Jenny Irene Miller's photography project will tell the world about LGBT Alaska Natives — shapeshifters, she says — including herself.
Miller identifies as gay, two-spirit. She has a girlfriend and recognizes feminine and masculine qualities in herself. After hiding her sexual identity and her race, passing as white in school instead of Iñupiaq, she wants to make portraits and tell stories of people with two spirits, male and female, as an act of liberation.
She's starting with herself.
"I'm not fully out to everyone in my family, but I need to be," Miller said. "I'm ready, but I'm also afraid of all the hurt and negativity. I think that, for me to live my life, without hiding any part of me, would be completely healthy and fulfilling for my spirit and my well-being as an individual and as a part of a community."
In my previous two columns I wrote about a gay man whose career as a judge was destroyed by prejudice 25 years ago and about today's debate over religious and LGBT rights. This column is about the future, which I found personified in this brave and articulate person who is ready to stare down three overlapping kinds of discrimination — as a Native, as an LGBT person, and as a female -- to help younger people like her feel good about themselves.
Miller started life in Nome. Her father is white and her mother Inupiaq. She felt confused about her gender from early childhood, enjoying taking on boys' or girls' typical roles in play. She wanted to learn to hunt and learn to sew. She tried to reject thoughts of who she was attracted to.
She talked about none of it. She had seen the disrespect and hatred directed at her older brother because he was gay.
When Miller was 9 her family moved to Fairbanks, where she also learned about racism. New friends who didn't know she was Inupiaq stereotyped Natives as street drunks, mocked the Alaska Native accent and made fun of the smell of Native foods. Miller tried to make sure they wouldn't find out she was Native.
"I internalized hatred," she said. "I stopped eating a lot of our traditional Native foods, because I thought my new friends might think I'm different, and I might be made fun of. And it's hard to get our seal oil and seal meat in the Interior. So I began to shift the way that I acted and I presented myself to fit in, and I feel as though I lost a lot of strength in who I was, and pride."
But at the University of Washington, learning about the history of Native oppression helped her open up all sides of herself. Earning two degrees, she studied those issues and photography, working with distinguished indigenous professors and reading about the community of LGBT American Indians.
Miller believes she would have been accepted more easily in traditional Inupiaq culture.
We don't know much about how the Iñupiat traditionally regarded people with different gender identities before outside contact, but the first British visitors found much more equality in their society than they had known at home, with fluid relationships based on respect and ability rather than strict social roles. The Iñupiat gave devoted care to the disabled and elderly and gave forgiveness and inclusion to those who violated rules.
Miller believes those values of acceptance grew from the need for survival. In the Arctic, no one could be discarded. She thinks Christian missionaries introduced intolerance.
Jenny Miller's mother, Charlotte Miller, was a churchgoer. It was hard for her to accept her children's identity even though the traditional Iñupiaq grandparents who raised her taught respect and punished her for mocking a gay person.
"Mom was having a difficult time when we began to talk about this in my early 20s," Jenny said. "My aunt was with us, and she looks at my mom and says, 'Your children are great, and they're not doing anything wrong. You should love them for who they are.'"
A year ago, Charlotte got there. Now she says of Jenny, "She is such a wonderful person, that how can anyone deny (that), being prejudice towards her. Her intelligence, her beauty, it just overcomes it."
Charlotte is still a Christian, but no longer attends church.
"I have a struggle with believing," she said. "Why did God bring those people into the world to be hated, if it's such a bad thing?"
Jenny said her mother's support has given her the strength to take the next step. Now 28, living in Anchorage and working in public relations, she won a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum for a project called Shapeshifters (which she later renamed "Continuous"). Over the next eight months she will photograph 20 two-spirit, LGBT Alaska Natives to display with each person's story. I learned about her from an article on the grant by Lillian Maassen, posted on the forum's website.
Miller's poise amazed me. As we talked in a downtown coffee shop, she clearly understood the risk of being in my column. She has felt the hurt of racist comments that some readers tag on almost any online article (we've turned off the comment function for this column). But she calmly decided to speak.
This is a person we can't afford to discard.
"In order for our Native communities to heal, we need to acknowledge and honor the gender diversity within our Native peoples," she said. "Everyone is entitled to their happiness and shouldn't be afraid to express who they are or who they love. Now this sounds like a fictional utopia. But I just hope everyone will be able to be prideful in who they are and not have to hide any elements of their identity."
She doesn't expect her one exhibit to accomplish such a change. But even stepping forward is a start.
"It's just beginning to have a conversation, which I think is important, and what I hope Shapeshifters will do," Miller said. "To have people begin to think about it, and how we are special. We are indeed special. And we deserve respect."
Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.
Editor's note: When this column was originally published, Miller's photography project was called "Shapeshifters." Later, she renamed the project "Continuous."
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