In Conversation With

Roger Kuhn

May 2022


Pronouns: He/Him

This season, we pay homage to the activists—past, present and future—speaking out for queer liberation and equal rights. One advocate on the forefront is Dr. Roger Kuhn, a Poarch Creek Two-Spirit Indigiqueer soma-cultural sex therapist and sexuality educator. His work explores the concepts of decolonizing and unsettling sexuality and focuses on the way culture impacts and informs our bodily experiences. In addition to his work as a licensed psychotherapist, Roger is a faculty lecturer of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University, board member of the American Indian Cultural Center of San Francisco, community organizer of the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit powwow and a member of the LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.

How did you become an activist?

I’ve been an activist for the majority of my life. My earliest memory of activism was when my mother took me to a picket line when I was about four or five years old. I didn't quite understand what I was there for, but I was enamoured with what people were doing. I knew that my mother believed in something. I'm a member of the Poarch Creek Nation. I was radicalized as an Indigenous person around the age of ten. On the land the reservation is located on, people wanted to build a bingo palace on what would have been considered sacred ground on the land the reservation is located on, now called Alabama. My aunties and uncles were protesting against this, and I got extremely involved in the cause. I understood at that age how important it was to protect sacred sites, our identity, our culture and what was our way of life. There was no turning back from protesting and being an activist for Indigenous rights.

As I grew older and started to understand my sexuality in a new way, my activism shifted toward what we now refer to as Two-Spirit people and making sure that there's visibility and inclusion for them in a variety of spaces, whether that’s health and wellness, the arts or cultural spaces like powwows.


For those who aren’t familiar with the term, could you explain what “Two-Spirit” is?

“Two-Spirit” is a term that was coined in 1990 by Dr. Myra Laramee, who comes from the Fisher River Cree Nation. The story goes that it came to her in a dream, and she shared that term with a group of other indigenous activists who’d gathered for what we now refer to as International Two-Spirit gatherings. It comes from the Northern Algonquin word niizh manitoag, the closest English translation for which is the term ‘Two-Spirit.’ It was a way to push back against ethnographic terminology that was used by anthropologists to describe the gender variance and sexual orientation variance they saw in the indigenous peoples when the settlers came to this land. They felt like the term ‘gay’ didn't really describe them, because it was often situated from a very white-centric perspective. So they wanted a term that represented our culture in a way that acknowledges that well before colonization, we were considered sacred beings and had roles within our communities. And so, ‘Two-Spirit’ became a larger umbrella term. The term ‘indigiqueer’ is also becoming popularized.

It's important to note that if there is a term already in that indigenous language, that's the preference that people have. Call me by the term that is in my community and in my community, we say ennvrkvpv, for which the closest English term is ‘in the middle.’ I myself don't really feel that I fit this category of gay, cis or male. I feel like my sexual attraction to others and gender presentation fits somewhere in that middle space.

What led you to pursue academia and therapy?

I believe that the story of Two-Spirit folk is truly one of beauty, resilience and strength and the origins of our story are rooted in violence. In my training as a psychotherapist, Two-Spirit people were never talked about. It was very rare for LGBTQ+ people to be spoken about. I didn’t understand how we could blanket these psychological principles onto a group of people for whom psychology has been used as a tool of oppression. I recognized that Two-Spirit folks were not being included in those conversations and wanted to make sure they were represented in my work. I wanted to find Two-Spirit clinicians, social workers, psychotherapists and doctors who were looking out for the community as well. And so, when I started to pursue my doctoral studies, I focused on how Two-Spirit people understand the concept of love.

At San Francisco State University, you can minor in Queer Ethnic Studies. The course I teach, Native Sexuality and Queer Discourse, is one of the core classes students can take to fulfill that requirement. In it, I cover all kinds of topics—from the early invasion to Two-Spirit music, theater and academics. It's amazing to have non-Native LGBTQ+ students learning about this particular issue. I feel like one thing Two-Spirit people can offer folks, especially to non-Native people who may be struggling with their identity, is to say, “You are so welcome here. Your identity is what's indigenous to these lands. Here’s what was true for us pre-invasion.”

I'm very open about my Two-Spirit identity with my students so they can see that modeled in the classroom. I never had that. To stand up in front of that room and say, “I am Two-Spirit,” to have other students in the room say, “I'm Two-Spirit”—that moment of connection, empowerment and representation—is what inspires me to continue to write, publish, speak and to say yes to an opportunity like this. We use this term ‘coming out,’ but I feel like as Two-Spirit people we don't come out, we return—we return to who we are. My work as a psychotherapist and as an academic is really reflective of that returning to who we are.


