By Martha Daas | Nov 9th, 2011
On November 9, 2011 Qwo-Li Driskill, a two-spirit/queer scholar, activist and poet spoke to a rapt audience of about 250 ODU students, faculty and staff about hir* experiences as a two-spirit Cherokee. The closest word that we have in English to two-spirited is transgendered. But to say this is to completely misunderstand the concept of two-spirit. Qwo-Li explained in a truly poetic fashion the difference between two-spirit and transgender. First ze* explained that there is no word for gender in Cherokee. Therefore the binary concept of gender (male/female) does not exist in the indigenous language or its culture. Second, Qwo-Li explained that transgender means to go along a continuum from the fixed points M to F or from F to M. Ze compared two-spirit to a constellation: a variety of elements that come together to form the spiritual nature of a person.
Qwo-Li also told us that within the Cherokee language, there are words for people who have two hearts, strange hearts, men who feel like women, and women who feel like men. Therefore, two-spirit is really an umbrella term that expresses concepts outside of gender constructs.
Qwo-Li’s talk did more than simply try to explain unexplainable concepts. Qwo-Li is also a fierce activist for the Cherokee nation. Hir mild-mannered exterior belied a powerful nature. Hir words were intense, and often violent, but never hateful. Our job, ze explained, as thinkers, is to rebalance an unbalanced world. Qwo-Li’s poetry focused on a variety of topics: the loss of indigenous culture and memory, European colonization of indigenous lands, and love. Qwo-Li shared stories of a very personal nature, including one in which ze described being sexually abused. This abuse led to suicidal thoughts, but ze explained, poetry saved hir life. Ze came out in 1994 at college in Colorado and has never stopped writing and working toward social justice and healing.
*Hir and ze are the gender-neutral pronouns that Qwo-Li has adopted to express hir two-spirited nature.
You can find out more about the activism and writings of Qwo-Li here.
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