Notes from the Field

Lobbying for LGBTQ Empathy via Native ways

February 19, 2019

By Adrian Jawort

Having only recently come out as a gender fluid/Two Spirit publicly in early January via a well-received—if not controversial—article I’d written with the titled Native American ‘rednecks’ & colonized anti-LGBTQ conservatism via Indian Country Today, I was well aware of the inner turmoil and struggles transpeople face in Montana as it was something I’d personally grappled long and hard with most of teen and adult life. What I realized was the more I studied my Northern Cheyenne past, the more I came to realize that my being Two Spirit was just a natural part of me I needed to accept to live a full and healthy life. In fact, it was something to celebrated—not be ashamed of as the so-called Western Civilization thought process had long forced upon Native peoples.

As a semi-public activist, Native journalist, and author who’d long organized symposiums panels via the Native American Healing & Lecture Series in Billings, I knew when I came out it’d raise eyebrows. After Western Native Voice interviewed me about my Two Spirit experiences, they asked if I’d be interested in going to Helena to work with Forward Montana Foundation and other coalitions for “Equality in Montana Lobby Day” on Valentine’s Day—a fitting time of loving who you want to love while accepting who they are.

While in Billings, I’ve been a behind-the-scenes organizer and veteran journalist who’d covered various political stories for years. In Helena, I was a first time rookie lobbyist. We were briefed by various people that included the always energetic and indomitable—and fellow Two Spirit—Kelli Two Teeth. Some of the advice given was: Don’t feel like you’re impugning on a lawmaker’s time as they are there to represent your concerns. These laws really do affect you personally, and so don’t be afraid to let them know your personal story. But since time was always of the essence, brevity with potent talking points is key.

I, along with a Billings coalition of Michael Nelson, Patricia Decker, and transman activist Jay Raines, arrived at the capital just before noon, ready to let our voices be heard. After writing that aforementioned piece, numerous people had emailed and messaged me tales of discrimination regarding LGBTQ people, and so I felt obliged, ready, and honored to speak on our behalf. The week previous I’d been told the story of a transwoman who worked as a dishwasher who struggled to make ends meet. She often put her hair up in her baseball cap at work to disguise her femininity. When someone found out she was a transwoman and told her boss, she was immediately fired. Unable to make ends meet, she ended up living in her car. Finding a job is a hard task to do without an address and you have to explain you were fired because you’re trans—leaving yourself open to more possible scrutiny and it is why people remain in the closet, and why people don’t think such instances exist. This attitude toward LGBTQ and transpeople as somehow being “less than” is what I was fighting against. When I lobbied, I represented my Two Spirit identity while “en femme” mode in the state capital building on behalf of those who had to confine their true selves to the shadows.

Being from Billings, I’m well aware of the fact that my City Council had shot down an Non Discrimination Ordinance to protect LGBTQ people in 2014—the only major city in Montana to do so. We only wanted equal rights, not “special rights” as the naysayers of the NDO claimed—so went the basic logic of supporting the Montana Human Rights Act.

Some people claim bigotry trumps the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of LGBTQ people. To them, we are deemed a political pawn in the ongoing culture wars instead of living, breathing, feeling human beings with families, loved ones, who suffer heartbreak and share hopes and dreams for a better life just like everyone else.  I also know that from an economic standpoint it simply doesn’t make sense to not pass the Montana Human Rights Act, so perhaps that could be a foot in the door to people who don’t want to see us as anything but “the other.”

And so this was my basic spiel:

As a person involved in arts in Billings, I know there’s a burgeoning yet underground scene we’re always seeking to expand in all mediums. However, the Billings city council voting down a NDO gave our city a huge black eye since the art community has always been a safe haven for LGBTQ people. When North Carolina signed their anti-LGBTQ so-called “bathroom bill” in 2016, it was noted by the Associated Press they lost an estimated $3.76 billion in revenues. Although Billings has no such figures, I can attest as someone involved in the literature community, we’ve lost a lot of money just based on seeing places like Missoula having massive popular book festivals people throughout the West flock to. While Billings is trying to get there with events like the High Plains Book Awards and other burgeoning events like film festivals, there’s always that stigma of Billings being anti-LGBTQ that that gives off an aura of unwelcoming prejudice despite the many beautifully-hearted people who reside here. This shadow will always keep potential investors leery in regards to things like the proposed One Big Sky District project that aims to make Billings a major metropolitan cultural hot spot. I told legislators to pass that knowledge onto people who may not be LGBTQ allies, per se, but claim to care about the economic growth and stability of Montana.

After lobbying I’d agreed to do a training session called “Creating Empathy via Native American Belief.” While I touched on the history of the ill treatment of Native LGBTQ people via colonization, I also explained how Two Spirit people were oft revered by most tribes. I told of my own coming out story, and how I had done it via writing because writing is where I feel safe with my truths. Although some in this world may judge me negatively for coming out as Two Spirit, art never does and always readily embraces what my soul yearns to tell.

The Crow’s traditional land consisted of present day Billings, a land they called the “cliff that has no pass” because of the landmark rim rocks—a place the famous visionary Chief Plenty Coup was born. Plenty Coup once said, “Education is your most powerful weapon. With education you are the white man’s equal; without education you are his victim.” I that I told of a highly respected Crow warrior named Finds Them And Kills Them who lived as a Badé (2-spirit) woman. Crow elders had said, “Badé were a respected social group among the Crow. They spent their time with the women or among themselves, setting up their tipis in a separate area of the village.”

After the Indian wars and during the late 1890s, an Indian agent tried to get Finds Them And Kills Them to live as a man, but she refused. The agent jailed the Badé, cut their hair, and forced them to do manual labor. The Crow protested the treatment of Finds Them And Kills Them and said this conversion therapy attempt was against their nature. The late Crow historian Joe Medicine Crow said, “The people were so upset with this that Chief Pretty Eagle came into Crow agency and told the agent to leave the reservation. It was a tragedy, trying to change them.”

It was such a foreign concept to Natives to force people to go against their gender nature they were ready to revolt on their behalf. “Why would anyone force someone to act like the gender they are not? To what point?!”

And that was difference between “Western” white and Native civilizations. That is the way the people had lived on this beautiful land called Montana for thousands of years. Those are lessons of empathy and solidarity of standing up and caring for one another that must be brought back to this area, this land I love enough to keep fighting for along with all of the other beautiful LGBTQ and Two Spirit people and allies I joined that day.

Nea’ese, (Thank you).