Modern-day nádleeh: GLBT Navajos share their hopes and struggles

Modern-day nádleeh: GLBT Navajos share their hopes and struggles

Source: The Navajo Times
By: Cindy Yurth

In many ways, Pernell Sam is a traditional Navajo woman. She makes a mean batch of fry bread. She’s fluent in her language. She knows every inch of the red mesa behind her family’s home in Many Farms, where she used to herd sheep as a boy.

You read that right. In one way, Sam is not so traditional. Or perhaps she is. The 29-year-old transgendered woman, who runs her own cleaning service, considers herself a nádleeh — a man taking on the role of a woman.

In the Navajo creation myth, the nádleeh went with the men during a period when the sexes decided to separate. They helped the men to survive by doing the cooking and other tasks traditionally assigned to women. In traditional Navajo society, members of this  “third gender” had an accepted place, helping with the child care, cleaning and cooking. There was also a fourth gender, the dilbaa’ — women who took the masculine role.

According to Wesley Thomas, a Navajo assistant professor of anthropology, gender studies and international studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, the concept of nádleeh is not well understood among younger Navajos — and by “younger,” he means people under 75.

“The nádleeh was, in my research work, an asexual being who was specifically placed and existed only within the Navajo religious sphere,” Thomas emailed from his office in Bloomington. “This made the nádleeh a gender being, instead of a sexual being.”

Nevertheless, the concept of nádleeh is intriguing to modern Navajos living what are now considered alternative sexual lifestyles: gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. The legend of the nádleeh proves, according to gay Navajo activist Sherrick Roanhorse, that “our traditional culture recognizes differences and bases more importance on what an individual can do for their family and, in a larger sense, their community.”

If people of ambiguous sexuality were once accepted members of Diné society, that is not so today. Sam can show you the scar on her back where she was stabbed during a party not far from her home.

“I guess the guy thought I was coming on to him or something,” she said.    

For other Navajo gays, lesbians and transgenders interviewed for this article, the scars are psychological. At best, they were the victims of hurtful words at school. At worst, they tried suicide. And almost everyone interviewed knows of at least one person who succeeded in taking his own life, unable to cope with the isolation of being gay on the rez.

“Every time I see an obituary for a young person in the Navajo Times, I wonder,” said “Ian,” a 39-year-old gay Navajo living in Phoenix. “Was it someone struggling with the same kind of issues I faced as a kid?”

Many GLBT Navajos blame Christianization for the gradual change in attitudes toward gays over the years, but Ian said he always felt free to be himself among his Christian family.

“My grandmother was a Pentecostal minister,” he said, “But my family always accepted me for who I was. I think more than whether your family is Christian or traditional, it’s the individuals in the family who set the tone. If someone in your family hates gays, that attitude can spread to the whole family. My grandmother had the real Christian message: Don’t hate.”

When Ian went to high school in Gallup, it was a different story. “I was very feminine. I looked like a girl, actually,” he said, “so I got all the words: ‘fag,’ ‘queer,’ ‘HIV,’ ‘AIDS.'”

Fortunately, Ian had had enough support from his family over the years that he was able to shrug off the bullying. “I felt sorry for the kids who were calling me names, actually,” he said. “I thought, ‘You don’t know me, and you have no idea what you’re doing.’ I mean, what if you call someone ‘HIV’ and they really are HIV-positive? How would that make them feel? How would you feel?”

“Luke,” a 27-year-old bisexual man living in Shiprock, was one of the kids “who used to make fun of the fags” in high school.

“I was one of the macho jocks who went out for every sport,” he said.

Then he went away to college.

“I had an experience with a fraternity brother, and it was great,” he said. “I never knew I could be attracted to men as well as women.”

Most of the GLBT Navajos interviewed for this article, though, knew they were different “from Day One,” as “Dale,” a 19-year-old freshman at Northern Arizona University put it. Like many gay teens growing up on the rez, he found ways to hide his sexual preference.

“At first, I was the kind of kid you wouldn’t even notice,” he said. “I did my best to blend into the wall. Then I did the complete opposite and got into everything — sports, Spanish Club, studentbody government, you name it. When I hung out with my male friends, I’d see a pretty girl walk by and say, ‘Wow, she’s hot,'” even though I wasn’t feeling anything at all.”

Like most of the gay men interviewed, Dale isn’t “out” to his family yet. “I’m afraid they’d cut me off,” he said. But he has found a community at NAU.

