Building bridges for Native LGBTQ: ‘You’re not alone’

In any community, finding someone you trust and can say “I’m gay” to can be difficult. In a remote village seemingly disconnected from the world, it can feel down right impossible.

“When you live in a village you can feel like you’re the only gay person,” Tlingit artist Ricky Tagaban said.

Tagaban, along with members of the Juneau Pride committee, decided to do something this year to connect the Native community with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. A “Two Spirit” reception for Native LGBTQ people to connect with one another will kick of this year’s Pride schedule at 1 p.m. Saturday at Northern Light United Church.

Two Spirit is a term in indigenous cultures that refers to a person who possesses a man’s and woman’s spirit in one body. It’s an idea that Native groups have embraced long before colonization but is sometimes forgotten in the modern day.

Tagaban said he hopes that on Saturday, which is also the end of Celebration before thousands of Natives will leave Juneau for homes across Southeast Alaska and the nation, that at least one gay person from a remote village will stop by the Two Spirit reception and find comfort in such open solidarity.

“I want to create a space for people to connect,” Tagaban said. “We’re a lot stronger as a community.”

Tagaban, 26, said he came out 11 years ago and found the most acceptance and love from members of his Native dance group. The idea that homophobia has spread to every end of the Native community isn’t true, he said. From what Tagaban has been able to learn from various Native circles, being two spirit has long been considered an advantage — shaman were often two spirit. For Tagaban, an accomplished weaver, being two spirit gave him the opportunity to learn crafts reserved for only women to learn.

James Hoagland, chair of Juneau’s Pride committee, said he also hopes the Two Spirit reception can be a place for people to share stories and build a community of allies.

“There are already two spirit Natives connected to these two communities, that’s what they live with every day, but they’re not served unless they are considered as a whole person,” Hoagland said. “There’s this community out there that I think is perhaps underserved by both communities.”

Tagaban said moves by leaders in the Native community have given a lot for Native LGBTQ people to be hopeful about. Native councils approved same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the matter. Locally, there has been support as well.

On Saturday, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott is expected to attend the event. Tlingit Haida Central Council President Richard Peterson is also scheduled to speak, as is Tagaban. Alaska Native Sisterhood former Grand President Freda Westman will be in attendance.

Tagaban said he hopes a lot of people he doesn’t know — people who might feel alone when they leave Celebration back to their home towns — will also attend.

“My hope is that people from villages come and, if you live in a remote place and feel alone, you take advantage of this opportunity and connect with people and realize you’re not alone.”

At the event, guests can enjoy smoked salmon, pilot bread, coffee, tea and other potluck meals that guests bring. The reception is free and open for anyone to attend.

• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or paula.solis@juneauempire.com.

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