Two-Spirit identity theory

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In queer theory, Two-Spirit identity theory is a discourse on third gender roles in Native American cultures which has developed since the 1990s.

History of Two-Spirits[edit]

We'wha, a Zuni Two-Spirit, circa 1886.

The history of two-spirits among Indigenous American culture dates back hundreds, if not thousands, of years and has been documented in 150 North American tribes (Roscoe, 1991). Throughout history, a person who was recognized as two-spirit was someone who identified with both male and female gender roles, and so two-spirit is essentially a third gender recognized in Indigenous cultures. The perspective among Indigenous Americans was that having this third gender was a strength their society benefited from. In the Zuni culture a person's gender was not assigned at birth, but was grown into at 3 or 4 years of age.

Perhaps the most famous two-spirit Indigenous American was from the Zuni tribe during the late 1800s in New Mexico. Her name was We'wha, and she died in 1896, but not before befriending anthropologists who were able to document her story (Roscoe, 1991). One of the female anthropologists who was close to her described We'wha as “…the strongest character and the most intelligent of the Zuni tribe” (Roscoe, 1991, p. 29) The history of this particular two-spirit gives us a peek into the historical role of two-spirits within Indigenous American culture.

In the tradition of the Zuni tribe, children were not referred to as girl or boy until around the age of five. Prior to this age they were simply referred to as “cha’le” or child (Roscoe, 1991, p. 32). In We’Wha’s case she reported identifying with the female gender as early as the age of three (p. 33). This writer refers to We’Wha as both “he” and “she” because according to Roscoe (1991), her family referred to her using both genders' terms. The reason was because in that time two-spirits were not thought of as just a man or just a woman but as embodying characteristics of both genders in a single person, making them a more whole human being.

In Indigenous American culture two-spirits were seen as valuable members of society who made important contributions to their communities. Regrettably, White Europeans did not feel the same. European culture did not know where to place two-spirits, since their own ideals and values regarding gender and sexuality were in place to suppress exactly this kind of behavior (Roscoe, 1991, p. 5). Historically, European Americans have attempted to apply their Cartesian definitions of gender to Indigenous Americans — unsuccessfully, since many Indigenous tribes do not recognize only two genders like the Western world does. In Western culture the two genders (male and female) sole purpose is for procreation (Wilson, 1996). To them, two-spirits were seen as “freaks of nature, demons, deviants, perverts, sinners, and corrupters” (Roscoe, 1996, p. 4).

In his book, The Zuni Man-Woman, Will Roscoe used the term Berdache to refer to two-spirits. Roscoe (1991) states that the origin of Berdache is French and is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as, “a boy kept for unnatural purposes” (Roscoe, 1991, p. 5). Terms that had been used previously include transvestite and transsexual. Roscoe asserts that the term transvestite was not appropriate because two-spirit’s did not dress as the other gender for exhibitionist reasons and transsexual did not fit because two-spirits were not just men who dressed like women but their own gender that embodied both male and female traits (Roscoe, 1991). However, the term Berdache is not relevant either.

Dr. Alex Wilson author of How We Find Ourselves: Identity Development and Two-Spirit People (1996) explains that two-spirit is an appropriate term because it does not merely attempt to identify a man that dresses like a woman but exemplifies the inherent relationship between sexuality and cultural identity that cannot be separated in Indigenous culture. Wilson (1996) asserts that while the term Berdache was meant to describe an “effeminate” or “morphological male” the term two-spirit encompasses the fact that “sexuality, gender, culture, community and spirituality” are all interconnected for the Indigenous American (p. 334). Two-spirit is a term that can be used with pride because it is something that has been picked by the ones it serves to identify. Through hundreds of years of European American’s trying to suppress Indigenous American cultural and religious practices, two-spirits are trying to create a positive identity for themselves that better describes their position in society.

Development of Two-Spirit identity theory[edit]

Interview with Albert Mcleod, the director of the Two-Spirited People of Manitoba about the effects of the Indian Residential School Experience on Two-spirited aboriginal people.

