Brings Plenty-Wright, a 32-year-old Portlander and Klamath/Modoc, is the founder of the Portland Two Spirit Society (PTSS). “Two Spirit” is a term that is used broadly to refer to LGBTQ Native Americans and more specifically to reflect an identity that encompasses both masculine and feminine energies.
“Two Spirit to me is a way of identifying and respecting the balance of my culture, cultural roles, my gender, and my sexuality,” Brings Plenty-Wright says. “I identify as Two Spirit as I feel it fits better than any other description; it feels right and comfortable to me. It identifies me more as a whole person. I don’t really use any other words to describe my sexuality. I have used gay and queer but don’t feel like that really fits, and I don’t like lesbian or dyke.”
PTSS was formed in May 2012 as a social group for Two Spirits and their families but has since grown to take on a cultural and educational role. Brings Plenty-Wright says she is working on obtaining non-profit status for the group, which is currently self-funded. Becoming a non-profit organization would give PTSS access to the resources to expand its increasing youth focus.
The group recently joined forces with 2SY, the Two Spirit Youth group run by the Native American Rehabilitation Association and is working to develop a youth curriculum and tool kit including coming out stories and cultural workshops. Brings Plenty-Wright says PTSS is also available to talk at schools, workplaces, and conferences about Two Spirit history and Two Spirit youth.
“We are excited to see what the future holds for the group and are hopeful for our non-profit status and potential funders,” she says. “We hope to be a strong resource and safe space for both the Native community and LGBTQI community.”
As a youth, Brings Plenty-Wright couldn’t find the right words to identify herself until she came upon “Two Spirit” in 2003. The term not only felt more authentic, it also seemed to elicit a better reaction in her Native community.
“I came to claim it as my own, defining what it meant to me. I came ‘out’ when I was 15 using the term ‘gay,’ but always knew I was different since I was about 5 years old,” she says. “I find that I have a more positive reaction when I define myself as Two Spirit. It seems to become a conversation where I get to personalize myself and all that I am more so than just focus on who I love. I find in some people who may be homophobic the focus becomes the appropriateness of what I do in my bedroom.”
“Two Spirits were often the first point of contact in a tribe, which is how a lot of our Two Spirit histories have been lost and or forgotten. With European contact Two Spirits were often the first disposed of as they were seen as not only savage but freaks for [not] dressing or living as they were born,” she says. “This lead to a lot of tribes hiding their Two Spirits or having that role in their cultures move ‘under ground,’ thus creating a fear base, which we now recognize has contributed, along with forced religion, to homophobia within some Native communities.”
Knowing this history, Brings Plenty-Wright was initially nervous about being out. Her Native culture is her primary identity and one she couldn’t bear to be shunned from.
“I have been terrified at times at the thought of losing my Native community, but I have found in my honesty and my humble and respectful approach I have befriended and left an impact with some of the most homophobic Natives and non-Natives for that matter,” she says.
Her experiences as a Native person in the mainstream LGBTQ community, however, have not been as fulfilling.
“I feel like my history with the queer community has fluctuated and, mostly because I haven’t seen my face, I haven’t felt historically represented. And my first introduction to the queer community in Portland was one of just partying, which is just not me,” Brings Plenty-Wright says. “My culture is so important to me and I just haven’t felt the same cultural connect that I have with the Native community within the LGBTQ community. I was asked once how do I identify when I wake up in the morning and I always say Klamath/Modoc, as I go to bed praying in my language and wake up praying in my language. Now does that diminish my gender or sexuality? Definitely not. But it speaks to my worldview and how I choose to identify.”
She describes the worldview her Klamath/Modoc culture inspires as one that celebrates differences as gifts from the creator and values the unique roles of individuals in society — both qualities that bolster her work with PTSS.
The society’s stated mission is to provide resources for LGBTQI Native American/Alaskan Natives that allow them to share and connect and to reclaim and restore the culture, community, and traditional roles of Two Spirit people. According to Brings Plenty-Wright, those roles include negotiators, historians, healers, name givers, caretakers, foster parents, holy people, warriors, and leaders. A number of those roles are activated in the organization’s focus on youth.
“PTSS is growing slowly but surely and has gained momentum serving youth more than anything, which is exciting for our future,” she says. “Knowing our youth are identifying earlier and finding their role and voice within our many communities is something I am proud to witness as someone who didn’t have that in my own youth.”
PTSS will be starting up its monthly potlucks again soon. For more information, visit facebook.com/Portland2Spirits.