Gay love on the Rez: award-winning play comes out in Edmonton

The bullying and self-loathing Waawaate Fobister suffered as a gay youth wasn’t derived from his own aboriginal culture – but from the Christian dogma that was forced upon it.

“As a teenager growing up as a Christian, I just hated myself because they told me I was going to go to hell because of who I was,” says the actor, whose one-man show Agokwe, based on his own story, comes to the Catalyst Theatre Oct. 30 to Nov. 11.

“I can’t change who I am. I tried to. I dated girls and everything. And then I started talking to elders about my own culture and talking to them about Agokwe, and that just totally made sense to me, it empowered me.”

Agokwe means “two-spirited” in Fobister’s native tongue. He was raised on the Grassy Narrows First Nation reservation near Kenora, Ontario, among the Anishinaabe people, many of whom had been converted to Christianity and the belief that homosexuality was a sin. But two-spirited people weren’t considered outcasts in traditional culture, Fobister says. “They were seen as something special and they were honoured. They were two spirited, a male spirit and a female spirit, and therefore they were balanced. In our culture, they were the medicine people, the spiritual leaders, they had a role and a responsibility. They didn’t waste people just because they slept with the same sex, they didn’t persecute them. A lot of native cultures are based on spirituality, and if you’re balanced, you can be the person to give spiritual advice for the whole community.”

Fobister wanted to go into acting, but says didn’t want to play the stereotypical, buckskin-wearing, horse-riding Indians. Instead he was advised write his own story. Moving to Toronto helped, where he found kindred spirits, so to speak, at Canada’s gay theatre company Buddies in Bad Times and director Ed Roy, who helped shape the play as it is today.

“It made sense to me, I have to tell my stories, and no one’s going to tell the stories of Agokwe anyway,” Fobister says.

Agokwe is a love story, subtitled “Gay Love on the Rez.” It deals with a pow-wow dancer smitten by a hockey player, and all hell breaks loose when word gets around. Fobister’s parents were the last generation of Anishinaabe to be indoctrinated into Christianity, he says, and the prejudice still ran deep.

Promising both laughter and tears, as there is a lot of humour on the Rez, despite the poverty, Fobister says he has encountered a number of people who have admitted their two-spiritedness to him after shows. This is his second national tour with the one-man play that started as a 30 minute monologue, having hit the road after sweeping the 2009 Dora awards (Toronto’s equivalent to the Edmonton theatre awards, the Sterlings).

“I’ve had several young people come up to me, and come out to me, say they’ve been struggling, that they’re gay and don’t want to come out,” Fobister says. “I give them my number. And I tell them, well, I’m here when you’re ready. If you need to someone to talk to, I’m open to anyone who needs an ear.”