Gay Navajos find place amid traditional beliefs

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Darrell Joe sits across the table over a Denny's breakfast, cup of coffee in hand, rattling off projects he's working on and programs he wants to start in his new job with the Navajo Nation's AIDS office.

He's a respected 30-year-old professional in a high-profile position, his calendar filled with meetings and conferences. There is an ease in his voice. He knows who he is and what he wants. He is happy.

But it wasn't always like this.

Joe remembers when his journey began: when he and his cousins, playmates growing up in the small Navajo community of Iyanbito, N.M., went off to school. That's when other kids started hurling insults at him. Soon, some of his cousins were embarrassed to be seen with him.

"That's when I started to think, 'OK, I'm different.' I couldn't figure it out," he said.

His search for a place to belong both as a gay man and as a Navajo would take him far from his home and his culture to an urban existence in Western society — and back again.

Joe is one of the growing number of gay, lesbian and bisexual Navajos walking a cultural tightrope, uniting elements of Navajo and Western culture to establish a place for themselves.

"They sort of had to create their own world," said Wesley Thomas, an assistant professor of anthropology at Indiana University who specializes in American Indian gender studies.

The modern view of homosexuality in the Navajo Nation is shaped both by tribal tradition and Western influence, Thomas said.

Navajo origin stories embrace the idea of cross-gender identities. In some of these stories, men with feminine characteristics are known as "nadleeh" — they dressed like women and were considered important religious figures with a special role in ceremonies. They also shared in conventional female duties, such as cooking or caring for children.

In Navajo tradition, sexual relationships between nadleeh and non-nadleeh men were considered heterosexual.

"In the Western gay culture, you have men who look like any other guy and behave like men and that's their identity as a gay male," said Jack Jackson Jr., a gay Navajo who serves in the Arizona House of Representatives. "On the reservation ... you see a lot of gay men who look more feminine and act more feminine, and it seems it's from their upbringing in a more traditional way."

A modest number of nadleeh have lived openly as transvestites on the reservation for generations, said Harry Walters, an anthropologist who teaches Navajo culture at Dine College in Tsaile, Ariz.

Yet Thomas and Walters said the traditional understanding of nadleeh is disappearing, in part because the cultural significance has not been passed from one generation to the next — but also because of changing attitudes.

With the arrival of Western religious influences, Navajo families began to hide away homosexual relatives or encourage them to live a heterosexual lifestyle, Thomas said.

"The nadleeh were very much a part of Navajo culture right into the late 1800s," said Thomas, who is also a gay tribal member. "Now we have children and grandchildren who dismiss (nadleeh) as part of Navajo culture. It was ... relegated to something that was part of Western culture and not Navajo.

"There is now a search by these Navajo gays and lesbians to find out who they are," he said.

To celebrate National Coming Out Day earlier this month, Navajo AIDS Network's office in Gallup, N.M., organized a coming-out party at a nearby state park. More than 50 people showed up for the third annual event, which included a drag show and a dance.

Some credit the traditional nadleeh teachings for greater tolerance among older generations.

Still, the homophobic attitudes that emerged with the decline of the nadleeh persist today, although tribal members disagree to what extent.

Pernell Sam, a transgender Navajo from the small town of Many Farms near Chinle, said the 2-inch scar on his back is painful proof. The 28-year-old was stabbed at a party seven years ago by a man who he said used to insult him in high school.

"They never caught that guy," Sam said. "I still see him around."

Other tribal members stay in the closet, fearing that kind of backlash. As a result, it's hard to know just how large the gay community on the reservation is.

As a young man, Joe was too afraid of the reaction he might get from friends, classmates and others if he came out. A cross-country athletic scholarship to college in Idaho was his ticket away from the reservation.

Eventually, Joe set out for San Francisco. There, a stint as a volunteer with an AIDS-prevention organization led to a career. But something was still missing.

"I was living in two worlds," he said.

He returned to Gallup, eager to reconnect with his culture and help the local AIDS-prevention effort. That work led to the Naa Ts'iilid Hozho, or Beauty Rainbow Project.

The HIV-prevention group, which is part of the Navajo AIDS Network, targets the homosexual, bisexual and transgender community. The rainbow is a symbol in both Navajo religion and the Western gay movement.

Beauty Rainbow Project is both a public-health effort and an important support network. "As far as the gay community on the Navajo reservation, we're it," said Marco Arviso, who heads the group of about 20 people.

They gathered one recent evening, under a patch of cottonwood trees in the shadow of Canyon de Chelly in Chinle.

There was Aaron Begay, a 29-year-old transgender who works at Dine College. He said he believes the reservation is generally an accepting environment for those like himself, "although we hear a lot of this negativity and name-calling."

Mitch, a bisexual public-school teacher who asked that his full name not be used, recalled when the nadleeh were considered "almost like holy people."

Mitch is one of the few in the group who remains in the closet, still unsure about how to balance his place in the Navajo community and the society surrounding him.

Pernell Sam said he revealed his identity 10 years ago and will not go back in the closet.

"It's too hard," he said. "I have nothing to hide."