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  • Writer's pictureKeneisha Charles

Co-Creating QTBIPOC Liberation for Climate Justice

A Two Spirit Indigenous person wearing traditional regalia attending a Pow Wow.

Photo via Arizona Public Media

Some tend to view trans identity as some sort of new progression. However, fluid and nonbinary gender identities have existed within many cultures for generations.

Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island traditionally honour more than two gender identities. Many now take on the contemporary term Two Spirit, however, individual nations also have their own terms such as the Winkte of the Lakota and the Nadleeh of the Navajo peoples. Aboriginal peoples in colonial “Australia” also honour diverse gender identities, with many today identifying as Brotherboys or Sistergirls.

In South Asia, the Mahābhārata and Kama Sutra reference people and deities who change genders and exist within fluid gender identities. Today, many who continue to live in these traditions identify as Hijras among other titles.

And all across the continent of Africa, peoples honoured fluid and changing gender identities. The Lugbara people honour Okule and Agule, transgender shamans and priests, and the Zulu honour Insangoma. Many peoples also honour gender fluid, androgynous, and intersex deities and spirits.

This is just a brief highlight of the varied, deep, and enduring histories of gender diversity across the world. Through all of these traditions, one thing remained the same: trans people were honoured and held important roles in their cultures and in their communities.

Being trans was far from abnormal. In fact, some argue that the term transgender doesn’t even apply to these peoples. “Trans” insinuates a transgression, going beyond, or defying boundaries of gender. However, these cultures had space and roles for Winkte and Hijras and Insangoma—there were no boundaries to cross to begin with.

Often, the case is not the same today. Where once there was complete acceptance, there is now often persecution, violence, and marginalization. So what happened? A key process connects them all: colonization.

Gender Binary and Transphobia as a Weapon of Colonization

As Indigenous professor Dr. Rain Prud’homme-Cranford explains, the gender binary as the “norm” was enforced by colonial western society. “It has to do with the connection between the body and shame, through a narrative of Christianity, capitalism and colonization,” she says. “You can’t separate those three. They exist as a triumvirate.”

She further explains:

“Many Indigenous societies have a history of gender spectrums but this was obscured and a culture of shame was built up around it. Creating a gender binary allowed for the settler colonial processes wherein Indigenous women were used as a commodity to gain access to land and have been sexualized, raped and exploited. Marginalized bodies, the bodies of people of colour, have constantly been used and abused within a Western construct.”

Queer aze Mexican-American artist and researcher Michael Paramo builds on how the gender binary was used as a weapon of violence against Indigenous peoples.

“The earliest colonizers in the Americas looked to the existing sexual and gender variance of Indigenous people as a means of marking them as racially inferior and uncivilized: a justification for a forever unjustified genocidal conquest,” they write. “European colonizers marked Indigenous gender and sexual variance as inferior for the purposes of asserting their white cisgender heterosexual manhood as the pinnacle of human existence.”

Hortense Spillers and other Black scholars contribute to this knowledge through a lens of anti-Black racism. Spillers writes of how through the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, African peoples became “flesh”. From distinct and diverse peoples—Igbo, Yoruba, Ashanti—they became an undistinguishable mass of Black abstract objects. This allowed Black people’s bodies to become sites for white people to enact their desires, domination, and abuse. Gender was not excluded from this process. Chattel slavery forcibly degendered African peoples and then regendered them into patriarchy, heteronormativity, and cisnormativity.

We see these legacies continue on today, with misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia within Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities.

As Paramo writes, “White European colonizers forcefully recruited Indigenous men to “defend colonial sexual morality in their own and all Indigenous people’s lives.” Through this violent colonial project, white European men reproduced their ideologies of gender and sexual “normalcy” in Indigenous men to become its new protectors, enforcers, and replicators.”

Ryan Ken enunciates the grief and violence of this:

“I want to sit with what it meant for colonialism to rob cultures of entire genders. Genders that were holy and sacred. The scale of that violence globally is hard to imagine. And today the cultures that colonialism produced try to rob us of sacred, holy genders again and again.”

Enforcing a gender binary and enacting violence against peoples with diverse genders became a strategy to advance colonization and capitalism. And as we’ve discussed in previous posts, both colonization and capitalism are key drivers of climate change and environmental injustices.

So what would it look like to do just the opposite for climate justice instead?

Co-Creating QTBIPOC Liberation for Climate Justice

Centring queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (QTBIPOC) is necessary for the climate movement.

Systemic oppressions are interconnected, and so pulling at the threads of one will also affect the other. As Paramo writes, “Cisheteropatriarchy holds its roots in colonialism, and dismantling and unlearning these Western agendas forced upon us is a necessary action in the liberation of all oppressed peoples. If we are to obliterate white supremacy, a key component of that necessary project is recognizing and dismantling transphobia as an ongoing destructive phenomenon directly rooted in colonialism.”

No one understands this better than QTBIPOC. And through the intersections of resistance that QTBIPOC embody, there is so much for the climate movement to learn.

bell hooks enunciates this perfectly as she reframes the definition of queer:

“Queer not as being about who you’re having sex with (that can be a dimension of it); but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”

As the climate movement seeks to reinvent a more just world for the present and a more sustainable world for the future, QTBIPOC leadership is not just valuable but vital.

It is impossible to address climate change without confronting colonization. And it is impossible to confront colonization without dismantling cisheteropatriarchy and showing up for QTBIPOC.

Trans people have always held sacred and valued roles within non-Western cultures. It’s time that we restore and honour QTBIPOC in every capacity and at every level—individual, institutional, and systemic.

Our world needs it.


About the Author

Keneisha wears rectangular glasses, a blue cardigan with a yellow top underneath. They wear gold hoops, a necklace with a cowrie pendant and their hair up in a yellow headwrap.

Keneisha Charles (they/them) is a Black queer non-binary activist, storyteller, poet, and musician dedicated to co-creating a liberatory future. They currently live on the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee in what’s commonly known as Toronto.

Connect with them on LinkedIn or Instagram.

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