How Trevor Stratton turned an HIV diagnosis into a lifetimes’ worth of advocacy work

How Trevor Stratton turned an HIV diagnosis into a lifetimes’ worth of advocacy work
Trevor Stratton

By Mike Renzella

The Haldimand Press

MISSISSAUGAS OF THE CREDIT—For Trevor Stratton, helping people struggling with their identity is not just a job, it’s a calling.

As a leader in the Two-Spirit community, Stratton has a long history of lived experience that he has utilized in a variety of roles over the last 20+ years.

“Two-Spirit is a catch-all basket to catch all the different identities in each of our cultures. It’s an English word that’s not perfect. It captures both sexual orientation and gender identity, but Two-Spirit is much more than that, it’s also our roles and responsibilities in each of our communities where we come from.”

Born to an Indigenous mother hailing from Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and a fifth-generation English Canadian father, Stratton was just eight when his parents divorced, and although his mother worked hard to support him and her brother, it wasn’t always easy.

“She was working and supporting two kids, but she also had to deal with her own multigenerational trauma,” said Stratton.

Stratton began getting into trouble himself in his teen years: “I quit school and moved out. I was very street-involved.”

During those formative years, Stratton found himself involved in sex work, drug use, and by his early 20s, had spent some time in jail for assaulting a police officer: “I didn’t have very many skills, so I used what I had to survive as a kid.”

Despite his struggles, Stratton did have connections with family, and although they were heavily involved in the Christian community, he went to them to ask about Indigenous spirituality.

“I remember asking my Indigenous grandparents if they remembered anything traditional from Indigenous culture in regards to language and spirituality,” said Stratton. “My grandmother said ‘no, that’s devil worship, don’t ever ask me that again’, because she was very hardcore Christian and she considered the Indigenous identity to be devil worship… which is what people learned through the residential school systems.”

Upon asking about the history of Two-Spirited people, his grandmother told him he had been “possessed by the demon of lust.”

Stratton’s first brush with the Two-Spirit community came from meeting other members of the Indigenous community while out in Toronto in the late 1980s. 

After spending six months hitchhiking around Europe in 1990, he returned home, and received an HIV-positive diagnosis.

Eight years later, after living briefly in Seattle, Stratton first began experiencing symptoms, prompting a move to Vancouver, where he ran an organic farm with his wife, and eventually back to Ontario: “That’s where I ended up developing AIDS.”

Despite a regimen of antiretroviral drugs that helped Stratton rebuild his immune system, he found himself lost and unable to process his diagnosis, “I was deep in depression and spiritually bankrupt.”

In 1999, Stratton found himself invited to the annual general meeting for CAAN (orginally the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, now known as Communities, Alliances and Networks), where he took part in skill-building workshops, healing gatherings, ceremonies, psychotherapy, and group therapy.

“It made me feel better spiritually and emotionally.”

There, he met a women from the Haida nation in BC who gave him some sacred tobacco to bring back home to the elders in his home community as a gesture of thanks: “I agreed to do that, so I drove my old junk car down to the ‘rez’ on a mission to go share this medicine with my community… I realized the medicine was more than the physical medicine, it was the medicine I was bringing from that healing circle, and I was going to share it in my community.”

Stratton met with a Chief back home and told her all about his experience. She directed him to go visit the local Community Health centre where his cousin Sheila worked. When she heard his story, she asked him to come and speak about his lived experience at an HIV workshop.

“That was my first experience actively talking about my story and sharing it with people,” said Stratton. “I got permission from my mother and my community to do this work, so I know my ancestors and my family stand behind me.”

The next few years would be a whirlwind for Stratton, serving as CAAN’s treasurer, the Board President of Two-Spirited People of the First Nations, and as Chair of the working group Ontario Aboriginal HIV and AIDS Strategy, which eventually incorporated itself, with Stratton serving as the first President on the Board of Directors.

In 2005, he began professional work as a consultant, but remained heavily involved in the Two-Spirit and HIV/AIDS community.

“I was the liaison for Indigenous people living with HIV for 11 years and I facilitated the caucus of Indigenous people living with HIV for those 11 years,” said Stratton. “I realized that I was pretty good at this.”

As a coordinator of the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV and AIDS (IIWGHA), he became involved in a five-year research project that sees CAAN working in collaboration with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research on a $3-million budgeted project that will see Indigenous people from seven different countries working together.

“It’s a global research project on sexual and reproductive health for Indigenous women and girls in those seven countries. Nepal was our first global research meeting,” said Stratton. “Each of the research teams held a ceremony in their own culture, and we also toured Nepal, where we were partnered with the Newar people of the Katmandu Valley.”

He has also recently rejoined as president of Two-Spirited People of First Nations, and over the last four years has been instrumental in expanding their efforts at community outreach.

“Two-Spirit people are so much more than HIV, we needed to find a way to build on our strengths, not just address our vulnerabilities.”

He continued, “We expanded from just doing HIV and Hepatitis-C to all kinds of programming… Because of the work of our organization and the Two-Spirit movement all across Turtle Island, not only in Canada we have made great strides.”

Despite those strides, the Two-Spirit community still faces challenges today: “There is still a lot of homophobia in our communities…. Our communities are all at different places in terms of their journey to reclaiming Indigenous spirituality and culture, or just fighting against some of the stigmas and discrimination that were taught to us through residential schools.”

But the generational shift towards reconciliation and reclamation leaves Stratton feeling full of hope for the future: “A lot of our elders had themselves experienced residential school systems and being punished for speaking their language or talking about their Indigenous spirtuality,” he said. “Now, there’s lots of elders that do know Two-Spirit traditions and how it works and are not judgemental.”

He summed up his lifetime’s worth of efforts, “Some Indigenous people will say ‘it’s not my job to teach you everything about Indigenous people and Two-Spirit’, and I understand that response… I’ve decided that I want to do that work, because I walk with one foot in both worlds.”

He concluded, “I’m uniquely placed in the middle, like a Two-Spirit person’s place is, to be an intermediary… True reconciliation is one person at a time…. I want to be part of reconciliation.”