Brian Webb made history five years ago when, at the age of 25, he publicly came out as a gay man in the pages of The Nation. He was brave to do so because I recall Webb was initially reluctant, wary of the hostility his story might provoke.
In fact, it was for that very reason he later refused to write a similar story for Montreal’s alternative weekly Hour magazine where I am Editor-at-Large.
But five years later, Webb is clearly happy with the choices he has made. In the process he opened up a new dialogue about gay life within the Cree Nation.
“It was nerve-wracking because it had never been done in my area before,” Webb says today. “I did let my parents and family know beforehand and they were very supportive. I figured it had to start somewhere so it might as well be me. Once it started, it was like a one-way train going faster and faster.”
Webb grew up in the closet because, he says, “There was homophobia everywhere. People would call those they thought were gay, names like ‘homo’ and ‘faggot.’ They called me that. I wasn’t always a target but I did feel there were people [back home] who didn’t like me. When you live in a small community, you know how people feel.”
The irony, of course, is that gay or “two-spirited” people were historically respected members of native cultures throughout North America before the French, English and Spanish brought homophobia to their shores.
Cultural critic Wendy Susan Parker has noted cultural anthropologists documented this “third gender” status in at least 120 North American tribes.
“They were named by Europeans as ‘berdache’ from the Persian ‘bardaj,’ originally a derogatory term meaning a passive homosexual partner, usually a ‘pretty’ or feminine young boy,” Parker notes. “Yet, Indian berdache are very different from the European view of ‘berdaj’ as ‘sodomite heretics’ as written about by the Crusaders invading Persia in the Middle Ages.
“Instead, native cultures seem to embrace the notion of an opposite gender identity, different from one’s anatomical sex WITHOUT any implied sexual preference. They were viewed by native tribes as having an almost sacred status for the most part. Indian spiritual philosophy not only accepts a ‘third gender’ status, but almost encourages it. With few exceptions by some of the more warlike tribes like the Apache and Comanche, the berdache are found to comfortably co-exist in almost every single North American tribe, especially in the Midwest, Great Plains and the Southwest.”
With the arrival of European settlers and the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity, there was pressure to disown the berdache and the homophobia of Europeans was adopted by many Native Americans.
“My coming out did send shockwaves through Cree territory but after the gasps and the ‘Oh my Gods!’ it was generally very positive,” Webb says. “When my coming-out issue of The Nation was published, a crying woman approached my mom and told her, ‘You’ll be the one to teach us how to love our children!’
“The story even opened the eyes of the people who called me names before. My story didn’t just have an impact on gay people, but on all people. It seemed to open everybody’s closets.”
Today Webb happily lives in Montreal with his boyfriend of two years and works as a translator and interpreter.
“I definitely feel better in my own skin,” Webb says. “I am happy to finally be who I am. It feels like [my coming out] was a long time ago. Now for me it’s just basically life. It’s no longer an issue. Live your life the way you’re made and live as happy a life as you can.”
Richard Burnett is Editor-at-Large of Montreal’s Hour magazine where he writes Three Dollar Bill, Canada’s national column on gay life in Canada and around the world.