Navajo Gay-Straight Alliance sets agenda

Navajo Gay-Straight Alliance sets agenda

Source: The Navajo Times
By Cindy Yurth

TSAILE — Diné College’s new Gay-Straight Alliance has a message for the Navajo Nation: “Gay Navajos are not going to hide any more.”

And to prove it, says club president Jackie “Jae” Burbank, you’re going to see a lot of the alliance in the months and years to come.

“We intend to be very active, and not just on gay issues,” Burbank said in an interview at the college April 15. “We want to be a place where LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) and straight people can work side-by-side on issues important to our community.”

Never mind that, nearing the end of their second semester of existence, the club still has more faculty sponsors than it has members.

“We haven’t had time to organize fundraising activities and get brochures printed,” Burbank said. “It took us a while to get off the ground, because there were people who didn’t want this group to form. Once people figure out we’re here and what we’re about, they’ll join.”

The alliance has already sponsored safe-sex education on campus (“Which is not at all to encourage young students to have sex,” Burbank hastened to mention), and participated in a rally for women’s safety. Future plans include a website and “Hate-Free Zone” stickers faculty members can put on their office and classroom doors to let students know hate speech against gays — or anybody else — will not be tolerated there.

“Basically it expands a gay student’s comfort zone by letting them know who their allies are,” Burbank explained. “If they’re having a problem, they know whose door to knock on.”

The group would also like to visit high schools around the reservation.

“We see a certain percentage of young gay Navajos choosing self-destructive lifestyles,” Burbank said. “We want to let them know there are mentors out there who can support them and help them.”

Burbank, finishing her third semester majoring in fine arts, said she was inspired to form a gay-straight alliance upon returning to the rez after touring the U.S. for five years.

“I met so many creative people, most of them in the over-60 age group,” said the Cottonwood, Ariz, native. “They inspired me to come back and work for change.”

Burbank said she herself never experienced discrimination for being a lesbian, but she heard enough grim stories from other LGBT students that she decided to do something to promote gay rights, and civil rights in general.

“As gay people, we need to be fighting for everybody’s rights,” she said.

The Gay-Straight Alliance was formed last fall with six members, half of them straight, including vice-president Cheryl Bekay. In spite of some opposition, seven faculty members stepped up to sponsor the group, a pleasant surprise for Burbank.

“We knew there were courageous people on this faculty who want to be agents for change,” said Burbank, “but we didn’t know there were so many of them.”

To the group’s delight, one of the sponsors was Navajo culture professor Harry Walters. “He teaches about third- and fourth-gendered people in his classes,” Burbank said, explaining that “third-gender” is the Navajo term for gays and “fourth-gender” is the term for lesbians. “We have a place in our people’s history. I think it’s so important for young people to know that. If you know where you’re coming from historically, it gives you the confidence to achieve greatness. There have been many great third- and fourth-gender artists and medicine people.”

Bekay said she has wanted to do something to support gay rights ever since, as a student at Chinle High School, she observed a gay teen being tormented by his peers.

“I felt really bad about it,” she said. “When I met Jackie and saw what she was trying to do, I thought, ‘She has some great ideas. She needs support for this.'”

Anyone is welcome to join the alliance, whether or not they’re affiliated with Diné College. Burbank would like to see a broader age range, including elders from the community.

“When the whole Diné Marriage Act debate was going on, my councilman held a public meeting,” she recalled. “A lot of people had things to say about gay marriage and gays in general, mostly negative. I was feeling more and more discouraged. The last person to speak was a man in his 70s or 80s. He said, ‘Why must we treat our children and grandchildren like this? Allow the rest of America to treat their children like that, but not the Navajo Nation.’

“Nobody spoke after that. He had completely changed the tone of the meeting. I felt so grateful for that man, I can’t even express it.

“If we could get a few elders like that in our group, it would mean so much to the youth. They have a lot to teach us.”

Parents who are trying to come to grips with their child’s sexual orientation are welcome to attend the meetings too.

“If you just pray for your kid or have ceremonies done for him, that’s not going to help him, that’s just going to make him feel bad about himself and lead to things like drugs and suicide,” Burbank said. “Come and get to know us before you pass judgment.”

The Gay-Straight Alliance meets every two weeks, and the best part, according to Burbank, is when they finish their agenda. “That’s when people begin to share their stories,” she explained. “Sometimes we’re there till midnight. People become very open, and we definitely enjoy that.”