day this year is a beautiful conjunction. I dream of creating a world where we can be multi-racial, multi-gendered, and mutually respectful. We can let go of feeling threatened by one another’s existence by realizing we don’t truly own or deserve anything to have taken from us. We belong to the earth, it doesn’t belong to us. We owe it the world around us to live in balance, to give back when given to, and to honor one another.
This will be the first nationally recognized Indigenous Peoples Day and that it happens to fall on NCOD is a nod to all the two-spirit people out there. Many of you whom I have had the honor to know did not know that your tribal beliefs accepted you. The oppression of your people and your tribe took that knowledge away from you. You had to discover it after the pain of feeling unseen or ridiculed. Today, I want to support you in the revitalization of your culture. There is so much we can do locally to honor the people on whose land we live and tribal communities in the region. Whether it is language revitalization or land back or tribal recognition or water rights or protecting missing and murdered indigenous women, we white folks can do more than land acknowledgements. We queer folks can join hands with indigenous peoples. Two national celebrations. Two spirits. One land. Together.