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Two Spirit: The trials and tribulations of gender identity in the 21st century

NEW YORK -- Devin Etcitty, a 21-year-old from the Navajo nation, stood before a circle of 12 Native American students at Columbia University. He asked them to introduce themselves by name, tribal nation and preferred gender pronoun.

Gender identity is a common topic on college campuses these days. But this group’s focus was unusual: how to cope as a Native American gay living off the reservation.

“Do gays here even have an indigenous experience?” Etcitty asked of these New York City newcomers.

Kyle Sebastian, 20, had an answer: “I went to a queer-based workshop, and said I identify as Two Spirit. Everyone looked at me confused.”

No one in Etcitty’s group looked confused, though. Each is grappling with the identity Sebastian named: Two Spirit, a term used in a number of Native American cultures to describe a third gender that is embraced by some non-heterosexuals.

In early Native American society, those who identified as Two Spirited were respected as spiritual leaders within the tribe. They dressed in both men’s and women’s clothing, and they often served special roles such as storytellers, counselors, and healers. Two Spirit traditions were threatened, though, when Europeans colonized the Americas.

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