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Two-spirit and beyond: a Pride Month look at identity and diversity

Image of BC Hydro hydromechanical engineer Simone Lemieux
BC Hydro hydromechanical engineer Simone Lemieux is co-chair of the employee-led BC Hydro Pride Network.

Editor's note: We recognize the timing of this publication coincides with the tragic news of a burial site found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. This devastating situation is a stark reminder that the legacy of the residential school system persists today. We’re able to celebrate Indigenous culture and discuss important topics like the ones in this piece because of the strength and resiliency of residential school survivors and Indigenous peoples. We also acknowledge the past and current impacts of BC Hydro’s operations on Indigenous Nations in the province and are committed to honouring Indigenous perspectives and values as we move forward.  

BC Hydro employee, Musqueam community member chat about Pride in 2021

June is a big month in Canada for awareness around gender and sexual diversity as well as for Indigenous peoples, as Pride Month coincides with both National Indigenous History Month and with National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21. 

Lindsay Gibson is an Indigenous awareness training advisor with BC Hydro, a Musqueam Indian Band member and executive on BC Hydro's RAIN Network. She brought together two of her favourite people for a discussion around Pride Month and what it means to be out in the workplace and in their community. Simone Lemieux is a BC Hydro hydromechanical engineer and co-chair of the employee-led BC Hydro Pride Network, and Mack Paul is a Musqueam Pride activist who works as a protocol coordinator in the band's protocol and communications department.

Gibson joined her friends and BC Hydro Connected newsletter writer Rob Klovance on a Zoom call that zeroed in on the history of the term two-spirit and what it's like to live as a two-spirit person in 2021.

Here's that discussion, which has been edited for brevity.

Rob Klovance: I recently learned about the origin of the term "two-spirit", discovering that it was first coined in Winnipeg in 1990 at an inter-tribal Native American and First Nations gay and lesbian conference. While many Indigenous languages had rough equivalents to the term, there was no unifying term in English. Mack, is it used in the Musqueam community?

Mack Paul: In my community, we didn't really have a word for two-spirit in our native language, so we adopted that term. And it's something we hope we can use to create something in our traditional language, but it's a big task because we don't have any fluent speakers to work with.

RK: The 1990 conference definition for "two-spirit" is that it was designed to represent Indigenous people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, other gendered, along with third/fourth gendered individuals who "walk carefully between the worlds and between the genders." It has since been extended to use in the broader, non-Indigenous community. Mack, what does the term mean to you?

MP: Up until four years ago, I was struggling with my gender identity. The idea of two-spirit really clicked with me, and I've held onto it since then. For me, a two-spirit person is adaptable, able to switch, shift and transform. They're able to be in any situation and know how to move along, and even to mediate.

Simone Lemieux: Internal to BC Hydro, I sometimes give presentations that are kind of "gender and sexuality 101", so I touch briefly on the term "two-spirit" without overreaching my understanding of what it means. You can think of it as a person having two spirits, like having a masculine and a feminine spirit within themselves. But I don't think you can separate it as different aspects of your identity: you have one identity, and it's all these things combined."

RK: Mack has spoken about a "silent acceptance" of gender and sexual diversity in the Musqueam community that has been given more of a voice through community involvement in Pride Month events, including the annual Pride Parade in Vancouver. What's your own experience in the BC Hydro workplace?

SL: I think there were, and continue to be, people at BC Hydro and in the community who are out in a limited way, maybe only to those they work closely with. And that's one of the big things we want to work on as a Pride Network – not that everyone has to want to come out, because people can be private and make their own choices. But if a lot of people are choosing to be more private, it might be a sign of a need for improvement in the culture in terms of acceptance.

RK: How long have you been with BC Hydro, and how have things changed?

SL: I've been here six years. But my [Pride Network] co-chair has been with the company for 28 years, and a lot has changed in that time. When she started she had to hide her sexuality or risk serious discrimination. Federal prohibitions against widespread discrimination for sexual orientation weren't adopted until later in the 1990s. Things aren't so severe now, but it's possible that people could feel uncomfortable enough that they choose to leave, and that's part of that cultural issue.

RK: Simone, how has acceptance worked for you personally?

SL: I didn't really talk about my sexuality – I'm bisexual – until I got involved in the Pride Network. My close friends knew, but it wasn't obvious to most of my co-workers. Getting involved in the network was almost like an excuse to come out. It would have been difficult to just one day announce my sexuality. But I could let them know I was involved in Pride activities, and that would do it.

RK: Without your position in the network, how would you go about communicating about your sexuality?

SL: I would just choose my words carefully, generally saying "partner" instead of boyfriend or girlfriend, or find ways to suggest bit by bit. But it's hard because a word like "girlfriend" is often taken to mean something unromantic. There's so much culture around assuming that everyone is straight that many people won't even make the connection, like "Well, they're just girls who are friends."

