Two spirits, one purpose 

Gay and lesbian American Indians look to the past to shape a better future on the reservation

As a child growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana, Steven Barrios dressed in girl's clothes. By 10 years old, kids were calling him queer. As a handsome teenager, other boys sometimes attacked him.

click to enlarge Steven Barrios, the grand dame of Montana’s Two Spirit Society, is among the American Indians leading an effort to erase homophobia on the reservation. “We’re reclaiming our place in the circle,” he says. “Until the two-spirit people are brought back into that circle, that circle is never going to be completely mended.” - BY ANNE MEDLEY
  • by Anne Medley
  • Steven Barrios, the grand dame of Montana’s Two Spirit Society, is among the American Indians leading an effort to erase homophobia on the reservation. “We’re reclaiming our place in the circle,” he says. “Until the two-spirit people are brought back into that circle, that circle is never going to be completely mended.”

"The kids were real bad toward anybody who was different," says Barrios, now 57. "We were always getting beat up."

Nobody really knew how to respond to the effeminate boy on the reservation. Barrios laughs now, recalling how even authority figures struggled with how to control the children who constantly pestered him.

"One of the teachers said, 'You better leave Steven alone or he'll hit you with his purse,'" Barrios remembers. "I told the teacher, without thinking, 'If you don't shut your mouth, I'll hit you with it too.'"

Barrios says he was paddled for the outburst, but he couldn't help himself. He's never been capable of hiding. Sitting in his living room in Browning, Barrios looks distinctly feminine with his lipstick, shining silver jewelry and long black hair up in a twist. His impeccable posture reinforces his strength and confidence.

"I just like to enhance my looks a little more like everybody else," he says of the makeup. "I wear it here on the reservation all the time."

Barrios discovered his sexuality before mainstream culture—and especially reservation culture—embraced homosexuality. When he was a teenager in the 1960s, many gay American Indians didn't feel safe coming out of the closet, making role models tough to find.

Barrios left the reservation in search of an openly gay community and broader life experience. He attended beauty school in Seattle, became a hairdresser and traveled throughout the West. But despite finding pockets of gay culture, Barrios says he was still unsatisfied.

"Going out and partying—all the stuff you do in the cities—you're having sex," he says. "You're not respecting who you are."

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