Paul Lumley, New Director of Cascade AIDS Project, Explains How Being Two-Spirit Impacts His Work

“Two-spirit have always been here. We predate this country. We predate Christianity.”

Paul Lumley remembers the bad old days. The time when President Ronald Reagan blocked funding to assuage the plague killing Lumley’s friends, when slurs and beatings were dished out to the Native kid from the Yakama Reservation whose queerness stood out in the schoolyard.

But Lumley remembers something before that. He is part of an Indigenous tradition of honoring people who didn’t fit the typical molds of gender. The tribes called them “two-spirit.” And Lumley, 60, has embraced that identity.

Next week, Lumley becomes executive director of the Cascade AIDS Project, the first two-spirit person in that role. It’s another job on an already full resume: He also runs the Native American Youth and Family Center, or NAYA (his last day is July 5), and serves on the volunteer committee setting boundaries for Portland’s new City Council districts.

WW spoke to Lumley last week over coffee about bullying, political scapegoating, and a tradition that transcends both those things.

WW: Can you walk us through what it means to be two-spirit?

Paul Lumley: The term is a new term. It was coined at a big Indigenous gathering in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1990. They wanted to come up with a term that was different than being included in a list of letters. And so they had a very good conversation about what it means to be what we call two-spirit. You’re born with both the man spirit and the woman spirit. Historically, tribal governments and tribal communities didn’t discard you because you were that way. They actually gave you positions of importance within the community because you had that blessing the Creator gave you.

Is the term interchangeable with LGBTQ, or are there distinctions from a colonial understanding of gender?

I think it’s interchangeable, actually. Within [NAYA’s] high school, the Main Nations Academy, there are many two-spirit kids. They cover the whole range: lesbian, gay, bi-, transgender, gender nonconforming.

As you grew up, was it a term that was common on the Yakama Reservation?

No, no, I predate that term.

So our youth were stolen from our homelands and taken off to these boarding schools where they drum the Native out of you. Through time, Christianity changed the way we think—this new kind of thinking where gay people were bad, the Bible said so. When I was growing up, I lived that injustice, that discrimination. I lived on a reservation, but it was the local public school system too. I was horribly bullied, treated terribly. I didn’t have any support structure at home. So I ran away at the age of 15 and didn’t go back. It was largely because I was gay and I was being bullied.

My aunt and my uncle mentored me. They kept encouraging me to go to college. I did. I was lucky to go live with them. You know, it seems hard when I tell [my story] to other people. To me, it’s just my life [laughs]. I didn’t know any better.

Are you still seeing the effects of that thinking on kids today?

There’s a lot of kids that come to us at NAYA from other reservations and it’s because they’re getting the same kind of discrimination. They come to us because they know we’re gender affirming and we have a place for all two-spirit kids. They have incredibly low self-esteem and they come to us that way.

And I know that because I was the same way. It was fashionable to discriminate against gay people. People called gay people really bad names and beat them, like what happened to me in college. I got beat up pretty bad. It was the 1980s. Different time.

It’s not that different a time. I feel like it’s becoming fashionable again.

That’s what I think is so awful about what’s going on right now with these politicians who are using transgender issues and gay education or youth as weapons. It’s all to get votes, and I think it’s shameful. What they’re trying to do is to distract people so they end up voting against their own interests because they somehow think that a transgender person is going to hurt them. I’m guessing never in their life they’ve ever been harmed by a transgender person. But [politicians] make them feel like, “We must vote in this way to protect our kids from these transgender people.”

Most of these people who are voting this way don’t realize the politicians don’t want to support clean water. They don’t want to have taxes who can have good roads or good schools. These are things that affect their real lives.

But it’s also an extremely hopeful moment for people who are diagnosed with HIV. How does that change the mission of the Cascade AIDS Project?

It is quite a bit of advancement in medications. In fact, I was talking to a friend not long ago who’s been living his life with HIV. He now has to worry about his retirement because he didn’t save when he was younger. He thought, “Why save for retirement? I’m probably gonna die.” And now that’s not the case.

I don’t think it changes our mission at all. There’s some different medications which are wonderful, and it changes the way we deliver our service but doesn’t change our mission. We still have to support those who are, who need us.

What different perspective do you bring to the Cascades AIDS Project?

I’m a daily reminder: Two-spirit have always been here. We predate this country. We predate Christianity. And so when people say that this land was founded on Christianity—no, this land was not founded on Christianity. This land was founded on Native cultures and we’ve always had two-spirit and we never rejected them. We included them in society. So that’s a daily reminder, just me being there.

GET READY: AIDS Walk Northwest begins at Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St. 10 am Saturday, Sept. 9. Proceeds benefit Cascade AIDS Project. Register at aidswalknorthwest.org.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Lumley’s last day as chief executive officer of the Native American Family Youth Center is July 5.

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