According to Dr. Alexandria "Alex" Wilson, "psychological theories have typically treated sexual and racial identity as discrete and independent developmental pathways" and while these simple divisions make it easier to generate theory, it is less likely they will apply to all individuals or describe real developmental experiences (Wilson, 1996, p. 333). Citing the lack of research on the developmental experiences of gay and lesbian Indigenous Americans, Wilson (1996) used her own coming out story and personal experiences as the foundational case study for her research on the impact of multiple forms of oppression on identity development and the poor fit between traditional identity theories and Indigenous Americans.

Wilson, a Harvard educated two-spirit, is of Swampy Cree descent from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, Canada (Ottawa, 2009). Growing up in small isolated communities, Wilson found herself living in a dualistic existence, one where she found support and strength at home, but faced a “devastating” combination of racism and homophobia in the community (Wilson, 1996, p. 339). Like many of her two-spirit counterparts, Wilson left home to escape the racism of her small community as well as to explore her sexual identity; however the coming out process was difficult as she was unable to find a positive support system among the “predominantly White gay scene” (p. 339). Her struggle is typical of the coming out experiences of Indigenous people who seek recognition from mainstream communities only to find that they are the most empowered within their Indigenous communities (Wilson, 1996). According to Wilson (1996), this means that “the positive bicultural adaptation that sexual and racial identity models prize” is not appropriate for two-spirit people (p. 340).

Established minority and sexual identity theories[edit]

Established minority and sexual identity theories seek to explain minority identity development and how they apply to Wilson’s theory of indigenous American two-spirits. Wilson presents three theories that others have unsuccessfully applied to two-spirit identity development.

Lesbian sexual identity theory[edit]

Psychotherapy with Lesbian Clients: Theory Practice by Kristine Falco combines five different models of sexual identity development theory, in an effort to provide a better description of sexual identity development of lesbians (Wilson, 1996). The five stages she found were: Stage 1 - Awareness of being different Stage 2 - Acknowledge homosexual feelings, Stage 3 – Engages in sexual experimentation, Stage 4 - Learns to function in both worlds (passing), and Stage 5 - Learns to integrate both social and private identities (Wilson, 1996). Falco's theory may serve to make sense of sexual identity development for white or mainstream America but for Indigenous Americans it does not fit into their cultural beliefs and attitudes. As explained by Angela Aragon in her book, Challenging Lesbian Norms (2006), “Native conceptualizations of time are not linear…therefore two-spirit people may not subscribe to the notion that they must quickly progress through successive phases to achieve a preordained end…” (Aragon, 2006, p. 140).

Black racial identity theory[edit]

William Cross's Black Racial Identity Development model is linear one with five distinct stages. As described by Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) the first stage is the, Preencounter stage, in which the individual’s worldview is still largely Eurocentric. The second stage, Encounter, signifies some crisis or event that causes the person to question the “place of Blacks in the world” (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005, p. 26). The third stage, Immersion-Emersion, is an in-between stage where individuals are searching for a new understanding of what it means to be Black. Then, according to Cross, they move on to the fourth stage, Internalization, in which a new worldview emerges. The fifth and final stage is, Internalization-Commitment, where the person reaches a self-actualization of blackness and sees their racial identity as positive (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Wilson (1996) asserts that this model does is not applicable to Indigenous Americans at all and it is assumed that the reason is due to the model's linear nature and the fact that the cultural aspects of Black Americans do not translate to Indigenous Americans.

Minority identity development model[edit]

The Minority Identity Development Model is a five stage theory developed by Susan Barrett (Wilson, 1996). Stage 1 - Conformity, is characterized by shame. Stage 2 - Dissonance, a time of confusion and conflict while the person learns more about their sexual nature but are also strongly invested in the dominant culture. Stage 3 - Resistance and Immersion, begins to reject dominant culture and cleave to minority culture. Stage 4 – Introspective Period, finds that she cannot fully exist in the minority culture alone and stage 5 – Synergetic Articulation and Awareness, is finally able to “integrate minority identity into all aspects of her life” (Wilson, 1996, p. 337). Even though this model is supposed to be applicable to any minority that is not a part of the dominant European Male group, Wilson explains that just like the other theories it does not work for two-spirits (Wilson, 1996).

