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How Indigenous Oklahomans are leading movement to improve 2SLGBTQ youth well-being

Kendra Wilson-Clements (left) and Sarah Adams (right) smile together at the Pride Parade in downtown Oklahoma City.
Kendra Wilson-Clements (left) and Sarah Adams (right) smile together at the Pride Parade in downtown Oklahoma City.

Warning to readers: This story references self-harm and suicide.

Kendra Wilson-Clements knew from an early age that she had to hide who she was.

Wilson-Clements is Choctaw and Two-Spirit and grew up in a strict religious household with South Baptist and Mennonite influences.

She explained that when she was four years old, she would pick flowers from her neighbor’s yard to show affection for her babysitter.

“I just had this big crush on her, but I knew that that wasn't normal,” Wilson-Clements said. “But I was four, so it was sweet and acceptable.”

She preferred to play with her brother’s toys over her Barbie dolls and felt uncomfortable wearing dresses.

As Wilson-Clements grew older and began expressing her needs, she noticed her mother’s disapproval. To win back her mother’s acceptance, she started dating boys.

“I remember my mom would be just elated that I would have a boyfriend,” she said. “And that felt good because I wanted to be recognized. I wanted my mom's approval so bad because I didn't get that often.”

But dating boys, Wilson-Clements said, was like putting a square peg in a round hole—it did not work.

Wilson-Clements's rocky relationship with her mother eventually caused her to turn to drugs and alcohol.

But seven years and three months later, Wilson-Clements is sober and using her experience to advocate for others experiencing similar situations through an organization called Cousins.

“I had to suppress my identity, and so I just made it a personal commitment to really help our 2SLGBT+ youth love themselves, understand who they are, step into their identities, explore their identities and ask questions about it,” Wilson-Clements said. “When they get to speak freely about it, that's how we get to do away with hate and these policies that we make.”

Following the death of Owasso High School student Nex Benedict, the organization Cousins is expanding its services to provide all young 2sLGBTQ+ Oklahomans with a safe space to be themselves.
Following the death of Owasso High School student Nex Benedict, the organization Cousins is expanding its services to provide all young 2sLGBTQ+ Oklahomans with a safe space to be themselves.

Fostering a safe space

Cousins was born during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Wilson-Clements and Sarah Adams, both educators, noticed disheartened students where they worked at Sovereign Community School.

Adams, a former board member there, said many students were stuck in unaffirming homes.

“We were getting calls all the time... and going, we got to do something. We got to do something,” Adams said.

Cousins began helping Indigenous 2SLGBTQ+ youth in 2021 and now has a dozen young people participating in the bi-monthly talking circles led by a therapist.

It was around that time when Wilson-Clements said anti-LGBTQ+ bills were being introduced in Oklahoma’s legislature, such as one bill supporting a lifted ban on conversion therapy.

“It was just like a snowball of hurt,” she said. “Our young ones were not in a great place.”

Some of the difficulties young Indigenous 2SLGBTQ+ youth face include a lack of same-sex marriage recognition in more conservative tribal nations.

Unaccepting leaders and adults in children's lives can cause them to act reclusively and accelerate lower emotions — behaviors Wilson-Clements has noticed among some Cousins members.

“They don't want to show themselves or go outdoors,” Wilson-Clements said. “It's just like that fear, guilt, and shame start to build within them. And they can't work through those emotions, those very adult emotions.”

A report published by the Trevor Project found the rejection marginalized LGBQ+ youth face can create “homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic attitudes, feelings of burdensomeness and deteriorating mental health.”

The report specifically focused on Indigenous LGBTQ+ youth. It highlighted the lasting efforts of colonization and the trauma created by cultural and genocidal violence added to the discrimination Indigenous young people may encounter.

Over half of the Indigenous LGBTQ+ young people surveyed seriously considered suicide in the past year.

“When we don't get that acceptance, love and nurturing from the person that we grew inside, it really does something to you,” Wilson-Clements said.

The importance of family support

However, one thing that significantly lowered suicide risk was family support — something Wilson-Clements experienced firsthand.

“It was my grandmother who stayed in contact with me and just told me how much she loved me,” Wilson-Clements said. “And she believed in me, and there was nothing wrong with me.”

Cousins’ co-founder Sarah Adams has a son named Twelve in the organization.

Sarah Adams marches with other Indigenous LGBTQ+ activists and allies during the Pride Parade on June 30, 2024.
Sarah Liese
Sarah Adams marches with other Indigenous LGBTQ+ activists and allies during the Pride Parade on June 30, 2024.

Twelve explained how mainstream society can impose certain beliefs and viewpoints on people and pointed to labels to express his thought process.

“I feel very conformed and trying to be pressed into a box in a world that wasn't made for me,” he said. “And so it's just been really helpful for me to break out of that box of how I should be or what I should be, and just doing everything for happiness instead of trying to fit in.”

Twelve said he is grateful for Cousins’ support and the dedication required to keep the organization going.

“Everybody has full-time jobs,” he said. “We’re not getting paid to do this stuff. … I'm thankful for the people and the work being done.”

Soon, Twelve will head off to college, while the support from Cousins will continue. He might even act as a leader in the organization, which Adams said is now expanding.

“After that tragedy with Nex (Benedict), they decided to open it up to non-Indigenous kids because they realized that all 2SLGBTQ+ kids need space,” Adams said.

The loss of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old non-binary teenager of Choctaw descent, last February rippled across LGBTQ+ communities nationwide. After experiencing bullying at Owasso High School, Benedict took their own life, prompting Cousins’ expansion.

“These stories are happening often, unfortunately,” Wilson-Clements said. “We have constant care like that, continuous care in the way of these talking circles with our young ones. And so they always have an outlet.”

To improve mental health outcomes, the organization has strived to cultivate a sense of community and offer members the chance to establish stronger cultural connections, which past research has shown can make a positive difference.

A personal experience

Bear (Wahzhazhe/Osage) is a 15-year-old Cousins member. He got emotional when he talked about how the group has helped him grow in multiple ways.

“It gives me something to look forward to every month, and it makes me feel more connected to my culture and just being proud of myself, of who I am,” Bear said.

While Indigenous LGBTQ+ young people face higher rates of self-harm, LGBTQ+ youth who are not Indigenous or are of a minority still encounter issues and risks that may overlap. Because of this, Cousin leaders said they are finding solutions to widen their reach to all 2SLGBT+ young folks.

“That is a new thing that we're figuring out how to program,” Adams said. “How do we fund that? How what does it look like?”

The organization’s expansion is ongoing, but Bear’s vision for the future, like that of other 2SLGBTQ+ youth, remains the same.

“I know in this life, we will get the justice of the people that have lost their lives because of this horrible country,” Bear said. “And that we will bring justice to them, and everything will work out as it needs to be.”

Bear plans to work as an advocate in the mental health field. He said the resources he received from Cousins have been transformational, and he aspires to give back in a similar way.

“I just hope that one day I can bring the hope that the other people brought me, like Aunt Sarah and Aunt Kendra,” he said.

To learn more about Cousins, Adams said to visit their Instagram page or email [email protected].

The Trevor Project offers resources to prevent self-harm. The hotline is 1-866-488-7386, and the text messaging service can be initiated by texting “start” to 678-678.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

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Sarah Liese reports on Indigenous Affairs for KOSU.
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