Walking in two worlds: Canada's 'two-spirit' doctor guiding trans teenagers

Wednesday, 8 January 2020 15:00 GMT

Dr. James Makokis, a Cree "two-spirit" family doctor, in South Common Medical Centre in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, September 19, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ryan Varga

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Dr. James Makokis treats young transgender people and teaches them about being two-spirit – an umbrella term used by many indigenous LGBT+ people that harks back to pre-colonial third gender roles

By Rachel Savage

EDMONTON, Alberta, Canada, Jan 8 (Openly) - Sitting on the floor of a teepee, in a circle of patients, friends and relatives, doctor James Makokis cried as he remembered his father struggling to accept him when he came out as gay at the age of 17.

Speaking to about two dozen people, including transgender teenagers and their parents, Makokis explained how his uncles helped his father come to terms with his sexuality.

"It was kind of difficult for him to, to understand that," his voice breaking as his husband Anthony Johnson comforted him in the soaring canvas structure in the garden of their home near Edmonton, capital city of Canada's Alberta province.

Makokis, now 37, is a First Nations family doctor from Saddle Lake Cree Nation who identifies as "two-spirit" - an umbrella term used by indigenous people in North America who identify with both masculinity and femininity and which harks back to pre-colonial third-gender roles.

Although his mother accepted him as gay, Makokis moved from his small rural community northeast of Edmonton to the city to finish his last year of school.

"Reflecting now as a physician, I had all the characteristics of depression," Makokis told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at his home, his black hair neatly divided in two chest-length braids, framing a beaded pendant.

"It was really important that I ... physically move away to be in a place like Edmonton that is more diverse."

After training as a doctor in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia, Makokis wanted to support other indigenous LGBT+ people, particularly those identifying as "two-spirit", many of whom feel their traditional acceptance in native communities has been lost.

He decided to focus on treating trans patients, advising them on transition, prescribing hormones, and teaching indigenous culture to young people who make up about 5% of his estimated 300 patients.

"I thought if I practiced trans medicine I will be working to address this issue of homophobia, transphobia that has come to exist in our nations now ... and help to empower two-spirit people to belong again," Makokis said.

This cultural education includes hosting LGBT-inclusive native ceremonies with his husband in "sweat lodges", which are typically low, dome-shaped huts made of natural materials.

During a traditional Cree "sweat", a spiritual purification and rejuvenation ceremony, women sit on one side of the lodge and men on the other.

But at a "two-spirit sweat" people were invited to sit freely as elders drummed, sang traditional songs and prayed in their native Plains Cree dialect while water was poured onto red-hot rocks in the dark.

Afterwards in the nearby teepee, Makokis, Johnson and the other attendees took turns sharing stories of coming to understand the meaning of two-spirit and finding a community to support them.


There is no survey data on the number of LGBT+ or two-spirit people in Canada.

Sean Waite and Nicole Denier, assistant professors of sociology at Western University and University of Alberta respectively, estimate the number of indigenous LGBT+ people as between 39,000 and 100,000.

Canada's 2016 census counted nearly 1.7 million indigenous people, or 4.9% of the population of 35.2 million.

Two-spirit people describe their identity in a multitude of ways, from being able to access the masculine and feminine within them, to walking in both male and female worlds.

The term was widely adopted after being coined in 1990 at a Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg, Canada, according to Kylan Mattias de Vries, chair of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at Southern Oregon University.

It replaced "berdache", a colonial-era word, and aimed to reflect diverse gender identities that have always existed in indigenous communities across North America, according to de Vries, where some third-gender roles carried ceremonial and spiritual significance.

In Cree culture, Makokis said, a two-spirit person is a "chameleon", carrying out whatever job needs doing, regardless of whether it is considered men's or women's work.

Sabine Lang, an anthropologist at the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Germany, said the colonisation of North America and government-sponsored religious "Indian Residential Schools" that housed 150,000 children between the 1840s and 1990s in Canada, had a "devastating effect" on the acceptance of two-spirit people.

"Some people in Native American communities today will deny that there were ever such people in their communities despite anthropological evidence," said Lang, who has researched two-spirit history.

Data is scant on the discrimination and mental stress faced by LGBT+ and two-spirit people in Canada, including on teenagers.

However, a 2018 survey of about 26,000 LGBT+ 13- to 24-year-old Americans by the Trevor Project, which supports young people, found indigenous trans youth were the group most at risk of suicide, with 37% saying they had attempted suicide in the prior year.


Makokis acknowledged the mental toll of being two-spirit, but said there were also positives, such as having unique perspectives and the ability to fill multiple roles in the community.

He remembered how he decided that he wanted to become a doctor at the age of four.

"In Cree thought or belief, we believe that children will announce at least four different times what their purpose is here on Earth - and usually before the age of four," he said. "So it's kinda cool that that happened."

He recalled his first shift working on a maternity ward, waiting to be called to a delivery before he realised the nurses were deliberately excluding him.

"As I was walking in the room, one of the nurses ... pulled my braid so hard that my head jerked and said, 'You can't go in that room,' and, 'Who do you think you are?'"

"I think every indigenous learner will experience racism in some form," he said.

Alec, a transgender teenager, and his stepfather (L) Darcy Whitstone and mother Janet Whitstone outside their home in Onion Lake Cree Nation, western Canada, on September 18, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ryan Varga

In 2016 only 9.6% of First Nations Canadians had a university degree compared to 28.5% among the total population, according to government census data.

"One of the responsibilities that comes with being an indigenous person who has gone to school in a Western university setting is to not forget and leave your indigeneity behind as you walk through the doors of the ivory towers," Makokis said.

He decided that specialising in trans medicine was one way to do this, as well as to help address the mental struggles faced by his patients, particularly two-spirit youth.

"Patients immediately respond to having access to quality care that's safe and that they feel comfortable with," he said.

All Canadian provinces except Quebec allow minors to consent to their own healthcare, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society, although the laws vary.

However, hormone treatment for children hit national headlines last year amid a bitter court row over parental rights, freedom of expression and informed consent.

Local media reported how British Columbia's highest court in September ruled in favour of a 14-year-old who began hormone therapy to transition from female to male after his father took legal action to stop the process.

Various studies show that gender transition tends to improve the wellbeing of trans people, and between 0.3-3.8% of adults who undergo medical transition regret it, according to Cornell University's "What We Know" project, which collates research on public policy issues.

Long-term data on children and young people are "sparse", Johanna Olson-Kennedy, the medical director of the trans youth clinic at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, said in a 2016 research summary.

University of Washington academics say they are conducting what will be the largest ever long-term study of trans children, with 317 participants.


In Makokis' room in the clinic of Kehewin Cree Nation, indigenous culture was everywhere, with textiles in bright, geometric patterns covering the desk and part of one wall.

The doctor showed Alec, a 15-year-old from a reservation about one hour's drive away, how to prepare the shots of testosterone that in the past month had started to deepen his voice and made him feel happier.

The teenager was given counselling and put on psychiatric medication after attempting suicide in September 2018, his mother Janet said. She brought him to Makokis in the summer of 2019 after he came out as a lesbian and then trans.

After going over the process again and discussing the further physical changes Alec can expect, such as more masculine facial and body hair and muscles, Makokis turned to photos of mountain silhouettes on his wall.

He pointed out the shape of a person in one, a hunter spirit that is neither a man nor a woman.

"Our people always accepted diversity and a lot of times our people have forgotten that because of what we've gone through," he said.

"The teachings are written on the land ... So that we don't forget who we are."

(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Ros Russell and Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

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