Harlan Pruden is the co-founder of the NorthEast Two-Spirit Society in New York City, and is speaking at the University of British Columbia tonight about how LGBT people — sometimes known as "two-spirited" in First Nations culture — were revered prior to colonization.
"Two-spirit within a traditional or pre-contact setting is a gender," he told The Early Edition.
"Gender dictates your role within the society. Women gathered, men hunted, and us, as two-spirit people, we did a unique thing that both the straight woman and the straight man couldn't do."
Pruden is a member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, and came out as gay when he was 17.
"It was incredibly difficult," he said.
"I also had an immense amount of internalized racism and was also ashamed of being native, and I think the work I do today is to lift up that veil of secrecy and say 'hey, we're here and we should be celebrating this, and we should be working to reclaim and restore our honour and respect to our two-spirit people.'"
Pruden said the traditional value placed on two-spirit people has been lost through colonization.
He said while other LGBT activists fight for equality, he sees his mission as different — with a restoration of the role of the two-spirit person being key to helping LGBT First Nations people embrace their identities.
"It has been prophesied that until our two-spirit people are brought back to the sacred circle, only then will there be healing for our native communities," he said.
"If you create a safe, welcoming and supportive environment for those that are least valued within your society, the entire society benefits from that protection and that love and that support."
Pruden's work has taken him a long way. He was recently appointed by President Obama to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
To hear the full interview with Harlan Pruden, click the audio labelled: Harlan Pruden on restoring tradition role of two-spirit people.