One of the topics of your PhD dissertation is decolonizing sexuality. How exactly does one go about doing that?

I believe that when we speak of decolonization here, in the lands that we now call the United States, we're referring to a reclamation of land. And we have to recognize the bodies on the land, and bodies have something that we now call sexuality. Decolonizing—land and sexuality—is not just for non-Native folk. It applies to Two-Spirit people and gender-variant Native people too. When we’re in this process of decolonization, we must recognize the impact colonial sexual ideologies have had on our bodies. So when I say “decolonize sexuality,” I speak of a returning—a return to the culture that was before invasion.

From an academic perspective, “decolonize sexuality” means incorporating training, information and scholarship into Psychology and Sexuality programs. When you teach students how to do therapy or have a Ph.D. program in Human Sexuality and you do not start with the Indigenous peoples of these lands, you are perpetuating harm. If everything we learn is from a Eurocentric perspective, we are perpetuating harm. So when I say “decolonize sexuality,” I’m saying we must include Indigenous and Two-Spirit people when we talk about these things, otherwise, we are doing the colonizers’ work for them.

So what can settlers do to unsettle their sexuality?

To unsettle sexuality means to take a critical look at the way you understand the sexuality of others and yourself, to look at where your perspectives, thoughts and ideologies come from and how you might be able to trust the knowledge that is present in a new way. To unsettle also means to take an active role in helping center indigenous voices. If you have the power, include indigenous people and give us a permanent seat at the table, not just for one-off presentations. Recognize and understand your role of being complicit in the continuation of these ideologies.

Even though I am an advocate and an activist for Indigenous and Two-Spirit inclusion, my work doesn't stop just because I'm in the room. Where are my Muslim friends, Black women friends and Asian sisters? We need everybody around the table for us to move forward with these dialogues that create real change for folks, not just one individual who has to speak for all Black, Indigenous and people of color. My hope is that by advocating the way that I do for the unsettling process, folks will begin to open their eyes and look around and say, “Who's not here?” and be willing to give up their seats for someone else to come in.


As a soma-cultural psychotherapist, you study the body and the way culture shapes how we understand it.

I made up the term ‘soma-cultural.’ Just like once upon a time people made up the words ‘psychotherapy,’ ‘trauma’ and ‘medicine.’ It’s something we were all experiencing, but we didn’t have a name for it yet. Events, where you were born, where you live, gender identity, sexual orientation, your religion, your family’s social class—all of these things are culture and inform the way in which we see, feel and respond to the world around us.

In my clinical work and teaching, I find that most of us are so cut off from our bodies, we just live right up in the head. We don't want to feel anything, because we haven't learned how to do that as a culture. We've granted permission for people to ignore their bodily responses. Understanding the way that culture shapes and informs us is our key to liberation.

Our bodies hold stories based upon joy, sadness and trauma, and those stories have culture attached to them.

Roger Kuhn

So what does a soma-cultural approach look like in practice? What does this look like in your own life?

I know that my body has been greatly impacted by the culture I’m surrounded by. At the elementary school I attended, it was all white kids. I was teased because of my identity and the way that made me feel physically: smaller, less than, othered. I wanted to hide. I never felt attractive or beautiful. And when I grew up and left North Dakota, I experienced the constant jarring of constantly being asked about my ethnicity. There have been men who’d hit on me and immediately lose interest as soon as I'd say I’m Native American. How is my body not impacted by that? How do I not internalize that and think there's something wrong with me?


I grew up thinking older white men were probably going to be abusive because that was the culture in my house. White men were violent. I don't believe that on a personal level, but that's what my childhood body understood: to fear white men, that I was less than. I don't understand how culture doesn't impact our bodily experiences.

From a soma-cultural perspective, being in a hypervigilant state as a Two-Spirit, queer person, I hold my body in a particular way. Fearing someone will attack or harm me shapes the body in a particular way. You see this a lot with muscular, gay-identified men. It's a way to fetishize the body, but it's also an armor they put on to protect themselves.


How did you come to understand the relationship between the body and culture?

Before I started studying psychology, I studied massage therapy. I remember while training, a colleague touched a part of my body. I could tell I held trauma there because when she dug into that area, I just wanted to cry. And I had an intense flashback of a traumatic event in my life. I just put it together in that moment: Our bodies hold stories based upon joy, sadness and trauma, and those stories have culture attached to them. So moving forward, my work is about healing both that part of my body and the trauma together. When I work with people to heal in the therapeutic realm, I bring their bodies into the session and we explore where in their body they’re holding trauma and what the story behind it is. And through therapy, hopefully, we can shift their relationship to that.

