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Jack Saddleback is a Cree two-spirit transgender gay man from the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alberta. Growing up as genderqueer, Jack battled with severe depression, contemplated suicide and had no sense of belonging. His work today helps others embrace their identities.

This article originally appeared on Diversity & Inclusion.

Jack came out as transgender at the age of 18 after an intense period of internal discovery. Today, he is a professional speaker advocating for change and has been able to make a societal and systemic impact regarding mental health, social disparities, gender and sexual diversity and race relations. He is also the third Student Union President at University of Saskatchewan to identify as Indigenous and the first to identify as transgender.

By being active in his community and on youth councils, leading talks and workshops and sharing his story, he is helping others who struggle with their identities, feel isolated by societal expectations and believe like they simply don’t belong find acceptance. In a recent conversation, Jack Saddleback shares stories from his childhood, his coming out journey and the work he does today to lift and inspire others.

Q: You are open about your battles with depression and identity as a child and youth. Can you describe what you had to deal with growing up?

Saddleback: I had to grow up with a lot of challenges. Having to be Indigenous, queer and trans while living in an environment that was colonial, cisnormative and heteronormative was difficult. I was bullied as a young kid – not only from my peers but also teachers and administrators, and struggled with depression because I didn’t feel like I could belong in the environment around me. I had a tremendous feeling of isolation.

Q: Did you also experience bullying from the Cree community?

Saddleback: I did receive a bit of bullying from the Cree community – cousins, aunties or uncles would tease me, saying ‘you’re such a tom boy, why do you act like that?’ People would encourage me to be a bit more feminine. At times, when I was living on the reserve, I was seen as ‘the only gay in the village.’

But when I take a step back, while I see that I was singled out in some contexts, most often I was still very much included. I was still asked for my opinions and included within the Cree culture, within ceremony. The feeling of exclusion wasn’t as rampant as it was in the day-to-day of living in Calgary or growing up in school.

All in all, there is an underlying understanding that we are a culture of non-interference – we are all individuals with gifts and responsibilities that we can give back to the community in some way.

Q: In pre-contact times, two spirits were called the Gifted Ones because they carried two spirits – that of male and female and were respected as fundamental members of Indigenous society. Are two spirits still respected and recognized as such in your culture, or are you working to bring that back?

Saddleback: It’s getting there within the Indigenous community. There are years and years of healing still to take place. We are dealing with instances where colonization itself has tried to infiltrate not only into our behavioural systems but also our cultural norms and ceremonies. People lean on cisnormative or heteronormative narratives due to the historical facts taught in residential schools.

What I have come to understand through my own journey of simply living and breathing is that revitalization is happening. Folks like myself and many of my other two spirit queer and trans siblings are testaments to the safety of our community. While the teachings had gone underground over generations because our ancestors saw that the colonial system was trying to exterminate us, we are trying to uncover those teachings to give us some direction. To answer: Where do we go from here?

Q: You came out as transgender at the age of 18. Was that the beginning of your journey through recovery and self-acceptance, or had your journey started before then?

Saddleback: Prior to 18 I had this feeling inside me that I couldn’t put my finger on. I knew I was feeling at odds in terms of how I had to live my life and present myself to the world. It all felt very foreign to me – like I was going through the motions but not really living.

It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 when I started in the world of drag and experimented with masculine clothes that I realized how comfortable I was with masculinity. When I did turn 18, I knew that living as a man was what made me happy and made me calm – that’s when I felt this air of freedom. I didn’t have to adhere to these notions of having to live a certain way. For me, it was grabbing onto the reigns of my own future. I always felt that way but couldn’t tell people about it until I had the wording.

Q: What was your experience like coming out to your family?

Saddleback: A number of them were hesitant and said things like: ‘Oh, this is only a phase, you were always a tom boy.’ Then they had to reconcile the vision they had of me and what they wanted for me, such as growing up and getting married as a woman. So they had to reconcile that with themselves.

But with my late Nohkom, it was beautiful coming out to her as she simply stated: ‘I see you now.’ She could see why I had grown up the way I did, why I was pulled certain directions. She had never questioned me and was always there behind me. That really spoke to my own spirit and being as she gave me what I needed to hear in that moment. The affirmations of who I was made my heart sing. That’s when I realized my path and what makes me happy.

Q: Did you come to this realization on your own, or did others help you find your path?

Saddleback: When I started to reconcile my feelings with myself, it was my own lone journey. I had to sit with myself and ask these questions and be comfortable to explore. In my own bedroom I experimented with chest binding and wearing masculine clothes – that helped me dip my toes into stepping outside of my bedroom and walking around the house without anyone batting an eye.

I know now that I can put my two feet down and walk with confidence and say – this is who I am, this is where I’ve been, and this is where I’m going.

Q: Once you had found your own path, what made you decide to help others find theirs?

Saddleback: My time in elementary school, junior high and high school was riddled with bullying, isolation and depression and I never wanted anyone to go through that. I didn’t want community members to deal with speaking with elders and knowledge keepers about why they were different than others.

When I think about how to empower other individuals, I recognize that we are all collectively healing. Not only within Indigenous communities but everyone on Turtle Island. We’re all healing from the traumas of the past and the conflicting viewpoints that our ancestors had, which ultimately resulted in violence. I just want to create a better world – a space where people can be free to grow up in an environment that is understanding of all their intersectional identities. An environment where they can access all the goodness they need in order to be their full and free selves. I want others to have that person in their life to say what my late Nohkom said do me: I see you, I accept you and I love you.

Q: How does your work help others?

Saddleback: By getting my story out there through public speaking I can create the person-to-person space through which people can connect with different aspects of my journey. By helping to shape HR policies and hiring practices, working with different governments to look at the intersectionality of programs, and by using my voice I can push for better social outcomes.

Q: What do you say to those who are struggling to speak up or come out?

Saddleback: Some of the best advice I can give is to reach out to the online forums that exist, talk with other individuals in similar spaces and create connections. I encourage people to begin reading and get comfortable with the language they’re going to be using to start advocating for themselves. If someone is trans, look at trans resources.

Also, I want people to understand that they’re not the encyclopedia for the people around you. There are many resources out there that folks can be referred to – when I came out to my parents, I grabbed pamphlets from my LGBT+ centre, which I gave to them.

Understand too that there are so many people out there rooting for you. You may not know them and may never actually meet them, but there are people trying our best to create an environment where you can be your full, free, authentic self. We are trying to create a safe and soft landing space for you.

Q: For those who don’t feel comfortable with their own identities, what would you say is the value of self-acceptance?

Saddleback: Self-acceptance is like a breath of fresh air. It’s rejuvenating, revitalizing and relieving. Being able to accept yourself is healing not just for yourself but also shows others that they deserve a space to be themselves.

Know that when you are visible – when you are walking down the street holding your partner’s hand, or when you are out in your work environment – you are making it safer not only for the people around you, but the people those people also know.

Today, Jack’s presence and success represent not only an inspiring culmination of his journey but also a ray of hope, demonstrating that young people are doing what Jack’s Nohkom did – seeing him as well and other Indigenous, two spirit, and transgender individuals for who they are.