Eight LGBT Native Americans You Should Know

Native American Heritage Month is a great time to remember we are everywhere.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

November 23 2012 5:00 AM ET

Heather Purser

Heather Purser, a 29-year-old seafood diver for Washington's Suquamish Tribe, spent four years pushing for her tribe to adopt a law recognizing same-sex marriages. Out since she was a teen, Pursser decided after college to approach her tribal council and ask for the change. Members said they'd consider it. Years later, she returned and asked again — this time reportedly demanding a voice vote, according to the Associated Press

"Everyone said aye. No one said nay," Purser told the AP. Her family was in the audience, beaming proudly.

On August 1, 2011, the Suquamish Tribe extended marriage rights to same-sex couples on its reservation (more than a year before the state voted on marriage equality). It was only the second tribe in the U.S. to do so (Oregon's Coquille Tribe first recognized same-sex marriages in 2005), and everyone admitted it wouldn't have happened without Purser standing up for her beliefs.

Photo courtesy of Cameron Karsten.

Evan Adams

Evan Adams, a Coast Salish from the Sliammon Band in Canada, became an overnight sensation when the 1998 sleeper hit Smoke Signals opened in theaters. In it Evans plays the beautiful storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who provides the heart of the film (the greatest accomplishment is that Adams keeps audiences' attentions rapt, even in scenes with costars Adam Beach and Irene Bedard).

Adams, now 46, reteamed with Signals filmmaker Sherman Alexie in 2002 to star in the gay Native American film The Business of Fancydancing. He's appeared in a number of television series, including The L Word and Da Vinci's Inquest, a popular Canadian procedural.

That's not the best part, though: Adams, who has always been an advocate for Canadian First Nations people, is also a doctor. He practices in Canada, where in 2007 he became the first aboriginal health physician adviser for the province of British Columbia, according to the Ministry of Health.

 

Cheyenne Jackson

Cheyenne Jackson is a familiar face to 30 Rock fans. He played the only guy to melt the hearts of both Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. But Jackson, whose father is Native American, isn't just a pretty face on NBC. He's been a Broadway sensation since his first lead role in All Shook Up. He's appeared on dozens of TV series (most recently in Mockingbird Lane, the Munsters remake that aired on Halloween) and a handful of films. Clearly an overachiever, he's also a musician (his 2012 album Drive produced the top 10 hit "Before You").

Next up: He costars in next year's Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.

Jack Jackson Jr.

Jack C. Jackson Jr., born and raised on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, is an Arizona state senator and a senior strategist in the Blue Stone Strategy Group, a national Native-owned consulting firm "committed to assisting Native American tribes with strengthening sovereignty and fostering self-determination and self-sufficiency by developing profitable tribal businesses, productive governmental systems, and effective leadership."

Jackson's political career began in D.C. in the early '90s, when he represented the Navajo Nation in Washington. He was elected to the Arizona state House in 2003, working alongside his father, Sen. Jack C. Jackson Sr. (they were the first father and son to serve together in Arizona history). In 2010 Jackson became an Arizona state senator, and he was elected to another term this month.

Ever the activist, Jackson was appointed by both President Clinton and President Obama to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, and he's served on the board of the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center.

Paula Gun Allen

Before her death in 2008, author Paula Gunn Allen was one of the preeminent Native lesbian activists. Mixed-race (Native American, Lebanese, and Scottish) and closely identified with the Laguna Pueblo Tribe in which she grew up, Allen was a poet, author, and teacher who wrote often of the Native experience and edited several collections of Native American stories, including 1989's Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women.

Her most acclaimed work (and her most popular with LGBTs) may just be the 1986 nonfiction book The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, which was groundbreaking in that it was the first of the new wave of academic works looking at Native history from women's perspective. Allen argued that women's roles were much larger than white explorers let on, because of the European colonizers' patriarchal biases. According to Allen, women were the decision-makers in many tribes; in others, gender equity was the norm. Though the book was criticized by some (mostly male) activists, it went on to become a classic text in many Native American college programs.

Santino Rice

When Santino Rice appeared as a contestant on the second season of Project Runway, he became an overnight sensation for his dramalicious villainy (and some great impersonations of mentor Tim Gunn). His racial heritage is a quintessential American hodgepodge; Rice's family is multigenerationally multiracial, and he is an amalgam of Native American, African-American, and Italian.

Rice didn't win Runway (he was the third to the last sent packing), but he became a hot commodity in the real world. He served as a judge for Miss Universe, began designing for celebrity red carpets, and became a popular guest on reality TV shows. He showed a softer side as a judge on RuPaul's Drag Race and on his own Lifetime series, On the Road With Austin and Santino, which he did with Austin Scarlett

He'll be back on TV for the next season of RuPaul's, which premieres January 28. In the meantime, fans can always try to track down the one film in which he had a small role, 2010's queer thriller L.A. Zombie.

 

Susan Allen

When Susan Allen became the first Native American woman elected to Minnesota legislature earlier this year, it was a major accomplishment for the tribal attorney, who grew up in a poor family and paved her own path to success. A member of the Rosebud Tribe in South Dakota, Allen is only the second out lesbian legislator in Minnesota history, and she told reporters (via press release) that the victory was the natural progression of what she was supposed to do. "As a Native woman and lesbian I know what it's like to be left out, to not have a voice," she said. One of her recent accomplishments as a representative? Helping defeat the the Minnesota constitutional amendment ballot initiative that would have banned same-sex marriage.

 

Max Wolf Valerio

Max Wolf Valerio, author of the riveting The Testosterone Files, the 2006 memoir of his transition from female to male, may just be the only man who also had an essay in the groundbreaking 1981 feminist classic This Bridge Called My Back. Valerio's work has appeared in a number of anthologies, and he's been featured in a number of documentary films including Gendernauts. Still a poet and author (one of his more recent works is in Trans/Love: Radical Sex, Love & Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary), Valerio is half American Indian from the Blackfoot tribe (his mother is from the Kainai (or Blood) Reserve in southern Alberta, Canada.

 

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