Manitoulin holds first LGBTQ Two Spirit Health Awareness Conference

Aaron Bowerman of Sheguiandah speaks about his experience coming out during the panel discussion at the LGBTQ Two Spirit Health Awareness Conference. photos by Robin Burridge

AUNDECK OMNI KANING—Noojmowin Teg received overwhelming support for the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered or Queer/Questioning) Two Spirit Health Awareness Conference it hosted last week in Aundeck Omni Kaning.

“It went really well,” said conference organizer, Noojmowin Teg Child and Youth Mental Health and Addiction Worker Sarah Seabrook. “We had over 100 service providers attend the first day of the conference and just over 70 the second day (which was open to service providers and the Island community). It was beyond my expectations.”

Ms. Seabrook was just in the process of reviewing the conference evaluation forms when The Expositor spoke to her on Monday, but she said so far the response has been very positive.

Presenter Blu Waters speaks about the role of two spirited  individuals and cultural practices.
Presenter Blu Waters speaks about the role of two spirited individuals and cultural practices.

“Everyone seemed to really get a lot from the conference and provided a lot of positive feedback,” she said. “I think Manitoulin is way more advanced (in terms of LGBTQ acceptance) than people think and the interest in the conference really showed that.”

The speakers at the conference included Donna Turner from Rainbow Health Ontario, Teddy Syrette from Egale Canada Human Rights Trust and Blu Waters, an elder on campus at Seneca College.

Ms. Waters spoke about two spirited individuals and cultural practices during her presentation ‘Reclaiming the Two Spirit.’

Ms. Waters began her presentation by speaking about the importance of the medicine wheel and keeping your life balance, giving the example of the harm it can do to a two spirited person if they are forced off balance.

“Back before colonization, we never had the labels we had today,” said Ms. Waters. “Traditionally roles were based on the gifts and skills given to people from the Creator.  Two spirited individuals were regarded as gifts from the Creator and were honoured by their community. They were taught all the skills in the community and were believed to be able to hear the Creator. They were trusted people with a lot of responsibility.”

Ms. Waters said that when First Nations ways were taken away from them by colonization and residential schools, the understanding of two spirited people and their role was lost.

As a two spirited person, elder and traditional teacher, Ms. Waters said she is trying to help others understand the role of two spirited people.

Manitoulin service providers team up to discuss LGBTQ health in the workplace.
Manitoulin service providers team up to discuss LGBTQ health in the workplace.

Ms. Waters asked that elders who may have hesitations re-read the Seven Grandfather teachings. “We need to bring understanding back to communities about the role of two spirited people in the community and in ceremonies,” she added.

An individual in the audience asked if someone was a transgendered male if they had to wear skirts in traditional ceremonies.

Ms. Waters responded that if the individual identified as male, then they would perform traditional male roles during the ceremony.

On the second day of the conference, Boo Watson shared her story of coming out at the age of 17 and being on the forefront of the LGBTQ movement in Toronto.

“I was part of the first ever gay pride event in Toronto,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen—we were nervous.”

“In my late 20s my partner and I had two children and we were two of the first out lesbian mothers in Toronto,” Ms. Watson shared.

She also told a story of when Ontario first voted down gay marriage and she went to Queen’s Park to protest the decision. She and others had some of the protesters fake a fight and replaced the Ontario flag with a Rainbow flag.

Ms. Watson spoke of moving to Manitoulin and her fear of coming out.

“As of yesterday (the first day of the conference), Manitoulin catapulted forward and I now feel safe to come out,” said Ms. Watson.

Another highlight of the conference was the panel discussion. Panelists included: Aaron Bowerman, a two spirited youth from Sheguiandah First Nation who lives in Toronto and is a regional outreach and support service worker for the Ontario Aboriginal HIV/Aids Strategy; Eileen Letander-Trudeau, the president of the Equality Project, a youth group for sexual and gender exceptions and LGBTQ 2S  Allies in Wikwemikong, who identifies as pansexual, non-binary; David Jackson, the secretary of the Equality Project and identifies as an aboriginal trans man; Dagmar Werkmeister, who identifies as queer and lives and works on Manitoulin; Jamie Lee Oshkabewisens, a two spirited male youth from Wikwemikong; and Mason Forsell, a transgendered male youth from Sault Ste. Marie.

Each of the panelists took the floor to share their story prior to taking audience questions.

Among the many powerful stories was Mr. Bowerman’s, who spoke of how nervous he was to come out, but how accepting his community was.

“When I was 24 I officially came out in Sheg,” said Mr. Bowerman. “Everyone seems to know before you do, so the first person I told said she had already known. I slowly told 15-20 friends, asking each to not tell anyone until I had told everyone I wanted to tell in person first. Everyone I told was excited for me and very supportive. I had a positive experience coming out and I owe that to my community.”

It was a full house for the first ever Manitoulin LGBTQ Two Spirit Health Awareness Conference.
It was a full house for the first ever Manitoulin LGBTQ Two Spirit Health Awareness Conference.

David, a 15-year-old youth from Wikwemikong, shared a different story. He said he officially came out before starting Grade 9.

“I was lucky to have an understanding guidance counsellor and when we were selecting courses and I wrote my name as ‘David,’ I was asked it that is what I wanted to be called at school,” said David.

David said that he was called his chosen name and male pronouns at school, but that his mom is still having difficultly and calls him by his birth name and pronoun.

“I think that it is hard for people to understand trans,” explained David. “I think gay is easier for people, but both make it hard to be part of our culture.”

David told a story or learning about water walks and other cultural events in the community when he was told he would be required to wear skirts in order to participate in ceremonies.

The conference also included an evening workshop for doctors, nurse practitioners, registered nurses and medical students on trans health, with 21 area health care workers in attendance.