Toward a Trans Sovereignty: Why We Need Indigenous Rhetorics to Decolonize Gender and Sexuality

Toward a Trans Sovereignty: Why We Need Indigenous Rhetorics to Decolonize Gender and Sexuality

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 4 Summer 2020

Author(s): Rachel Presley

Rachel Presley is an Assistant Professor of Rhetorical Theory in the Department of Writing Studies and the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. As a critical rhetorician with training in cultural studies and political philosophy, her primary research interests engage issues of social movement and resistance rhetorics, (trans)national citizenship and belonging, and postcolonial/decolonial/anticolonial theory. She views marginality as a fundamentally intersectional position, so her scholarship makes use of rhetorical criticism, historiography, and critical qualitative methods to assess its representations and resistances.

Abstract: This exploratory essay seeks to orient transgender rhetorics towards a non-white, Indigenous vocabulary. In disrupting and dislocating our rhetorical landscape from its traditionally settler context, I offer Native Two-Spirit critique as a particular productive departure from the conventional conceptualization of Euromerican GLBTQ taxonomies. I draw upon Native critical theorists, such as Qwo-Li Driskell, Brian Joseph Gilley, Scott Lauria Morgensen, and Andrea Smith to echo the call that any decolonial movement within trans, queer, and feminist studies must work to examine the ways in which heteropatriarchy intersects with settler colonialism.

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At the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication, Asao Inoue delivered a keynote address in which he urged his white colleagues to “sit in discomfort” as he traced the violent contours of white language supremacy: “How do we language so people stop killing each other…not just in our society and schools, but in our own minds, in our habits of mind, in our dispositions, our bodies, our habitus, in the discursive, bodily, and performative ways we use and judge language?” Inoue’s remarks beckon toward the ethical imperative for rhetoricians to more carefully and critically interrogate the whiteness that undergirds our research, our pedagogy, our livelihoods. As such, this essay seeks to cultivate an analytic imaginary of transgender rhetorics towards a non-white, Indigenous vocabulary by disrupting and dislocating our rhetorical landscape from its traditionally settler context.

The disciplinary (trans)formation of rhetorical studies promotes a more gender-expansive approach to theory and criticism. As Spencer affirms, “As an emerging area of interest in the field of communication, transgender studies now stands not only in relationship to feminist studies and LGBQ studies but also as an area of interest in its own right” (xvi); or what Feinberg explores as an “expand[ed] understanding of how many ways there are to be a human being” (5). Yet, such expansion has increased a sense of ubiquity surrounding transgender as an umbrella term, leading us to ask who exactly is covered beneath its canopy. Rawson and Williams contend that the desire to establish a recognizable, dominant narrative is counterproductive to the continued evolution of transgender as both term and field, proposing with “stubborn insistence” that “transgender is still developing, still demanding further research…in its ever-growing complexity” (emphasis original) (6). Trans scholarship has answered this call with tremendous nuance across a wide spectrum of rhetorical platforms, demonstrating a richly textured investment in diversifying the canon. From autoethnographic performances of self and/as culture (Johnson; LeMaster; Young and McKibban) to archival disruptions towards public remembrance (Rawson and Devor; Sloop), from legal interventions that liberate the body/body politic (Chávez; Morris and Nakayama; West) to pedagogical politics of reformation (Banks; Patterson; Spieldenner), the proliferation of transgender projects are a testament to the generative future of rhetorical studies.

Yet, as Driskell, Finley, Gilley, and Morgensen note, there is room still to interrupt the colonial authority over knowledge production by recognizing the ways in which Indigenous peoples and vocabularies radically resist dominant discourses (“Introduction” 4). While the research nodes listed above offer only a small glimpse into the robust dimensions of trans rhetorics, I echo the commitments of these intellectual pathways and heed the call from Driskell et al. to attend to the colonial facets of trans identities and politics. Narrating the histories of racialization that employ gender and sexuality as tools of categorizing the Indigenous othered body enables rhetorical scholars/critics/activists to interrogate the “presumptive whiteness” that has informed transgender rhetorics as a field of study (Justice, Rifkin, and Schneider 6).

