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Chrystos On Queer Native America

Remembering Barbara Cameron

by Kelly Cogswell

MARCH 13, 2002. February saw the loss not only of transgender activist and Stonewall vet, Sylvia Rivera, but lesbian Barbara May Cameron, Native American activist and writer.

Born May 22, 1954 in Fort Yates, North Dakota, Cameron was raised on the Standing Rock Reservation by her grandparents. According to her partner, Lynda Boyd, at age 9 she read an article about San Francisco and told her grandmother that one day she would live there "and save the world, too." She did her best to fulfill her promise.

After two years in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she attended the American Indian Art Institute, majoring in photography and film after high school, she moved to San Francisco. There, in 1975, just a few years after the Stonewall riots in New York, she co-founded Gay American Indians with activist Randy Burns.

At the time, "it was just about impossible to stand up and say who you were. If you had a job you'd get fired. Your family might disown you. You certainly would be ridiculed," recalled Maurice Kenny in "Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America."

Cameron's refusal to be queer in one corner of her life, and native in another, is as radical and transformative now, as it was then. In an interview with The Gully, Chrystos, a Native American poet and activist, and long-time friend of Cameron, credits her with "giving me a sense of dignity about my place in the world, and my right to be in that place."

Being both gay and Native American put Cameron in conflict almost everywhere she was. In "Gee, You Don't Seem Like an Indian From the Reservation," Cameron wrote, "We not only must struggle with the racism and homophobia of straight white America, but must often struggle with the homophobia that exists within our third-world communities."

Even in gay communities of color she sometimes felt on the outside as a Native American. "Racism among third world people is an area that needs to be discussed and dealt with honestly," she wrote. "We form alliances loosely based on the fact that we have a common oppressor, yet we do not have a commitment to talk about our own fears and misconceptions about each other."

Cameron, committed to breaking the silence, still managed to be "very respectful of other people even when she disagreed with them," as Chrystos remembered. That gracefulness in the face of disagreement made her a successful organizer and bridge-builder on a number of fronts, from San Francisco's Lesbian Gay Freedom Day Parade and Celebration to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, on whose behalf she was a delegate to the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

She was mayoral appointee to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and the Commission on the Status of Women, and supported the efforts of women working to improve life in Nicaragua, as well as the international indigenous AIDS network.

Barbara Cameron died at home in San Francisco on February 12, 2002, and was brought to her final rest at Wakpala, South Dakota, on Standing Rock. She is survived by Linda Boyd, her partner of 20 years, their son, Rhys, and a large network of family and friends. A book of her writings and photos is in progress.

Chrystos On Queer Native America

Related links:

For Barbara Cameron's "Gee, You Don't Seem Like an Indian From the Reservation".

For the LGBT and Two Spirit Native American Community at Tenemos.

For a Native American LGBT Web Ring.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage Americas

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Puerto Rico to Taiwan and more.

New World
new world Our Americas. Politics, democracies, failed utopias, and the heirs of colonialism: from Canada to Argentina.

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