Gay American Indians celebrate 40 years

  • by Yael Chanoff
  • Wednesday June 24, 2015
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Over breakfast at Sam's Diner, Randy Burns is telling the story of We'wha. We'wha was a 19th century Zuni artist and priestess, a "cultural ambassador" who famously met with President Grover Cleveland. "By today's standards, We'wha would be a transgender or third gender person," Burns said.

Burns is a co-founder of Gay American Indians, the first organization for queer Natives in the country.

"When We'wha passed away into the spirit world," Burns said, "you know, the Zuni village at the time was separated. Men here, women buried here. So they had a big catfight about what cemetery he belongs in. The women went and were fighting with the men. They said no, we raised her. We taught her how to make pottery, we taught her how to weave. And the men said no, he sat in ceremony with us, he's a dude."

In the end, they buried We'wha on the women's side, dressed in women's clothing, but with a pair of pants underneath.

"Talk about a traditional two-spirit person," Burns said.

That burial was in 1896, about a century before the term two-spirit would be coined. The Zuni language already had a gender role for people like We'wha, called Lhamana. Most Native cultures had diverse concepts of sex and gender.

As Burns said, "It was not about what you had between your legs. It's what you brought home to your people."

2015 marks 40 years since Burns, a gay man, co-founded GAI along with the late Barbara Cameron.

Now, two-spirit is a widely used umbrella term for the diverse gender and sexual identities in North American Native cultures. At least 25 organizations exist for two-spirit people around the U.S., and multiple annual gatherings bring two-spirit people from around the world together.

"Today there are two-spirit movements all over in the country. There's two-spirit encampments and gatherings in the summer months," said Clyde Hall, a founding member of GAI.


Humble beginnings

None of that existed when GAI started. The historical literature was sparse and riddled with biased descriptions of Natives with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. They were called sodomites, sinners and "berdaches," a French word meaning "kept boy."

"When GAI started, it was a social club," Burns said. It was a small group of LGBT Natives who met in the basement of the old Indian Center at Valencia and Duboce. Part of the meetings was sharing whatever they knew about their histories.

"We did our own tribal research," Burns said. "A lot of the stories were shared by gay elders. And they would whisper.

"Many of the gay men, the elders back then, the only outlet back then was the gay bars," Burns added. The barstool storytellers were mostly people of Burns' parents' generation who had moved to San Francisco during the controversial Relocation Program, a 1956 law that incentivized Native Americans to leave their lands and move to cities, including San Francisco. It was part of the overall "termination policy" of the 1940s to 1950s, which included several laws aimed at ending tribal sovereignty and assimilating the Native Americans.

Their knowledge was precious. Burns' own parents, along with many Natives in their generation, had been to boarding schools where Native children were punished for speaking their language or practicing their religions.

"There's a lot of PTSD from the boarding schools," he said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. "They took away tribal language, it was forbidden. You didn't have the right to be Native. Everything Native was washed out."

GAI members would eventually compile their knowledge, gained through oral history and archival research, in the GAI History Project. They published the result in the Journal of Homosexuality in 1987, along with a list of 135 tribes and their words for two-spirit people.

But even as GAI members were reclaiming their history, they were fighting in the present against both a gay culture and a Native community that often insisted they didn't exist.

Burns, 60, remembers tabling at a UC Berkeley powwow soon after GAI was founded.

"So we were invited, no problem! But then we put our big old banner out. It said 'Gay American Indians, San Francisco.' And all the old people, all the homophobes said, where are they from?" Burns recalled. "The students asked us to take down our banner and leave, because they didn't want any more trouble."

In these situations, Hall said, Burns didn't go down without a fight.

"I can just see him now with his hands on his hips, arguing with these people, saying 'girlfriend, what are you thinking? We were here a long time, you don't know your own ways. You don't know your own culture,'" Hall said. "Randy was right in their face. He's a brave warrior person."

There was also the struggle in the largely white male San Francisco gay scene. In the early 1980s Cameron was among a group of queer women of color who led a protest at Pride. They stormed the stage, demanding more input in the planning.

