WARNING: This story discusses mental health challenges faced by LGBTQ2S+ youth, including depression, anxiety and suicide.
Hundreds of youth dressed as their authentic selves laughed, danced and watched Indigenous drag performers at a night celebrating queer joy last May. It was exactly the sort of event called for in a new report by the Trevor Project, finding that Indigenous LGBTQ2S+ youth face a significantly higher rate of mental health struggles compared to their white peers.
At Queer Prom, Native American Youth and Family Center organizers worked to create a space of love and acceptance — a celebration of all that it means to be queer — a prom many queer adults never had the opportunity to attend.
In a study released Thursday by The Trevor Project, researchers found that Indigenous LGBTQ2S+ youth face disproportionate rates of mental health struggles including suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression.
Finding ways to reduce those numbers is extremely important, as is highlighting queer and trans joy and examples of thriving Indigenous LGBTQ2S+ people, according to Silas Hoffer, Yakama and Grand Ronde, Two Spirit programming advocate at NAYA. Hoffer helped organize NAYA’s Queer Prom this year.
“We’re not just houseless and without family and all those things they say we are gonna be if you’re queer or trans,” they said. “I think those [statistics] are out there so much to scare us into not being who we are, when in reality I don’t think that that’s actually the majority of people’s experiences.”
The Trevor Project, a national organization founded in 1998, has a mission to end suicide among LGBTQ2S+ youth across the country. The organization provides crisis support free of charge and works to advocate for queer youth.
In its most recent study, “The Mental Health and Well-Being of Indigenous LGBTQ Young People,” researchers found major disparities in rates of mental health struggles for queer Indigenous youth compared to their non-Indigenous, queer peers.
The study acknowledges a lack of research on LGBTQ2S+ Indigenous youth in the past. For this study, researchers collected data from a survey of youth 13 to 24 — 1,792 queer Indigenous youth participated.
One of the reasons for a lack of data in the past is that some Indigenous people hold a well-deserved distrust in the medical and mental health industries, due to the legacy of medical violence perpetrated against them.
“Mental health services have been weaponized against us,” Hoffer said. “Health services in general have.”
Mental health struggles continue to be stigmatized, in general, and in Indigenous communities as well. For many people, and especially LGBTQ2S+ folks, there is a lack of community resources to help address those struggles.
One of the top findings of the report: “Indigenous LGBTQ young people had 66% higher odds of a past-year suicide attempt compared to their non-Indigenous peers.”
In the report, researchers point to a number of structural, societal inequities that contribute to such disparities. All are among the lasting impacts of settler colonialism and modern racism faced by Indigenous people.
“Indigenous LGBTQ young people experience disproportionate structural inequities compared to their non-Indigenous peers, with nearly half (48%) experiencing food insecurity, over one-third (34%) reporting experiences with homelessness, and over one in 10 (12%) having been in foster care,” the report says.
“It can’t be underscored enough that the enduring impact of historical legacies of trauma paired with the continued underinvestment of tribal and Indigenous communities, really play a role in the equation here,” said Dr. Ronita Nath, vice president of research at The Trevor Project.
The report also recommends ways to address these disparities — namely the need to decolonize systems and increase cultural competency in health care settings.
Re-Indigenizing support for queer identity
Staff at NAYA are already actively working to support LGBTQ2S+ youth, with conversations about decolonization at the forefront.
“Not just decolonizing but re-Indigenizing is really important. When you talk about decolonizing, the focus is on the colonial aspect rather than the Indigenous cultures,” Hoffer said. “Yes we do need to decolonize, and within the communities we need to re-Indigenize. Get rid of western influence as much as we can.”
For Renea Menchaca, Pascua Yaqui and White Mountain Apache, cultural arts advocate at NAYA, that means a need for ceremony spaces inviting in Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous people.
In 2010, Menchaca helped organize and host the first Two-Spirit special during the annual Delta Park Powwow.
“I’ve always been an advocate for adding more categories to powwows to allow the Two Spirit community to participate,” Menchaca said.
Hoffer, who runs the Two Spirit Safe Space Alliance, says part of what that means is providing examples of Two-Spirit ancestors as much as possible.
“Just being able to actually see an ancestor from this area who was Two Spirited was just really beautiful and I think really impactful for the youth,” Hoffer said.
For other staff at NAYA, the importance of representing the possibility of being visibly queer and happy is an important way to support youth.
“A lot of my advocacy and some of the reasons why I wanted to get into education in general is because I didn’t have anybody who looked like I do today,” said Mitch Saffle, Citizen Potawatomi Nation, educational engagement coordinator at NAYA. “Visually presenting who I am as a happy, queer, Indigenous person and just loving my life, [that is] the best way I can advocate is to live my authentic life and show them that it is possible.”
Community mental health resources
While there is certainly a need for more resources tailored to supporting LGBTQ2S+ Indigenous youth, there are some supports in place currently available in the Pacific Northwest.
The Paths (Re)Membered Project at the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board works toward health equity by centering the Two Spirit and LGBTQ2S+ community.
One of the ways the program does this is by offering free mental health services to Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer LGBTQ2S+ people aged 15 years and older. Similar services are currently offered in over 20 states.
This July, the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board passed a resolution in support of gender-affirming medical care for Two Spirit and LGBTQ2S+ Indigenous youth. As a tribal organization representing 43 tribes in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, this means the resolution was adopted by the board of delegates from tribes across the region.
“This is a statement of backing by tribal delegates,” said Itai Jeffries, Occaneechi from North Carolina, director of the Paths Re(Me)mbered Project. “Basically naming gender affirming care as a sovereign right.”
Jeffries hopes that other organizations and tribes will use this as an example and adopt similar resolutions.
In Washington state, a new crisis hotline launched last November — The Native and Strong Lifeline. The goal of the crisis support lifeline is to provide culturally competent mental health support to Indigenous people in need. A lifeline for Native people, run by Native people.
“There is a taboo of discussing suicide within Indigenous communities,” said Crystal James, Diné, a tribal crisis counselor shift lead at the lifeline, told Underscore and ICT in May. “It’s been great to be a catalyst to go from an area of taboo to getting to a journey of self-healing.”
Though the lifeline is not geared specifically towards LGBTQ2S+ Indigenous youth, counselors work to support all Native people in crisis.
If you are a Washington resident and wish to speak with a Native crisis counselor, dial 988 and choose option 4.
Underscore is a nonprofit collaborative reporting team in Portland focused on investigative reporting and Indian Country coverage. It is supported by foundations, corporate sponsors and donor contributions. Follow Underscore on Facebook and X.