When Sheila Lopez, 48, realized that her two older children identified as LGBTQ, the information set her on a path to rediscovering her Native American cultural traditions and a new understanding of gender and gender fluidity. Mother to Samantha, 31, Emanuel, 28, and Matthew, 19, Lopez is an electrical engineer living in Phoenix, Arizona, and is of Mexican and Navajo ancestry. She established the country’s first native PFLAG chapter in 2011 to support LGBTQ people and their families. In the future, Lopez hopes to continue educating others on LGBTQ issues, particularly those on Arizona’s Navajo reservations. This is her story.
What Is ‘Two-Spirit’?
- The term “two-spirit” identifies a traditional role in Native American societies held by someone deemed to be gifted with both a masculine and feminine spirit
- These highly valued individuals may be religious leaders, healers, warriors, hunters, caregivers, foster parents, teachers, counselors, advisers, artists, pottery makers or basket weavers. In essence, two-spirit roles restore balance and foster healing.
- The term is not synonymous or interchangeable with concepts like “gay” and “LGBTQ.” Two-spirit does not describe sexual orientation but an understanding of gender.
- The term was first coined to describe this tribal role at the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1990.
- From the Ojibwa words niizh manitoag, the term “two-spirit” is a modern way to refer to the wide variety of terms used across hundreds of Native American cultures to describe different genders, gender fluidity and the roles often assumed by these individuals. It does not replace the individual terms that Native American people use.
Sheila Lopez: They say that in the Navajo way, when you have a child who is gay or trans, it’s an extra-special blessing. And I totally agree, because my children really opened my eyes.
My mom is Navajo, from Greasewood, Arizona. Her father, my grandpa, was a medicine man. My dad is Mexican, from Winslow, Arizona, where I was born and raised at a time when there was a lot of discrimination. That kind of set the tone, unfortunately, for my reaction when my kids came out, because what I knew about gay people or trans people was that it was “bad,” or you made fun of it. Those were the two things I knew. Then I had my three children.
When my daughter was a senior in high school, I thought she might be seeing a girl. I decided we needed to talk.
“Are you dating this girl?” I asked her one afternoon while picking her up after school.
“Yes,” she said.
I thought, This can’t be. My daughter can’t be a lesbian. I don’t understand this. Maybe it’s because she hasn’t been with a boy. “You’re confused,” I told her.
I’ll never forget that day. I really wish I would’ve educated myself before I asked her, because my reaction wasn’t good. I just wasn’t prepared for that conversation.