Rachel Mishenene had goosebumps as she saw families, couples and individuals alike taking part in Pride in the Park, an event that celebrates the diversity of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people in Thunder Bay on June 16.
“When I look around, it’s unimaginable after talking with my son in the car about putting this together,” the Mishkeegogamang First Nation member said. “It’s about all families and community members coming out and sharing with us in that celebrating - just bringing people to enjoy those things in life that we all enjoy.”
Mishenene is in her second year of chairing Thunder Pride, an organization consisting of a diverse group of LGBT people that plan events and outreach within the community.
Seeing the participation of a diversity of people take part in Pride in the Park meant a lot to Mishenene, Ma-nee Chacaby and Mona Hardy, who all had to endure years of either abuse, internal struggles or both when they were younger.
Mishenene knew she was a lesbian when she was 12 years old.
“I kept that part of me deep down and hidden, and I tried to fit in this society being straight,” she said.
For Ma-Nee Chacaby, she was adopted and raised by her blind 90-year-old grandmother in Ombabika, located northwest of Lake Nipigon. When she was five years old, her grandmother told her she was different.
“She said, ‘When you grow up, you’re going to go through a lot of hardship and pain because of who you are,’” the Eabametoong First Nation member recalled. Being so young, she had no idea what she meant.
Chacaby eschewed skirts and “girly things” and preferred to play with the boys.
“I was always alone,” she said. “I played by myself most times.”
And her grandmother would tell her stories of the way things were back in the community a long time ago, stories passed on by her grandmother.
“Two-spirits is when a person has a male and female spirit,” Chacaby said. In the community, her grandmother told her, the two-spirited people were chosen to be fire keepers, help raise children, help homeless children and widowers, or stayed behind to help look after the community when the warriors went off to war.
“And some choose to live alone like that for the rest of their lives because that’s who they want to be,” Chacaby said. “Or they mate with each other, the two-spirited people. Two women or men lived together, and nobody ever questioned it.”
Not understanding why her grandmother was telling her this, Chacaby came upon the realization when she was 10. A friend of her grandmother arrived to visit and brought along a girl Chacaby’s age.
“She had long black hair and all of sudden my stomach went upside down,” Chacaby recalled. “I didn’t want to talk her, I didn’t know what to say. And every time I saw her, I got so shy.”
At 16, Chacaby wed a boy her age in a marriage arranged by their parents. The husband was abusive and Chacaby turned to alcohol and drugs. Chacaby had two kids in the marriage. After Chacaby was beaten by her partner, a judge annulled the marriage.
But at the urging of her step-father, Chacaby married another man in 1980.
“It didn’t go away, it just got worse,” she said of her suppressed feelings. “Then I left and came home to Thunder Bay.”
Mona Hardy was born a boy but knew when she was four or five who she was.
“I wasn’t a boy or girl. I’m just my own person. I wanted to be accepted for who I was and not my sexuality,” the Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging Anishinaabek (Rocky Bay) First Nation member said.
Her mother could not cope with Hardy’s effeminate behaviour.
“My mother was abusive,” she said. “She used to beat me to make me act like a boy.”
When Hardy was 12, she ran away from home and lived on the streets of various cities across Canada, keeping in touch with only her cousins back home.
An elementary school teacher, Mishenene took part in a workshop of minorities and saw a box with LGBT beside it on the application.
“I didn’t even know what LGBT meant,” she said.
And as the participants gathered in sharing circle, half revealed they were either gay or bisexual.
“To me that was huge moment,” Mishenene said.
After some introspection, Mishenene rediscovered who she was and ended a 10-year relationship with a man.
“I had to make that decision to leave because it wasn’t fair to my partner as well, so he can live his life,” she said.
Mishenene began to hold two-spirited workshops of her own at a Thunder Bay high school, and this raised questions from her son. When she finally told him, he took it hard and did not talk her for a couple days.
“And then he came up behind me and put his arms around me and said, ‘Mom, I love you, I want you to be who you are and be happy,’” Mishenene recalled. “I thought, as long as I have one person in my life who loves me for me, then I’m going to be OK. Because love doesn’t belong to one person, it belongs to everyone.”
Three days later, Mishenene came out to everyone. She did lose one good friend who was unable to “handle the reality of it,” but for the most part, Mishenene was happy with her decision.
“It was the most liberating and fascinating experience and feeling that I continue to feel to this day,” she said. “So coming out was an amazing thing.”
It was a bigger challenge for Chacaby to come out in 1988. She attended a gay pride event and announced that she was two-spirited on TV. In the following months, she was beaten up and hospitalized twice by different groups of people.
And her family shunned her and did not talk to her for five years.
“They said I’m ruining Natives’ lives because I’m gay,” Chicaby said. “They said, I’m already having a hard time with racism. And I’m adding homophobia to their lives.”
But instead of discouraging the 61-year-old, it only motivated her.
“They gave me more power when they said that,” she said. “So I started fighting because there’s young people that are going to come out.”
As a Native battling racism, an artist battling visual impairment, and a lesbian battling homophobia, Chacaby has come a long way.
“I must be tough, eh? To do all that,” she said, laughing.
After living on streets and growing into her own person, Hardy underwent the procedure in her early-20s to become a woman.
“I didn’t care how they reacted,” she said of the few friends she had at the time. “I got to a point to where I don’t give a (crap) what anybody thought of me all the time.”
After the change and having had trouble with the law, Hardy went back to school and got a masters degree in education and went on to work for various organizations.
“So a big positive came out of the negatives at the beginning,” the 61-year-old said, smiling.
Looking around the Marina Park, Hardy said it is wonderful to see the mix of people celebrating gay pride, but still wonders if society is coming around.
“That’s the question I’ve always asked: is society changing or am I just being more tolerant,” she said.
Chacaby said there were a lot of good feelings at the Pride in the Park event.
“I really love it and it’s great,” she said. “I’ve been happy for a long time now and I don’t care what people call me and what they say about me.”
And while Mishenene feels that the LGBT presence is growing in Thunder Bay, she wants to see First Nations communities and leadership “stepping up to bat for those two-spirited kids and adults in the communties” to provide support for them so they can live in a place where they can be themselves.
“It’s about the medicine wheel,” she said. “It’s about living holistically: spiritually, mentally physically, emotionally, and if we continue to deny that from our own people, we’re going to continue to keep losing people.”
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