"Matthew Shepard Is Part Of Our Tribe" The Two Spirit Movement On Wind River Reservation

Nov 9, 2018

Terrence Brown is now a professional fighting. Bullying as a kid made him want to model how to be a strong Native gay man.
Credit Darrah Perez

Growing up on the Wind River Reservation, bullies often picked on Terrence Brown. "The time where I did stand up for myself was in the sixth grade," Brown remembers. "I was defending myself against six other boys and, well, I guess I let out some anger that day. We all ended up getting sent to the office. From that day forward, I kind of got a rush for it."

He says, he got a rush for showing physical strength as a Native gay man.

Out in his workout studio on the Wind River Reservation, Brown dances around the floor, punching a bag. Nowadays, he's a professional martial arts fighter, traveling the country with a manager. He's getting ready for an upcoming fight.

He tells of one recent fight he won.

"The guy was so upset he got beat by me he used the F word and all sorts of stuff," he says. "And the funny part about it is I had my nails painted red that day."

As both Native and gay, Brown considers himself part of the Two Spirit community. That's a contemporary term used by some Native Americans to describe the unique status of gays and lesbians in traditional tribal culture before European colonization.

"Two Spirit was a role in society that one had to take up, it was a mantle that was very laden with responsibility," says Brown. "Most of them were clothes makers, healers, shamans."

And Brown takes that responsibility seriously. He recognizes that being open about his sexuality makes him a target for violence.

"The whole Matthew Shepard thing. I want to encourage people like me I guess to be able to defend oneself and not become a victim of an intolerant society."

Brown says, even though a gay lifestyle was traditionally accepted by tribes, recent generations have rejected it.

Harlan Pruden is Cree and editor of The Two Spirit Journal that's working to articulate the Two Spirit philosophy. He says, the non-Native LGBTQ community is fighting for rights they've never had before, but the Two Spirit community isn't.

"We're not asking for anything new," says Pruden. "Where we begin the conversation is 'remember when'? Remember when I would have been embedded within my culture? And where I would have not been known as a man or woman, but I would have been known as an ayahkwêw?

That's the Cree word for Two Spirit and Pruden says most tribes had their own. Pruden says Shepard's murder struck a chord with many Two Spirit members.

"We as Native people can totally relate to this in that there was this complete violence to us, our bodies as well as our lands," says Pruden. "One of my teachings is courage and my sacred teaching around courage is to face a foe with integrity. Matthew Shepard is our story. And in that way, Matthew Shepard is part of our tribe."

Roy Brown's brand of courage led him into politics. He's the chairman of the Northern Arapaho business council and a Two Spirit member (but no relation to Terrence Brown in this story). He says Matthew Shepard's murder kept him from coming out of the closet until college. Brown was often bullied as a gay boy on Wind River.

"That's something I always tried to hide," he says. "I don't think I was very successful at it because I was bullied in some ways by a number of individuals. And they were targeting me specifically I think because I showed some characteristics of what they thought were gay characteristics."

But Brown's mother eventually helped him feel safer.

"My mom was actually one of the very first people to directly ask me about my sexuality and she did it in a very endearing way. Her message to me was, no matter what we will always love you."

Once Brown was elected to the council, he worked to improve Two Spirit protections. He says the council gladly accepted his suggestion to add language to a tribal employment policy. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of not only sexual orientation, but gender identity as well. ( Section 8: Discrimination, Harassment and Bullying: "The Tribe is an Equal Opportunity Employer. It is the policy of the Northern Arapaho Tribe to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender identity or expression, national origin, age, disability, marital status, political affiliation or sexual orientation." )

"It's really become more important for tribal governments to respond to that and revise their policies in accordance to this newfound confidence and really acceptance amongst tribal communities for that."

There's no exact data on how many tribes have adopted non-discrimination policies, but Brown says he knows many that have. There's still work to be done though; gay marriage is still illegal on the Navajo reservation, for instance. Brown says the next step needs to be grassroots efforts to change minds, not just government policies.

Darrah Perez says she had to leave the reservation to transform into her true self.
Credit Darrah Perez

That's where Darrah Perez comes in.

"Creating something like a safe space, a safe community," says Perez, "that is one of the reasons why the Wind River Two Spirit organization was created."

Perez organized the Wind River Two Spirit Society to help people like her.

"I knew I was different," she says, remembering her childhood. "I had the sense that I was born in the wrong body."

Perez says she had to leave the reservation to make the transition as a transgender woman. And returning home was the hardest part because no one recognized her.

"They'd be either whispering, talking or I could feel the stares, I could feel the awkward glances."

Perez says it hurt most that her grandmother couldn't accept her. She says that's why her organization hosts monthly support groups and social gatherings and hopes to begin educating the youth in schools. The group also partnered with Wyoming Equality to create a Two Spirit scholarship. 

"I think it's easier for the kids of today to come out and be who they are."

Perez says, thanks to Wind River's Two Spirit role models, attitudes have begun to change. She only wishes she could go back to school and do it over again—this time feeling safe enough to be herself.