Working towards a decolonial undoing of mainstream trans rhetorics requires a considerable amount of critical self-reflexivity and the outright recognition that colonial violence often reconstitutes itself in unassuming, yet disempowering, forms. I, a cisgender, white settler to Turtle Island (North America), acknowledge that I am an outsider to both the trans and Indigenous communities that I foreground in this essay and am (unintentionally) complicit in the colonial reproductions of knowledge/knowing. In fact, in an earlier draft of this article, GPat and K.J. graciously reminded me that my particular articulation of Indigenous philosophies replicated the very violent non/Western dichotomy I was aiming to critique! This failure to recognize the deep entrenchment of colonialism within my own positionality reinforces the ethical imperative for queer allies to more meaningfully partake in the co-resistance of trans violence. As Mack and Na’puti describe, doing this type of decolonial work “requires embracing plurality at the colonial difference and accepting inaccessibility and incomprehensibility” (355). By accepting these precarious sites of unknowing, this essay aims to (re)center indigeneity by (re)amplifying historically silenced voices amongst Indigenous communities and its GLBTQ2 peoples. In so doing, I recognize the impossibility of completely narrating, let alone fully understanding, the complexities of these perspectives; however, choosing to avoid this “stickiness” (Ahmed) also represents the choice to ignore the uncomfortable colonial reality in which I am implicated. This essay ultimately attempts to disrupt the persistence of settler indoctrination and engage (albeit imperfectly) with Indigenous dimensions of GLBTQ2 literatures by foregrounding the ways in which trans theory-building may contribute to an “enacted witnessing as a mode of learning and resisting with” (emphasis original) (Mack and Na’puti, 355). The uptake of these Indigenous vocabularies is one small way in which I witness and resist with those liminal bodies seeking recognition and affirmation.

Again, as Powell reminds us, the colonizing consciousness is one that actively seeks to “un-see” Native peoples by erasing Indigenous civilization as inconsequential to the project of Empire (4). Even within the most liberal of critical scholarship, indigeneity has become an interchangeable signifier for any “person of color,” thereby relegating distinct Native voices as still un-seen and un-heard (Driskell). Driskill writes:

Not only are Native people and Native resistance movements rarely a subject of analysis, the specific political and historical realities of Native people seem outside queer studies’ purview. This means that– at best–analyses of race, nation, diaspora, history, sexuality, and gender are deeply lacking and that–at worst–these critiques risk colluding with master narratives both inside and outside the academy. (75)

By (re)focusing Indigenous ontologies, we diversify our intellectual and political genealogies to include Native peoples, identities, and survivance1 tactics so that the decolonization of trans rhetorics is central.

Within the lens of this special issue and the emerging tradition of trans-specific enquiry, the rhetorical terminology of Native Two-Spirit may provide a particularly provocative departure from the conventional conceptualization of Euromerican trans taxonomies by instead connecting both gender and sexual identities to cultural, ceremonial, medicinal, and spiritual spaces of co-existence. The term “Two-Spirit” is intentionally complex and ambiguously fluid; yet it is also an assertion of rhetorical sovereignty: an Indigenous moniker that refuses to be absorbed by “any other gender or sexual identity defined on non-Native terms” (Morgensen, Spaces Between Us 82). Anguksuar (Richard LaFortune) explains that “The term two-spirit…indicates the presence of both a feminine and a masculine spirit in one person” (221), or a “contemporary reference to the availability of mixed-gender roles among most American Indian tribes prior to European contact” (Gilley, “Two-Spirit Men’s Sexual Survivance” 127). What is particularly interesting to note here is that the numerical designation of “two” within Two-Spirit seems to beckon towards a Western interpretation of the masculine/feminine binary (which is perhaps further complicated by Anguksuar’s definition); however, Two-Spirit is a distinctly Indigenous concept, representing at once “gay, lesbian, transvestite, transsexual, transgender, drag queens, and butches, as well as winkte, nádleeh, and other appropriate tribal terms” (Thomas and Jacobs 92). Two-Spirit is not intended to reinforce Western gender categories but rather bridge a fluid range of pan-Indian gender cosmologies that defy the rigid boundaries of the English language.

