A traditional Navajo

By Sherrick Roanhorse

Originally published on Advocate.com September 12 2005 12:00 AM ET

Last year, while
interning in the U.S. Senate, I heard testimony on a
proposed federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex
marriage. As I stood among other interns, some who
were wearing yellow "One Man, One Woman" buttons,
I thought to myself, This irritating debate would
never take place in the Navajo Nation.
The Navajo
people, or Diné, had something better than
Western society: a culture and belief system inclusive
of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. But I
was naive.

A short time
later the Navajo Nation Council introduced its own ban on
same-sex marriage: the Diné Marriage Act. I felt
alienated. My tribal legislature chose to discriminate
against me and all other LGBT Navajos. So I tried to
make sense of what it means to be a gay Navajo.

The Navajo people
have a history of accepting LGBT individuals into
traditional society. Our culture is based on oral
tradition—human and natural creation stories
passed on from generation to generation. These stories
include nádleeh, a male-bodied woman or a manly
female. In the Navajo creation story, when men and
women separated because of a domestic dispute,
nádleeh served as caregivers to the men. Today,
LGBT Navajos still serve similar functions in their
families.

But some leaders
within my tribe reject this tradition. They are
influenced by Western values and conservative Christian
beliefs. And their actions motivated me to fight. As a
member of the New Mexico Log Cabin Republicans, I got
about 150 members to send e-mails urging Navajo Nation
president Joe Shirley Jr. to veto the DMA. And he did. He
said the ban was discriminatory and unnecessary
because tribal law already defined marriage as a union
between a man and a woman.

Unfortunately,
that wasn’t the end. In May the council threatened to
override the veto. I met with other LGBT Navajos and we
founded the Diné Coalition for Cultural
Preservation to fight them. We created a Web site
(Dinecoalition.com) and collected over 1,100 online
signatures, but we were unsuccessful. The council
voted in June to override the president’s veto.

Now our fight has
really begun. In August our coalition met with and
recruited new members at a Navajo LGBT event. During the
upcoming 2006 tribal election we will hold a campaign
drive with other grassroots organizations to elect
pro-gay members. Nationally, we are working with other
LGBT Native American organizations to establish a national
advocacy organization. And we are advocating for new
domestic violence legislation in the Navajo Nation
that could challenge the DMA by defining same-sex
couples as a protected group.

I believe every
LGBT Navajo individual and couple deserve to live a long
life of happiness. To protect this right, the Navajo LGBT
community must be vocal and insist on being treated
with dignity.