April 30, 2024

A Safe Space for Two-Spirit People Since 1999

A community-based volunteer organization known by many as BAAITS was born 25 years ago in California. 'We’ve really evolved as an organization. I’m really glad to see where it is now'



The Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Since 1999, the group, known by many as simply BAAITS, has offered Two-Spirit people a safe place to sit at the table publicly in San Francisco and beyond.

“The stories that we hear from our elders, of acceptance, of having to sometimes leave family behind or family leaving them behind because of who they were, finding their way to San Francisco, hearing those stories and the fact they decided to come together and build this community that was so desperately needed for so many people completely changes the story of those young people who are coming in now,” Sam Campell, Diné and Yoeme, said.

BAAITS is a community-based volunteer organization that offers culturally relevant activities for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Native Americans, their families and friends. They also offer artist grants, list various resources and are part of community initiatives to address health and wellness challenges Indigenous Two-Spirited LGBTQI communities in the San Francisco Bay Area face.

And since 2012, BAAITS has been hosting their annual powwow, which is the first Two-Spirit powwow in the United States. Two-Spirit powwows have sprouted in other areas like the organization Uniting Resilience hosting their first Two-Spirit Pow Wow in Rapid City, South Dakota in 2023 and 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations hosting Toronto’s 3rd Annual 2-Spirit Pow Wow. Phoenix also has an annual Two-Spirit powwow in southern Arizona.

“With our powwow we have people who come around all around the world, not just all around the country, but completely other continents that are coming in here to experience the powwow because they don’t have that where they are,” Campbell said.

Campbell, who has been a board member since 2020, first joined BAAITS as a member in their drum group in 2018.

They said the organization’s strong foundation and the city that it’s in has helped its continuing presence. San Francisco is a hub for the LGBTQ+ community and has rich Indigenous ties and history such as the Alcatraz occupation in 1969.

“It is a place for Indigenous people to gather. We are supported by organizations like the (San Francisco) LGBT Center. We’re supported by other queer organizations in San Francisco. Not only is it just the community around us, it’s also just people coming in, people who need a safe space to be,” they said.

However, they weren’t always accepted. One of the founding members of BAAITS and who is still involved today in their drum group, Phoenix L., Yaqui, said it took a long time for the greater Native community to accept them as Two-Spirit and for a lot of people in the area and in the LGBTQ+ community to understand who Two-Spirits were and had to be reminded constantly to include Two-Spirit people.

“For the LGBTQ community, we were non-existent,” Phoenix said.

The other founding members include Morningstar Vancil, Sally Ramon, Dr. Gene Hightower, Ruth Villaseñor, and Ken Harper.

Phoenix, who is in her 50s and is Two-Spirit, said they all met at the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco. They started to meet regularly and began to hold meetings in 1998, forming officially in 1999.

“There were a few of us who wanted to create a place where Two-Spirits could meet and there wasn’t anything in place in the Bay Area so we came up with the name BAAITS and we did a lot of work to get it off the ground,” she said.

Ruth Villaseñor, Chiricahua Apache, who also identifies as Two-Spirit, said one of their first projects was organizing an International Two Spirit Gathering in Saratoga, California. Other early events they planned were potlucks and socials to get more people to know who they were.

Villaseñor’s past roles in BAAITS was as chairperson and chairperson of the powwow. The 66-year-old now volunteers for the annual Two Spirit Pow Wow and is an active member of the BAAITS Two Spirit Drum.

She said the powwow allows "people to celebrate their cultural identity regardless of gender. The powwow also creates a safe space to allow Two-Spirit people to return to the circle. And for those Two-Spirit people who travel from outside the Bay Area, they may even discover resources that could be valuable for their community.”

Villaseñor credits the younger generation who have embraced their culture in helping the organization to be around for so long.

“BAAITS allows Two-Spirit people to connect with other Two-Spirit people. For Two-Spirit people from reservations or rural areas, many to travel to the Bay Area may finally feel safe to be their authentic selves. It’s been an amazing journey to see the difference between those who joined BAAITS at the beginning and spent a great deal of time fighting homophobia and educating other Native people about the traditional roles Two-Spirits had throughout history,” she said. “To now feeling like the powwow helps educate a larger audience of non-Natives about who we are, and what we look like. We’re bringing visibility to our community."

Today, Phoenix is proud of how far the organization has come.

“It’s really been organic. We’ve really evolved as an organization. I’m really glad to see where it is now. We have an executive director, we’re actually able to have a program manager and such. We didn’t have all that before. We were volunteers all before,” Phoenix said.

It is expected that later this year there will be more celebrations of the organization's 25th anniversary.

“We’re really trying to not only highlight BAAITS achievements in the last 25 years but honor those people that have been with us for so long who’ve been helping us carry this horn and continue to make BAAITS, especially the BAAITS powwow, successful,” Campbell said.

What Phoenix hopes for the 50th anniversary of BAAITS is that being Two-Spirit won’t even be fought or talked about.

“It’s taken us a long time to be accepted by the greater Native community. We still have to fight for our identities and everything and so when it will be a non-issue will people realize we are part of the LGBTQ community, we are Two-Spirits and we are part of the circles,” she said.

Lead image: The Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits at the 2016 Pride Parade. (Photo courtesy of BAAITS' Facebook).

About the author

Kalle Benallie

Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at ICT's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at kalle@ictnews.org. Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.