Bob Leahy: Hi Preston: Thanks for talking to PositiveLite.com again. Now I want to jump in and say right away that I know you are aboriginal, I know, you're gay or two-spirited and I know that you are HIV-positive. Those are three factors which individually and collectively can lead to discrimination.
Preston Leon: Well, in this town I can’t go around thinking it’s OK if I kiss my partner; it’s probably worse on the reservation itself. The elders, in certain cases, won’t accept it. But it's 2015 and a lot of them think it’s perfectly normal and loveable. But I think a lot of people in this town and I suspect many towns across the country . . for example I posted a picture of me and my late husband kissing and someone commented on it “I’m old fashioned: I don’t need to see two guys kissing”. A lot of people in this town are old-fashioned.
You said ”late husband”. I didn’t know you were married.
I was. It wasn’t recognized by the government. We had a ceremony in the native hall at Burns Lake, and I got to marry my partner in there traditionally. I had just turned 16. A lot of the people really did accept us.
But he committed suicide . . .
He did. We were both the same age. It was a year ago now.
That’s awful. Maybe I should ask you something else. Do you identify as gay or two spirited?
I would identify as gay because I just don’t have enough knowledge. The whole idea of being two-spirited means you really have to know your roots.
But you understand the concept . .
I do. It’s a very traditional journey. Like I have a traditional name that was given to me by my great grandfather: Ceneecho. It translates to “big man.” When I was born he was trying to bring me into the traditional way of life. For example there is a thing called “the crow’s tongue.” It’s when you take a hawk or even a grouse and you cut their tongue out and literally ten minutes after I was born, my great grandfather stuck this tongue onto my tongue. It’s supposed to make my feelings or senses stronger. For example it’s supposed to make me know when someone is going to die or know when someone is going to be born. It’s worked. It’s very sudden, you get a feeling and your heart rate picks up.
Oy! Ok, I want to recap your situation. You live in the interior of British Columbia. How far from Vancouver?
Twelve hours driving time.
On the edge of a place called Burns Lake, right on the edge of a reservation. Which band do you come from?
I come from Tk’emlups First Nation.
Remind me how many people live in Burns Lake.
In terms of acceptance of two-spirited people how does that look like there?
They are so good with the culture that people really like them. They end up getting nominated as leaders.
So if you don’t identify as two-spirited like you don’t, is it harder to be accepted?
It is, but some of the older people here think two-spirited and gay are the same thing. I really don’t tell anyone unless they ask me, I have to be really careful.
Is there anything in your area in terms of resources for people who are gay or two-spirited?
There is a local office, its name is Carrear Sekaniee. It’s a welfare services place, but they offer a wide range of counselling. They do provide services for gay youth but to be honest I’m probably the only one, besides my late husband, to use their services. Actually one of the ladies I’ve talked to there is lesbian. I’ve only just discovered that she had a wife.
What about sexual health information, condom availability, etc.?
Nobody really rings the bells around here. Maybe in sex ed. when you are in grade 10 but otherwise you are on your own. But if you go to the hospital, they have condoms even in the bathrooms.
HIV testing. Is it very high profile in your area? Do people your age get tested?
No. I’ve talked to a lot of my friends and asked “when was the last time you were tested?” They just aren’t worried about it. A lot of people in this town probably wouldn’t even know what HIV is.
What about resources for people with HIV in your area?
It was through our local health clinic on this side of the lake that I was diagnosed. We went ahead and ordered the medications right away through there. So I did OK. I go the local health authorities if I have any questions.
Do you feel isolated? Are there other HIV-positive people in your community you can talk to?
Far as I know, I’m the only one. I have heard a couple of rumours but I’m not willing to go to them and ask “are you poz?” And I believe there may be a lot of people who are HIV-positive but they don’t even know either.
What about if you had a substance use problem; are there things like needle exchanges?
At the hospital I think there is. But I think they get referred to Prince George to get help with that.
So which of drugs and alcohol seem to be the biggest problem in the community?
Probably both. Marihuana to cocaine, there is a wide variety. We are only two hours away from the northern capital of drugs, Prince George. There is a place downtown there called “the Hood” – drug busts here, drug busts there, and it’s crazy.
So do young people typically leave the reservation where you live to go to the big city – Vancouver or Prince George - to make a living, or even for a night out?
They do, but not many people leave town for good. After I graduate, four or five months away – it’s kind of scary to think about - I really want to move into the funeral services profession. I’d have to attend school in Vancouver for a year or two first.
Interesting career choice. We should talk about that another time. But can I go back to your roots again. As a young man, you don’t fully embrace aboriginal culture, just some of it, right? To what extent do you embrace healing teachings on your HIV journey?
My grandfather doesn’t know I’m positive, but I told him I have a condition where my immune system is under attack and that this could make me really sick. He said “Hol-y. I had that when I was younger back in the 50s” (laughs). So we hopped in my truck and went in to the bush and we picked a good bowl of soapberries. We make a thing called Indian ice cream with it but in this case we put the berries in a jar. The juice comes from the berries naturally and I drank that. It was relay soapy – gross! But I really did feel better. We also take . . . . It’s like a bark layer from a cedar tree, you bake them and they get hard like cookies. They are supposed to be good for your immune system as well.
Interesting you say “they are supposed to be good” Do you believe in them?
I’m rather sceptical. I believe in the soapberries very strongly. I think they really worked. The other stuff I really doubt it.
What about the spiritual side of things? Are there aspects of traditional teachings which you feel are helpful to you mentally from an HV point of view?
Well my belief is in a creator - we all do around here –and we just try to live as best as we can. For example I find out I’m positive, I do the best I can, keep my immune system going, and I’ll take the medication they give me but if there comes a day it doesn’t work. I will ask the creator whether he wants to help me and heal me or whether this is “the end of the trail.” If something causes me to not go any further, I’ll accept it and not try to extend my lifetime. I just believe there is a set plan and I’m not going to interrupt that.
Preston, I appreciate your honesty; that’s probably a good place to end. This has been really fascinating. I’ve learned a lot.
You’re very welcome, Bob