Friday, July 10, 2015

Clyde Hall: "All Gay People, in One Form or Another, Have Something to Give to This World, Something Rich and Very Wonderful"


The Wild Reed's 2015 Queer Appreciation series continues with excerpts from an interview with Clyde Hall, a member of the Shoshone-Métis tribe and a respected authority, writer and lecturer of Native American culture, tribal arts and folkways. This interview was first published in Mark Thompson's 1994 anthology, Gay Soul: Finding the Heart of Gay Spirit and Nature with Sixteen Writers, Healers, Teachers, and Visionaries.

I think it's especially appropriate to be sharing this post on indigenous leader and "two-spirited" elder Clyde Hall at this time given Pope Francis' recent apology for colonial-era "offenses" against the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

"Grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God," the pope declared during a visit with indigenous groups in Bolivia. "I humbly ask forgiveness . . . for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America."

I appreciate the pope's words, his asking for forgiveness for the terrible actions of the "official" church. Yet I also know that many of these actions, these "crimes" and "sins," were incurred by and directed towards people and cultures that did not share Roman Catholicism's narrow and rigid understanding of gender and sexuality. Such people and cultures had to be shown "the truth" and made to conform to it. "Grave sins were committed" indeed.

It's a pity that this aspect of the story isn't being talked about as it would lead to some interesting and important connection-making. After all, if the church's actions were sinful, were not also the underlying attitudes and thinking that prompted and "justified" these actions? They were attitudes of arrogance and superiority, and thinking that was narrow and therefore lacking in compassion and openness to God's presence. I also wonder when the pope will issue an apology to women and LGBT people. Great harm has been done to members of these groups over the centuries and throughout many cultures. And though thankfully tempered due to advances in civil society, it's a mistreatment that the Vatican continues in one form or another to this day (see, for example, here and here).

As interesting as all of this is, it's not the primary focus of this post. No, the primary focus is actually much more positive – a message of truth and beauty about non-heterosexual conforming people; a message articulated by a wise man named Clyde Hall. But before sharing this message, here is part of Mark Thompson biography of Hall from Gay Soul.

Clyde Hall was raised by his grandmother in a one-room cabin on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southern Idaho. On long winter nights, after the fire had burned down, she would tell "coyote stories," he recalls. During the hot, dusty summer days he would roam the countryside, sometimes with a posse of other boys. They often frequented swimming holes on the reservation – "well secluded with overhanging trees and green grass on the banks" – and it was at one such spot during a late August afternoon that the eleven-year-old Clyde discovered his attraction to other men.

His best friend and he were swimming alone that day, the kind of day, says Hall, "when the air is barely moving and heavy to breathe." They dove into the cool water, one after the other, and when they surfaced the friend put his arms tight around Clyde in a passionate embrace. "I knew then that this is what I had been waiting for," Hall remembers, "and I have never looked back since."

A Native American of Shoshone-Métis descent, Hall left home some years later to travel the world, a young man in search of himself and trying to get away from a place where "everybody knows everybody's business." Part of his journey was about integrating two vital parts of his identity into a greater whole: the Native part, proud and intact even after the horrendous history of genocidal, Anglo practices against his people; and the gay part, essential yet misunderstood, no less so than among his own own tribe whose knowledge of the tubasa – or "two-spirited" one – had faded in recent times.

Restoring the long-lost traditions of the "two-spirited," those individuals more commonly known today as berdaches, has been an important aim in Hall's life. Over the past twenty years he has joined with other gay and lesbian Native Americans in giving new life to the once-honored roles that third- and fourth-gender individuals had within dozens of tribal cultures before conquest and colonization. In so doing, they have enriched mainstream gay culture's perception of what it means to be queer in America while at the same time revising Indian society's Christianized view of the gays in their midst.

According to the founders of Gay American Indians, an outreach group founded in Sam Francisco in 1975, if the wisdom of Native American tribes concerning gay people is reasserted, "all of us will benefit." Among the organization's ongoing social and political work has been the production of a landmark book, Living the Spirit (edited by Will Roscoe), a collection of essays, myths, and poems further defining the rich heritage of gay Indians as healers, artists, and providers for their people.