You're a really staunch believer in the restorative powers of pleasure.

One of the reasons I am a sex therapist is because I believe that pleasure heals. I work a lot with people who have physiological issues. In my work to be able to help people with these issues to restore pleasure in their life and recognize the joy they feel from reconnecting with their bodies in these new ways. I think that pleasure goes beyond what we think about in regards to sex.

Pleasure can be everything from dancing to creating art to a conversation like this. Pleasure is when I'm in the room with other Two-Spirit people and we look around the room and see that not only have we survived hundreds of years of the United States government trying to destroy us, but we're thriving. Pleasure is working with the BAAITS powwow, welcoming 5,000 people into the space and seeing the joy on people's faces. I recognize the power of pleasure as a healing modality. In my psychotherapy work, I tell folks, “Pleasure heals.” Being more expressive with gender presentation or sexual orientation leads us to greater liberation. The more we can be understanding of our culture and our body leads to healing.

To advocate for pleasure is my greatest joy of all. To be able to walk down Market Street holding up that “Decolonize Sexuality” sign was a moment of pleasure activism for me. It felt amazing to be able to do that—to be witnessed in my work in that way. I was seen. And when your work is seen and people tell you they respect what you do, that's life-altering.


Who are some leaders or mentors who helped pave the way for you to be here today?

First and foremost, I want to acknowledge Randy Burns from the Northern Paiute Nation and Barbara Cameron from the Standing Rock Nation of Lakota people. In 1975, they formed the first indigenous group called Gay American Indians. They are the pioneers of what we now call the Two-Spirit movement. They started something in 1975, and I am just one of many people who are carrying on that work today. They were fighting and raising their voices and then so many brilliant people who leaned on them came afterward. Dr. Myra Laramee, Albert McLeod, Beverly Littlethunder, Marlon Fixico, Steven Barrios, and Ruth Villaseñor and Miko Thomas, who started the BAAITS powwow—these are all people I admire and am fortunate to call relatives. I also have to thank my aunties and uncles, and of course, my mom. They taught me to be proud to be Poarch Creek—they’re the reason I do what I do.

Lastly, I want to give a shout-out to my 13-year-old self. I’ve been doing this work for a really, really long time. Sometimes I forget that. Sometimes when I’m struggling, I’ll pull out my eighth-grade student ID and look at 13-year-old Roger. I’d left my Native community for one year and was in an all-white school again. I was already deep in my activist mindset at that point and decided to wear a T-shirt that read, “HERITAGE NOT PROFIT. SAVE HICKORY GROUNDS.” He knew what he was doing at 13. And I know what I’m doing at 45. I’m still that person today, that little boy is still inside of me.

What legacy would you like to leave behind?

I hope the work that I’ve continued with decolonizing and unsettling sexuality inspires other folks. I hope my ideas behind soma-cultural liberation inspire others to branch them off into many other directions.

In a world that systematically shrinks and erases queer folks—especially those who exist at an intersection of oppressions—what gives you the audacity to incite change?

What gives me the audacity is: My people survived the attempted genocide of the Native people of this land. What gives me the audacity is: 15 years of education and a doctoral degree. They said that’s what I needed to get in the room, so I did. I played the games they wanted me to play. Are they going to give me another hoop to jump through? Fine. I'll jump through that one too. What gives me the audacity is: liberation. I have as much right to liberation as anybody else. What gives me the audacity is recognizing there are literally millions of people that believe very similar things that I do—Indigenous or not. It’s nothing I do alone. I do it by leaning on my ancestors, by feeling the hands of thousands of people on my back that say, “Keep going, Roger. We see you. We need you.”


So much of what we have today might exceed the wildest dreams of our queer ancestors. What are your wildest dreams for liberation for the queer community?

My wildest dream for our queer community is for us to be included as we are—in everything that we want to do, that there will be a time in our lives when our identity as queer people will be as celebrated as it was before the invasion. My wildest dream is that we can return to the concept of vnokecetv, community love. I know that my people are never going to get our land back in my lifetime. My dream is that as queer folk, we come together and make sure that we're all included and move forward, centering pleasure in our lives.

Ultimately, I hope I'm a small part of healing this incredibly beautiful, fucked-up world that we live in. If I can change just one person's life, I think I've done my job as a human being. I'm in a very fortunate position to be able to do that for lots of people. But all I need to do is change one person. And that one person can be myself. If I'm a better person because of the work I do and the ways I challenge myself, that creates a ripple effect.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.