Historically, the term originated in 1990 at the Third International Gathering of American Indian and First Nation Gays and Lesbians in which participants rallied to replace the anthropological term “berdache” (a primitively colonial label for Indigenous transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming peoples) towards a Native-informed alternative (Thomas and Jacobs). Most centrally, the term intentionally deviates from the “sexualized practices and identities” that gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and queer terms often invoke (Driskill 73), ending “non-Native control over Native knowledge and respect[ing] Two-Spirit people’s distinction from sexual minority and queer politics” (Morgensen, “Unsettling Queer Politics” 142). As such, the term “Two-Spirit” incites an affective discomfort in the Euromerican lexicon by dismantling its colonial language towards a multicultural diversity—a  discursive provocation demonstrated by trans-specific scholarship such as Trystan Cotten’s Transgender Migration: The Bodies, Borders, and Politics of Transition, Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé and Martin Manalansan’s Queer Globalizations: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism, and V. Jo Hsu’s “Disciplinary (Trans)formations: Queering and Trans-ing Asian American Rhetorics,” among many others.

Specific to Two-Spirit analyses, scholars like Brian Joseph Gilley, Beatrice Medicine, Scott Lauria Morgensen, Will Roscoe, and Walter Williams all underscore the geopolitical relationship between settler colonialism and the articulation of sex and gender on occupied land. As Driskill writes, “Native People often have an uneasy relationship with other struggles for social justice because the specificity of our struggles—rooted in sovereignty and a claim to land—is too often ignored” (79-80). This struggle is integral to disrupting colonial approaches to trans rhetorics in which the cyclical mechanics of invasion, displacement, and erasure continue to tear across Native bodies and lands. To offer a representative example, trans-exclusionary radical “feminists” (TERF) often employ “racist dog-whistles that have been used by the Right for centuries to create outsized fear and outrage among their constituents and followers to justify the time and energy spent advocating against the lives and safety of the communities they target” (Greenesmith). Indigenous groups are often at the center of these attacks, as TERF rhetorics are rooted in sex critical, bioessentialist ideologies that outwardly reject the inherent identities and rights of Two-Spirit peoples existing outside of these violent boundaries (CUSU Women’s Campaign).

As such, reading, circulating, citing, and amplifying Two-Spirit analyses is a necessary first step in the pathway toward decolonization. If we are to unsettle and dismantle the ways in which sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia are employed as distinctly colonial tools of conquest, then our rhetorical repertoires must be attuned to macro- and microcosms of settler violence as well as the liberatory intervention of Two-Spirit literatures. As Finley affirms, doing so provides a discursive platform upon which we can collectively partake in anti-colonial witnessing and resisting:

Heteropatriarchy disciplines and individualizes communally held beliefs by internalizing hierarchal gendered relationships and heteronormative attitudes towards sexuality. Colonialism needs heteropatriarchy to naturalize hierarchies and unequal gender relations. Without heteronormative ideas about sexuality and gender relationships, heteropatriarchy, and therefore colonialism, would fall apart. (33-34)

Within the realm of intersectional trans rhetorics, this insight is of particular import. The hetero-, cis-, and trans-normativity of coloniality must be indigenized and decolonized through non-Euromerican/non-Western modes of critique in order to dismantle the structures of white kyriarchy that affect all peoples.

Sharpening our commitments to feminist, queer, and trans activism means we must “see” and center Native approaches to critical theory. Mainstream Euromerican movements, such as the 2017 Women’s March on Washington and the whitewashing of #MeToo and #TimesUp, are still bound by a rigid adherence to identity categories, particularly with respect to sexuality, gender, and race (Corrigan; Dougherty and Calafell; Mack and McCann). Such exclusionary practices often reaffirm the foundations of the settler colonial state by prioritizing a particular rationale of a “knowable,” articulatable existence. Murib explains that a critical contention in Indigenous scholarship is the departure from these “mainstream non-Native GLBT and Queer politics” since they recirculate discrete categories of settler logics (167). They write:

[E]nduring systems of settler colonialism prioritize a very particular understanding of sex (biologically rooted), gender (socially constructed through interactions with colonial social and political institutions), what constitutes family (one man, one woman, and varying numbers of children bound together through state-recognized marriage), and race (within a Black/white binary that glosses over alternate racial formations). (167)

Perpetuating these terms, even within spaces of protest, continues to articulate a colonial distinction between queerness and transness, thus obscuring the existence of peoples whose relationships and gender identities may take alternate forms. Of course, multimarginal trans organizers are well aware of these dominant colonial tactics and have built resistive coalitions in their wake by expanding upon rhetoric’s index of critical vocabularies.