Hall practices the legacy of the two-spirited in his daily life. He moved back to the Fort Hall reservation [in the mid-1980s], where he serves as a magistrate and attorney. The talent to mediate differences is one quality attributed to those who bridge the worlds of male and female, the visible and the unseen; another is the ability to uphold sacred ways. Hall functions ably in this role as well, actively preserving and perpetuating the traditions and customs of his people.

. . . The way to honor oneself and others is to lead a spirit-filled life, Hall emphasizes. It's a message he carries wherever he goes, from mentoring the young people of his reservation to the many classrooms and other groups he visits around the country. In a time of increasing disharmony, Clyde Hall fulfills the spiritual role that the tubasa of his tribe always used to.

Following are excerpts from Mark Thompson's interview with Clyde Hall from Thompson's 1995 book Gay Soul. I pray for the day when the type of wise understanding and loving acceptance of LGBT people that Hall articulates and embodies is part of all communities and traditions – including the Roman Catholic faith tradition.

Mark Thompson: What do you think about the notion that gays are a socially constructed people, in other words, that there was no such thing as "homosexual" people until a hundred years ago?

Clyde Hall: Pshaw! Gay people have always been around. I mean, from the remotest indigenous tribal circles, we've always been here.

What would you say to someone who says you're making this up just because you want to feel special. What proof do you have?

Look at the history. We're the people who bring the beauty into the world and actually create the culture. How many movers and shakers were people who were either what we would consider exclusively homosexual or at least bisexual? What have they done for the world? Either pro or con? Because it can manifest either way. There has to be a special race of Spirit in order for these people to accomplish these things. It didn't just happen, you know. We're the people who make Spirit move, and the world is much richer for it. All gay people, in one form or another, have something to give to this world, something rich and very wonderful.

So you believe there's a spiritual potential to being gay?

Well, one thing I've always known is never doubt Spirit. Always trust in Spirit and in what Spirit's trying to tell you. I live a Spirit-led life, you might say, even to the point of what I'm going to wear in the morning when I get up. I've learned not to question or doubt. If you try to talk yourself out of living a life with Spirit, you get yourself into all kinds of trouble.

Is this an inner voice, or your intuition speaking, or what?

In Shoshone, we have the word poha-kant. It describes a type of person who lives a Spirit-led life, who is a conduit for Spirit. They're the kind of person who Spirit ebbs and flows through, more powerful at one time than another. That's why when New Age-type people say, "I'm a shaman," I look at them and think, Honey, do you know what you're talking about? Because to tell you the truth, most of the real shamans I run across or have done research on are gay people or at least bisexual. You have to have that.

Why do you say that?

Because you walk in both worlds. Because you are elements of both male and female – but you're neither. You don't fit in, you're a go-between. And consequently it's easier for you to transcend from the physical to the spiritual realm.

Have you found this to be the case in your own life?

Yes. And if you look at any so-called primitive or indigenous peoples – and this goes for ancient Europeans like the Druids and Celts as well – their shamans were usually two-spirited people. American Indian societies are no exception.

When did you become aware of the berdache tradition? Did you hear anything about that growing up, or did you have to find out about it later?

I really don't like the word berdache, which is French. Indian people don't put labels on themselves; they don't think of themselves as being one way or another. It's just the way you are, unconsciously – a state of life. Still, contemporary gay Indian people are re-creating the berdache tradition, which kind of makes me happy because it gives them self-pride and purpose. Now we're using the term two-spirit. . . .

Isn't it a misconception that all berdache were effeminate and cross-dressed?

It is. Some became very valorous warriors, since to have a berdache along on a war party was considered good luck. This person was in great communication with Spirit.

You mentioned that it was the berdache who went out to cut the center pole for the Sun Dance ritual. Why is that?

Because of who they were. They walked in both worlds, the physical and spiritual, and they were honored in that way. It took a person not of this world to do something like that. For instance, the best rocks to use for rattles are those dug up by the ants and never touched by human hands. The best kind of earth to use in setting up your altar is gopher dirt because it was dug up by something other than a human being. If you can get that otherworldly spiritual connection, it has a lot of power.