RK: And Mack, what has it been like for you in the Musqueam community?

MP: It wasn't easy at first, for sure. I knew I was in a safe environment all the time, but there was still the societal stigmas around being queer, and that sort of loomed over me. I was still scared to come out and tell people, even after I came out to my friends and family. And getting involved in the Pride Parade float really helped. In leading that, I don't know how much more obvious I could be. And I've become more and more vocal in my community, and helped create the Coast Salish Two-Spirit Collective as a safe space in our communities, starting with Musqueam.

RK: How old were you when you first came out to your parents?

MP: It was my 19th birthday. Growing up, I really struggled with accepting my identity. I knew I was different by Grade 4, realizing I had crushes on the boys in the class, and not the girls. But I just kind of went on with my life until I started to really learn about sexuality, and at that point, I thought, there's something wrong with me, and at one point I thought it was maybe a phase. I struggled with that until I was 17 or 18, and when I was 19, I thought: 'This is ridiculous. I'm a queer person. I should be happy. I shouldn't be sad.' So I decided to stop lying to myself, and talked to my parents.

RK: And Simone, is your story similar or different?

SL: I think it happened for me around Grade 10 or 11. I knew I was bisexual, but until then I was thinking everyone was in some sense bisexual. Then I realized, maybe some of my friends aren't experiencing this. It might just be me [laughter again]. I came out to my mom when I was about 16, and trusted she'd tell my dad for me. My parents are musicians and I grew up with lots of queer adults around, so I didn't have any reason to be uncomfortable. But I remember being so nervous to tell my mom. You're still afraid even when there's nothing to be afraid of. One of the cool things about getting involved in the Pride Network is that I didn't really know any queer people that were part of my work team, so it was nice to connect with people across the company."

RK: What's your advice to those in the workplace who are uncomfortable talking about their gender or sexual identity?

MP: I'm just hoping there's a safe space to talk about whatever they want to talk about. I wouldn't want to force anyone into a situation to talk about their identities, because they might not be ready to. So my advice is for all to create space and make people feel comfortable.

RK: What's at the top of your wish lists for Pride Month and beyond?

MP: It's so difficult in a pandemic to do all the things you want to, because you're forced to sit at home so much. But at Musqueam, we're still working on creating more safe spaces for two-spirit and queer people in the community. And everything we're doing here around Pride initiatives is volunteer work, so I'd like to see us create permanent programming in the community."

SL: I'd like to see more safety within the queer community, within the Pride Parade situations, for trans people, for two-spirit people, and for queer people of colour. I think a lot of the public faces of Pride, at least the ones I remember, are usually the people who seem to be the closest to the mainstream, so you see cisgender white gay men are often the face of Pride, for example. I absolutely don't want to understate the difficulties of being a gay man, but I want to make sure the work the queer community is doing is about building a world that is safe and welcoming for everyone. I think if you lift up that person who is maybe the least safe right now, then you'll create that world where everyone else is going to be safe, too.

Lindsay Gibson: I'd just like to say that I've worked with both Mack and Simone, and while they're both humble people, I really admire you for what you do. I walked in the Pride Parade because of all the work you've done, and I want to raise my hands to both of you. Don't be too humble, because it's important work.

Image of the Coast Salish two-spirit Pride symbol by Mack Paul
Coast Salish two-spirit pride symbol designed by Musqueam Indian Band member Mack Paul. A mosaic version of the symbol is planned to be added to a sidewalk on the University of B.C. campus. (Image courtesy of Mack Paul)

About BC Hydro's Pride Network

The employee-led BC Hydro Pride Network was set up to provide a safe, inclusive space for LGBT2Q+ employees and contractors to come together and help make BC Hydro a great place to work. The network strives to be as representative of the LGBT2Q+ community as possible in both its membership and leadership, and to be inclusive in its programming, advocacy, use of venues and other activities.

About BC Hydro's RAIN Network

The BC Hydro RAIN Network hopes to engage all Indigenous employees (First Nation, Metis and Inuit) in networking opportunities that can support Indigenous employees throughout the province.

The network's goals include sharing experiences and wisdom to build understanding and awareness of First Nations history and culture, and building opportunities within home communities. It also strives to promote the stories of Indigenous employees to help young people identify and aspire to, and to make the organization as barrier-free as possible for Indigenous employees.

About the Musqueam Indian Band

Musqueam people have lived in their traditional territory, what is currently called Vancouver and the surrounding areas, for thousands of years. Some of their ancient histories describe the landscape as it was over 8,000 years ago.

Today, the Musqueam community is comprised of more than 1,300 members, many living on a small portion of traditional territory, known as the Musqueam Indian Reserve, located south of Marine Drive near the mouth of the Fraser River southeast of the University of B.C.