The LGBTQ+ community is made up of many cultures and identities. One such perhaps lesser know identity is that of two spirit.

Two spirit is a term used to describe a person who embodies the spiritual qualities of both male and female genders within the unique context of Native American culture. While the term itself was coined in 1990, the identity has existed among many tribes for generations, and each tribal nation has their own word, roles, and traditions for two spirit people. Traditionally, a two spirit must be recognized as such by the elders in their tribe, and in many tribes, two spirits were highly regarded and respected due to their service to elders and youth and knowledge of particular traditional medicine.

For many, male two spirits are considered to be a third gender (feminine man) and female two spirits a fourth gender (masculine woman). The term is not interchangeable with gay, lesbian, transgender, or queer, but rather used as an umbrella term that acknowledges gender fluidity and the continuum of identity and expression.

Two spirit differs from Western ideas of sexuality and identity in that it is not necessarily about sexual preference, but rather fulfilling a spiritual role. Prior to European contact, sexuality was not tied to gender identity. The intolerance of homosexuality of most Europeans had a large impact on the long-held beliefs and practices of many Native Americans. As Europeans began interacting with tribal nations, many societies began to incorporate their ideals and two spirits, or berdaches as Europeans referred to them, became stigmatized. (The term berdache was used for centuries, but in many languages it translates to “kept boy” or “male prostitute,” and to avoid these definitions that have derogatory connotations the term two spirit was coined.) In the latter half of the 1900s, the berdache became an honored figure for many scholars as they began to reconstruct a romantic history of Native American cultures. Ironically, this was a time when many gay, lesbian, transgender, and two spirit people were being disowned and abused in their reservations. Many left their reservations to seek new lives and greater acceptance in cities.

The Kumeyaay: San Diego’s Indigenous People

The Kumeyaay, also known as Tipai-Ipai or Diegueño as the Spanish called them, are the native people of what is today San Diego. It is widely agreed that the Kumeyaay have occupied the region for at least 12,000 years, the equivalent of 600 generations. Today there are 13 surviving Kumeyaay bands in the United States and four in Baja California, Mexico. The Kumeyaay Nation reaches from San Diego to Imperial Counties and 60 miles south into Mexico.

For thousands of years, the San Diego region provided a variety of resources from nourishment from flora, fauna and big and small game, to raw materials for tools, clothing, and structures. As European settlers began to move into the area, the Kumeyaay had to adapt their ways of life, often by force, and much of the landscape that they relied upon degraded due to the introduction of non-native, invasive flora and domesticated animals.

The first known Europeans to make contact with the Kumeyaay were the Spanish in 1542, led by Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo, when they sailed into what is today known as San Diego Bay. Father Junipero Serra arrived in 1769 to establish the first Franciscan Mission in California at the ancient Kumeyaay village of Kosa’aay (Cosoy), what is today Old Town San Diego. The Spaniards were met with resistance as they tried to convert the Kumeyaay, take their land and govern them, and the Kumeyaay began to be pushed into the harsher desert and mountain areas of the region. By the early 1800s, the Mexicans, who had defeated the Spanish, had control of all the coastal tribal lands; until 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the current United States-Mexico border. The United States government began establishing reservations in Southern California in the 1860s and 1870s, many of which lacked adequate water supplies, affecting their agriculture and traditional ways of life.

Gaming became a significant source of revenue for many reservations beginning in the 1980s and helped bring economic stability to many of the tribes. Several organizations were formed to give the Kumeyaay, and other groups, a stronger voice in the community and government. In 1992, the Native Cultures Institute began organizing cross-border travel for members of tribes divided by international borders, including Kumeyaay separated by the U.S.-Mexico border. And in 1997, representatives from 12 of the Kumeyaay bands in San Diego formed the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee to work with museums and universities to implement the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Today, many important Kumeyaay leaders are actively involved in the local and state government to ensure that the rights of all their people, including those in the LGBTQ+ community, are respected.

Contemporary Issues

Within San Diego there has been a fair amount of progress and several key players involved in outreach and services for Native American LGBTQ+ communities over the last 35+ years. Jane Dumas, a member of the Jamul band of the Kumeyaay nation, helped found the San Diego American Indian Health Center in 1981, a recognized LGBT-friendly provider. In 2006, the Breaking Down Barriers program was established as part of Mental Health America of San Diego County. Its services include outreach and education for LGBT Native American Communities. The National American Indian & Alaska Native Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network (ATTC) has developed a Native American LGBTQ/Two-Spirit curriculum and training modules for specific issues facing the Native LGBTQ/Two Spirit community. The program was pilot tested by providers on the Viejas reservation of the Kumeyaay nation in June 2015.

In 2013, the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, a Kumeyaay tribe, was the first tribe in California, and only the fourth in the US, to recognize same sex marriage. Tribal Chairman Virgil Perez stated, “Although the Tribe has certainly come far, they won’t ever forget the sting of prejudice, or stand passively by when others suffer discrimination or denial of basic human rights. Native Americans have fought hard to establish and protect their own rights, and Santa Ysabel is determined to support our own, and other same sex couples in their struggle to be recognized and treated fairly as citizens of this great nation.”

Perhaps the most prominent LGBTQ+ activist of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel is Karen Vigneault. For more than 30 years she has been active in educating people both within and outside of indigenous communities about Kumeyaay traditions and the respected role two spirit people, or twin-spirit as she prefers to use, hold in tribal cultures. In addition to many recognitions and awards she has received for her work, she was inducted into the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame in 2008. She continues to be a strong advocate for women’s rights and most recently said the opening prayer and blessing at the San Diego Women’s March in March of 2018.

The Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay nation continues to have a visible presence in the LGBT community especially within the last few years, and have participated, along with several other Kumeyaays, in the San Diego Pride Parade.

Beyond San Diego, several two spirit societies have been created with the mission to restore and recover the role of two spirit people, providing support, education, and outreach. They have become a forum for the cultural, spiritual, and artistic expression of two spirit people, as well as the Native American LGBTQ+ community. The existence of two spirit societies today, and the efforts of activists such as Karen Vigneault, emphasizes that Native American traditions are living, breathing cultures, and the traditions and identities of the past are just as relevant today as they were generations ago.


Connelly Meschen is a volunteer for the Women’s Museum of California and an administrator for The Nonprofit Institute at the University of San Diego.

The Women’s Museum of California’s latest exhibit, Women of Pride, opens to the public Friday July 6th. The exhibit celebrates the women activists, artists, politicians, and everyday women of the LBGT movement.



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