None of these models, Wilson asserts, suffice to explain the dual impact of homophobia and racism that are experienced together as in the case of two-spirits. She says “we two-spirits become self-actualized when we become what we’ve always been, empowered by our location in our communities” (Wilson, 1996, p. 337). In other words, the combination of all their characteristics together is what makes up their identity.

In his book Becoming Two-Spirit, Brian Joseph Gilley describes the process individuals go through as a Two-Spirit person (Gilley, 2006). Gilley (2006) frames this process through the idea of being accepted in multiple cultures. The specific cultures that are referred to in this process of acceptance are Western culture and the indigenous cultures of North America (Gilley, 2006). The conflict of a Two-Spirit individual being accepted in society is centered on the ideas of sex, gender and cultural values (Alberts, Nakayama & Martin, 2007). Sex is traditionally seen as a biological distinction that separates male and female (Alberts, Nakayama & Martin, 2007). Gender is a social construction of what it means to be male or female in a specific culture. Cultural values are the core values of a group of people (Alberts, Nakayama & Martin, 2007).

Ways of belonging[edit]

There are three specific ways that a Two-Spirit individual operates in multiple cultural standards. The first is the processes of passing; the second is the establishment of one’s own values and the third is balancing the cultural standards of all cultures one operates in (Gilley, 2006). These three reasons are important to understand because Two-Spirit people are currently living in multiple cultures and they have a firm historical identity in these cultures (Gilley, 2006).

Clashing values[edit]

Living in multiple cultures at the same time can create a clashing of values (Gilley, 2006). Two-Spirit individuals have developed the process of passing to deal with the clashing values of multiple cultures (Gilley, 2006). Passing is being able to present yourself as an appropriate part of any cultural entity at any given time (Gilley, 2006). This process can range from dressing a certain way to being ambiguous about what ones beliefs are (Gilley, 2006). Two-Spirit individuals find themselves passing when they are attempting to gather acceptance while simultaneously avoiding certain parts of their identity (Gilley, 2006). This type of passing activity could strongly be associated with an avoidance strategy of behavior (Canary, Cody & Manusov, 2008).

Establishing Two-Spirit identity[edit]

By avoiding the pressures surrounding an individual, they are capable of establishing their own identity (Gilley, 2006). This identity for native Two-Spirit individuals arises from an acceptance of their native cultural values and a rejection of Western values (Gilley, 2006). This rejection specifically applies to Western conventions regarding race and sexual identity as the Two-Spirit person’s identity is maintained by their sexual orientation as both male and female and their commitment to their cultural of ethnicity (Wilson, 1996).

Traditionally, Western culture categorized Two-Spirit individuals by using the term berdache (Spanbauer, 1991). This term meant effeminate male to Western ears (Blackwood, 1984). Native cultural perspectives have historically defined Two-Spirit people as individuals who were born in balance in the midst of a bipolar sexual world (Wilson, 1996). Often a Native American rejection of Two-Spirit individuals comes from an outside influence of Western cultural ideals (Gilley, 2006). The identity of most Two-Spirit individuals resides in the historical interpretation of who they are to their indigenous community (Gilley, 2006). They are respected and seen as a part of nature’s natural expression in this historical view (Gilley, 2006). Through the combination of historical reference and social ambiguity, Two-Spirit individuals maintain their own unique identity (Gilley, 2006).

Understanding cultural differences[edit]

Balancing cultural standards involves first understanding them (Wilson, 1996). Western cultures have often seen life from a perspective of dualism (Wilson, 1996). This dualistic thought is centered on the idea that elements can be separated into parts (Wilson, 1996). However, in regards to human gender and sexuality, there seems to be conflicting evidence when regarding dualism (Sykes, 2004). Human beings all begin as females in the womb and then continue as females or are manipulated by hormones to become men (Sykes, 2004). In fact, there is but one element on the Y-chromosome itself that causes men to become male (Sykes, 2004). In the presence of these facts, the dualistic approach to sexuality seems rather limited (Wilson, 1996).