. . . Do you see gay men today as having a kind of tribal culture? And if not, what are the values and traditions gay men should be upholding more?

This country is all orientated toward the acquiring of possessions, power, and money. Gay people and Indian people have fallen into that trap as much as anyone else. The development of spirit has been sadly lacking. . . . We're living in a period of great change, and things are not going to get any better for some time to come.

Do you believe that gay people have some kind of mediating role to play in the world at large?

Yes, a helpful role. Gay men and women, two-spirited Native people, we have a very important part to play in the restoring of balance. I can't emphasize that enough. That's the problem with the world right now – it's gotten severely out of balance. That's why we're as crazy as we are now, and why things are happening the way they are, And until the people and the animals and the environment get themselves back into some balance in some way, things are going to continue the way they are, perhaps even gets worse. It scares me.

Let's go back to this idea of gays being the keepers and the creators of culture. Where do you think those instincts come from?

It's something that Spirit gives you when you're born. These powers and talents are an integral part of a way of being. They have to manifest one way or another because that's what we were given to do in the world. For instance, my people are masters at bead work; we are known worldwide for the stuff we do. But it was the gay men who started a trend of literally painting with beads. They've totally broken away from what you would think of as traditional Indian beadwork and have evolved this new style.

I believe that being gay in this society has created an opening of my soul, a kind of sensitivity to the world. Has this been your experience?

Most definitely. You know, you're always the outsider looking in, and you see things differently. That's why you can call bullshit, bullshit . . .

Let's talk about spiritual authenticity, particularly the difficulties in following a Spirit-led path in a dispirited society. What, in your view, is a spiritual life?

It's a way of being and living in balance. Balance has a lot to do with it. Not letting anything get heavier than the rest. Anytime you get out of balance, it's going to lead your life willy-nilly some way. A lot of living your life in balance has to do with listening to Spirit, listening really hard. If it tells you something, or leads you a certain way, intuitively trust that that's the way things are going to be. And when it tells you you're out of balance on something, try to get back. Living with Spirit and trusting in it – that's the most important thing.


In researching this post, I discovered that Clyde Hall is one of the ceremonial leaders of the Dance for All People, which is danced for "renewal of the People and the Earth, perpetuating the vision of the Dance that people of all races and religions come together to dance under the Tree of Life." Clyde considers the Dance for All People his greatest “life work.”

To learn more about the Dance for All People, click here.

Also, Clyde Hall had a deep influence on writer Tom Spanbauer that directly led to the writing of Spanbaer's acclaimed second novel The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon.

Says Spanbauer:

Clyde Hall put my feet on the ground, and when I looked at the ground I saw that it was my mother. Clyde helped me to see the world was alive and full of mystery. He pretty much took me out of my Christian European culture head and helped me see that I wasn’t separated from nature. That by stepping into my body, I stepped into nature. ... [T]he thing I want to impress on you the most, is my life and his came together in such a way that kind of blew us both out of the water. Speaking for myself, I could never have written The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon without Clyde, or any of the rest of my books.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Remembering and Reclaiming a Wise, Spacious, and Holy Understanding of Homosexuality
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
In the Garden of Spirituality – Toby Johnson
The Gifts of Homosexuality
Same-Sex Desires: "Immanent and Essential Traits Transcending Time and Culture"
North America: Perhaps Once the "Queerest Continent on the Planet"
A Return to the Spirit
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
Quote of the Day – November 12, 2011
Buffy Sainte-Marie and That "Human-Being Magic"
Something Special for Indigenous Peoples Day
There Must Be Balance
May Balance and Harmony Be Your Aim
Memet Bilgin and the Art of Restoring Balance

For previous installments in the 2015 Wild Reed Queer Appreciation series, see:
Vittorio Lingiardi on the Limits of the Hetero/Homo Dichotomy
Reclaiming and Re-Queering Pride
Standing with Jennicet Gutiérrez, "the Mother of Our Newest Stonewall Movement"
Questions for Archbishop Kurtz re. the U.S. Bishops' Response to the Supreme Court's Marriage Equality Ruling

Opening image of Clyde Hall: Mark Thompson.

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