“During my first couple of weeks here, I talked myself into going to a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a home.”

Almost universally, college was an awakening for GLBT Navajos.

Tomasina Grey, a 23-year-old union organizer living in Albuquerque, knew she was attracted to women since “about fifth grade,” but she tried to “do the dutiful daughter thing.”

“I even got engaged to a man in high school,” she said. “It wasn’t until college that I met other lesbians, and straight people who were supportive of me being a lesbian, and felt like it was OK to be who I am.”

Navajos who moved off the rez to Albuquerque, Phoenix, Santa Fe and other southwestern cities found a solid network not only of GLBT folks, but of GLBT Natives., a Phoenix-based online support group and information clearinghouse, offered a chance to chat and to organize. At the University of New Mexico, there was until recently a class offered on “Two-Spirits,” a modern term adopted by GLBT Indians based on some North American tribes’ belief that homosexuals are blessed with two spirits, male and female.

(The term doesn’t resonate with some Navajos. “In our culture, if you have two spirits, you’d better find a medicine man, because it means you’re possessed,” said Mattee Jim, a transgendered woman living in Gallup.)

For many young Diné, it wasn’t until they went away to college and started studying their own culture that they learned of the nádleeh.

“I actually laughed at the stories, and thought someone had made them up within the last couple of years,” said Herman Larry, a 21-year-old student living in Tucson. “When I was growing up, there were no folklores of other homosexuals running around the forest or stories of the nádleeh.”

Most young Diné GLBTs found the stories encouraging. Jim has gone as far as to forego female hormone injections and surgery, in solidarity with the nádleeh of old.

“I would love to have breasts and soft skin,” she said, “but they didn’t have access to those things (hormones and surgery), so I figure I can live without them.”

Just when many young Navajo homosexuals were learning that they have a traditional place in their culture, the Navajo Nation Council dropped a neutron bomb on the gay community: the Diné Marriage Act of 2005.

Passed overwhelmingly this past spring over President Joe Shirley Jr.’s veto, the act allows the Navajo Nation to recognize only marriages between a man and a woman.

It was, in the words of one young gay man, “a slap in the face out of the blue.”

Luke, who has political aspirations himself, was furious.

“They say they’re for traditional family values, but in the same year they passed a law decriminalizing adultery,” he said. “Is adultery between heterosexuals more moral than a gay couple in a committed relationship?”

Thomas, the anthropology professor, says legislating marriage at all is blatantly un-Navajo. “The Navajo form of marriage was only acknowledged by the local communities and not the whole Navajo Nation,” he wrote. “We all should be ashamed of ourselves in buying into the enforced doctrine of Western acculturation and assimilation.”

Some GLBT Navajos blamed themselves for not lobbying harder against the act.

“We let the urban Indians fight our battles for us,” said Jim. “Where were the rez queens?”

Whatever the case, the law was passed, and most of the GLBT Navajos interviewed for this piece say they feel less welcome on the rez than ever.

“I haven’t been home in over a year,” admitted Dale, who hails from the Ganado area. “Even the way I dress now, I don’t think I could get away with it on the rez.”

While some GLBT Navajos think things may be getting marginally better for young gays on the reservation, others are pessimistic.

“There’s still no one for them to talk to about these things, no support network,” said Luke. “Although people still practice the traditional religion, the moral and religious climate on the reservation is mostly dominated by Mormonism and fundamentalist Christianity, neither of which are known for being friendly toward gays.”

Jim said she’s observed effeminate men being accepted during traditional ceremonies, but not elsewhere.

“Almost every ceremony you go to, you’ll see a couple of men helping make the tortillas or whatever,” she said, “and everyone is laughing and talking and getting along fine. But as soon as the ceremony is over, you walk out into the world and the name-calling starts again. And it’s some of the same people who were laughing with you at the ceremony.”

Grey said it will be the Navajo Nation’s loss if something isn’t done to stem the diaspora of GLBT Diné.

“We have a lot to offer,” she said. “Most of us are successful professionals, with good jobs. Most of us have gone to college.

“In our traditional culture, the nádleeh were thought to have healing powers,” she continued. “What if the next great Navajo medicine man is locked up in a closet somewhere? What if we’re the ones to heal our culture? What if we’re the ones to restore our religion?”

Source: The Navajo Times, published November 24, 2005.

Click here to read a letter to the editor of the Navajo Times about this story.