"They wanted women's input, minority input. At the time it was called Third World," Burns said.

Actions like these were planned and discussed at the unofficial LGBT center at 32 Page Street, and at bars like Esta Noche.

"Esta Noche �" that was our social, political place for brown boys and girls. That was where GAI partied," Burns said.

They often couldn't party in the Castro.

"Amongst some of the bars in the Castro, they didn't like people of color. So they'd give you a bad time, and you'd have to fork over these three forms of ID to get in. That's one of the main reasons we started Gay American Indians as a group. To have a place at the table," Hall said.

That place at the table soon became a matter of life or death. GAI lost its first member to AIDS in 1985. The group started the Indian AIDS Project in 1987, providing home care and support, resources, and referrals to Native people living with AIDS.

Now, the memorial programs for the 82 GAI members lost to AIDS are a part of Burns' archives. They sit alongside remembrances of GAI members who were murdered for being transgender. Three transgender members were killed in the first years of the organization, Burns said.

"Yes, there are new words for transgender people and transgender youth. But they've always been here," Burns said. "That's part of the legacy I want to leave behind, is that tribute. Making sure there is honor to these beautiful transgender persons."


Some recognition

As Burns' archive was growing, academia was beginning to take notice. One of the first books to focus on berdache history, by anthropologist Walter Williams, came out in 1987.

"It was the first book written on our Native LGBT community," Burns said. But it failed to recognize that LGBT Natives still existed.

"Williams �" he was saying the last known berdache, which would have been Hasteen Klah, died around 1928. So in the press, Williams is saying we're all dead. You're saying we're all dead? Then why are we here?" Burns said.

Williams is now in prison for child molestation. Burns said that in the 1980s, his actions were suspiciously exploitative.

"He was going to bed with his informants. He was going to bed with all these gay Native men. And look at where he is today," Burns said.

Williams showed up to a GAI party in 1987, Burns said, and a GAI member, "a Native lesbian sister," confronted him. This led to a series of meetings with the American Anthropological Association, which ditched the term "berdache" and took up the use of two-spirit a decade later.

"All of you PhDers, non-Native people, stop being the gatekeepers. You're not gatekeepers of Native queer studies. We are," Burns said.

Meanwhile, the two-spirit movement was growing �" on its own terms. The first national gathering of two-spirit people took place at the 1982 Gay Rodeo in Reno ("that happened in a strange way. But hey, gay cowboys, gay Indians �" we took together like ducks with water," Hall said.) Hall himself was the first speaker at the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

Now, a new generation is doing the work. Locally, the Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits, or BAAITS, was founded in 1999.

"GAI used to always march at the front of the Pride parade. In 2000, BAAITS started marching behind them. Now, BAAITS marches in front, with GAI behind," Burns said.

Hall said GAI is part of local Native history.

"GAI were the grandfathers and grandmothers and foundation of all of that," Hall said. "Our little ragtag group of Indian people started it so many decades ago. It's part of history. And it needs to be recognized."

After breakfast, Burns headed to the main library. He said We'wha is featured there, in a mural in the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center on the third floor. On the way he passes the Pioneer Monument, that towering bronze statue that depicts a Native American seated on the ground, seemingly submitting to the looming figures of a cowboy and a Franciscan friar. When Burns gets to the center, he cranes his neck to look at the mural on the ceiling. He can't find We'wha. Finally he sees the name, half-obscured by a sprinkler head.

"It's just a dot up there. But just being at a major main library �" it's a public institution," Burns said.

The stacks themselves are a testament to GAI. A body of work, books where two-spirit people can learn about themselves, lines the shelves. Among them is Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology , published by GAI in 1988.

Burns isn't done writing history. He's working on two more books, a history of the AIDS epidemic and a personal memoir. He's still trying to answer the question that brought GAI together in the first place.

"Who are we, historically speaking? Are we alive or dead?" Burns asked. "The way I see it, we're a sleeping giant. And we're waking up."