From an indigenous perspective, the guiding principle when dealing with gender is ethics (Wilson, 1996). Specifically, these ethics involve non-interference with others; the hiding of anger; the promotion of gratitude; withdrawing to keep peace and the principle of timing things right (Wilson, 1996). These ethics are naturally understood by Two-Spirit individuals if they grow up in proximity to their culture (Wilson, 1996). Balancing for Two-Spirit people involves understanding dualism and their own ethics (Wilson, 1996).

Application of the Two-Spirit identity theory[edit]

As Dr. Alex Wilson’s two-spirit identity theory is inclusive of people who are underrepresented and who have been discriminated against and judged based on their personal identity, this theory can be applied by higher education practitioners across the United States and perhaps around the world. Two-spirit identity theory concepts can be applied, not only to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community, but it can also be used when working with students from diverse and underrepresented communities. By understanding two-spirit identity theory, educators, faculty and staff, will be able to inspire students from many different backgrounds, whom at one point may have felt or feel excluded from their society. Higher education practitioners can motivate these students to contribute to society by, using their talents, having students acknowledge and embrace who they are as individuals, in order to have an inclusive college campus. As a result of practitioners using two-spirit theory concepts, institutions of education may see an increase of student involvement, engagement, unique perspective and a distinct dialogue from students whose voices may have never been heard on college campuses.

Higher Education practitioners, who work behind the college scenes and those who have direct student contact can have an impact on their students by taking the first step, which is to further the study of the Two-Spirit identity and value initiatives from the community and educational centers that promote a Two-Spirit identity (Wilson, 1996). Also, Wilson (1996) asserts that “educators and school counselors need to acknowledge that this is the reality for our community” (p. 341). Again, the community can be any group of students who may feel excluded from the mainstream population. In addition, Wilson (1996) encourages educators to also present the history and the cultures to youth, “through accessing written texts” (p. 341). Lastly, Wilson also recommends that “educators and developmental theorist study the resistance, strength, and liberation strategies two-spirit people employ as a part of their development of an empowered identity (Wilson, 1996).

See also[edit]


  • Aragon, A.P. (Ed.). (2006). Challenging lesbian norms: Intersex, transgender, intersectional, and queer perspectives. Binghamton, New York: Harrington Park Press.
  • Alberts, J.K., Nakayama, T.K. & Martin, J.N. (2007). Human communication in society. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.
  • Barrett, S. E. (1990). Paths toward diversity: An intrapsychic perspective. In L.S. Brown & M.P.P. Root (Eds.), Diversity and complexity in feminist therapy (pp. 41–52). New York Harrington Park Press. Retrieved from
  • Blackwood, E. (1984). "Sexuality and gender in certain native American tribes: The case of cross-gender females". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 10: 27–42. doi:10.1086/494112. 
  • Canary, D.J., Cody, M.J. & Manusov, V.L. (2008). Interpersonal communication: A goals-based approach. New York: Bedford/St. Martins.
  • Gilley, B.J. (2006). Becoming two-spirit: Gay identity and social acceptance in Indian country. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Head, M. (2008). Congratulations to Dr. Alexandria Wilson! Our first Harvard graduate. In Opaskwayak Educational Authority’s Post Secondary Success Stories. Retrieved from
  • Pascarella, E. & Terenzini, P. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Roscoe, W. (1991). The Zuni man-woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  • Spanbauer, T. (1991). The man who fell in love with the moon. New York: Harper Perennial.
  • Sykes, B. (2004). Adam’s curse: The science that reveals our genetic destiny. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Wilson, A. (1996). "How we find ourselves: Identity development and two-spirit people". Harvard Educational Review 66: 303–317. 
  • Wilson, A. (2009). Coming into two-spirit identities: In her own words. In Ottawa ACADRE researchers and their experiences. Retrieved from

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