Invoking Two-Spirit critiques demonstrates the capacity for (continued) disciplinary disruption across the “heteronormative realities in settler societies…as well as queer and trans challenges to those colonially created realities” (Tallie 458). Two-Spirit offers a more expansive exploration of decoloniality as both a theoretical and a political practice—one whose absolute goal is the pursual of self-sovereignty. This argument suggests a radical deviation from traditional Euromerican organizing principles since it is one “that does not seek recognition or incorporation in the US state as liberal subjects, as is the case for mobilizations against legal and informal racial segregation, for example, but instead pushes for self-determination within the context of settler colonial societies” (Murib 168). The centering of Two-Spirit traditions within Indigenous political thought collapses colonial identity categories to instead promote what Morgensen terms a “self-sovereign space” (“Unsettling Queer Politics” 134). These individual spaces of lived expression are not identity categories but rather acts of defiance against the state; an ontological positioning that refuses to be identified, recognized, or incorporated into the dominant political apparatus. While this act of defiance may not always be a desirable practice, especially for those trans individuals who seek bodily affirmation for everyday survival, the sustained recognition of Two-Spirit cosmologies and ontologies is still a disruption against the colonial structures that seek to erase its Indigenous peoples. Morgensen’s turn towards the sovereign space represents a kairotic moment for rhetoricians across writing studies and communication studies to grapple with the discipline’s critical turn and foreground Indigenous bodies, artefacts, theories, and methodologies as an enmeshed fabric of the field.

For example, Driskill, in advancing Morgensen’s self-sovereign space towards a radical collective, proposes “doubleweaving” across rhetorical theories and practices, providing a particularly effective model for critical theorists to employ in future research. As a metaphor for Cherokee basket-weaving in which one basket is woven inside the other with a common rim, Driskill writes that a rhetorical doubleweave articulates a methodological approach that “draws on and intersects numerous theoretical splints…including Native politics, postmodern scholarship, grassroots activism, queer and trans resistance movements, queer studies, and tribally specific contexts from which these critiques are (and can be) woven” (74). This intervention challenges the centrality of the settler state and blurs the boundaries of dominant Euromerican movements, advancing new forms of coalitional activism and shared mobilization across theoretical and political spheres, or ones that are attuned to grammars of suffering by drawing on a variety of intellectual genealogies and localities outside the Western canon.

Critically integrating Indigenous vocabularies, such as Two-Spirit critiques, into the literatures that inform trans scholarship continues to unsettle and challenge the politics and power relations of settler society. Failure to do so—to disregard the non-Native formations of gender and sexuality monikers—remains a settler act disengaged from the intent of Two-Spirit organizing (Morgensen, “Unsettling Queer Politics” 145). Any decolonial movement within trans, queer, and feminist studies must work to deconstruct the categorical rigidity of gender and sexuality, focusing instead on the ways in which heteropatriarchy intersects with settler colonialism and thus directly affects all of us. The future of rhetorical scholarship, and trans rhetorics in particular, depends upon a doublewoven attunement to indigeneity and a critical effort to disengage with the languages of oppression that have historically defined Euromerican queer and trans existence. Such an undertaking requires monumental self-reflexivity—a sitting and squirming in discomfort—that seeks to witness and resist the literal root of oppression that buries itself deep in stolen land. What does the decolonization of lands, of bodies, of rhetorical imaginaries look like? This special issue is one way in which trans scholarship has recently intervened—an emergent node of interrogation and dissent that more complexly facilitates the interruption of competing colonial frameworks towards a radical, emancipatory future for all.


  1. A term developed by Anishinaabe writer and scholar, Gerald Vizenor. Survivance refers to the survival of Indigenous communities through endurance, persistence, and resistance to colonial systems of oppression. See Vizenor’s Manifest Manners for his insightful theorization of this concept.

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