The Navajo Nation, spanning over the states of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, is the largest Tribal reservation in the United States, with one of the largest populations of tribal members residing on reservation lands. The Navajo people have maintained their traditional ways despite the encroachments of colonialism and Christianity into their culture, but it’s been an uneasy mix.
The English term, Two-Spirit, attempts to incorporate and honor the word in hundreds of native languages for a person whose persona projects both masculine and feminine spirits. The identity of “Two-Spirit” denotes individuals who have traditional traits such as name givers, ceremonial leaders and caregivers. Two-Spirit individuals were revered as they had abilities to see the world from both a male and a female perspective. In some Tribal Nations, such as the Navajo, they are an integral part of the creation stories that exemplify their distinct abilities. Before contact with European colonists, sexuality and gender diversity was widely accepted and every person had their own unique position in tribal communities; however, with the forced introduction of Christianity into tribal communities, Two-Spirit people today are perceived as perverse and the term generates alienation and feelings of shame among individuals in the LGBTQ community.
Sharnell Paul, a 21-year-old transgender woman from Dennehotso, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation, shares her journey of living as a transgender woman. In 2016, she was auditioning for the independent magazine entitled Women of the Navajo (WOTN) that showcases beautiful young women from the Navajo Nation in a calendar format. Encouraged by her girlfriends to audition, she did and was selected as a model for the calendar. Images of the 12 selected models were showcased on social media. Consequently, a person ‘outed’ Sharnell on social media. Sharnell was humiliated. The owners of WOTN asked her to meet in person to address the controversy; or rather question her about her identity. They coerced her into answering questions about her personal sexuality. As a result, the owners asked her not to participate because they did not view her as a female.
I spoke with Sharnell about issues facing transgender women on the Navajo Nation. She expressed that there was limited understanding of Navajo transgender tolerance by many tribal people. She said, “As an activist, I always felt like we were left out of the narrative of LGBT conversation, we don’t get much rights. And then living on the Navajo reservation it is difficult to be viewed as trans — we are seen as ‘gays, guys, drag queens’. Then you have the communities that are so small — they don’t have much awareness about transgender here on the Rez.”
As reported by Yué Chehona Begay, Prevention Training Specialist at Red Circle Project (RCP) at APLA Health in Los Angeles and former classmate of Sharnell Paul: “When I was in high school in Keyenta, Arizona, we (Trans) would get bullied. We got the punishment even though we were called ‘fags’ for wearing makeup. The school administration on the Navajo reservation did not know how to address the issues, we became a liability, so we were told ‘don’t wear makeup.’” Yué works diligently to help educate people about Indigenous trans women. As she shared, most schools on the Navajo reservation are not equipped to assist students and staff about transgenders. Most Navajos that are trans are only told to “tone down…” we are marginalized by the school system. She explained that the Tribal Government is in dire need of infrastructure to help promote tolerance and acceptance of trans people. Yué reports that many Navajo Trans individuals move off the reservation to cities for health care and tolerance, but as she says, “you can’t dissect our Indigenous identity because they are intersecting with one another”. She says as herself as a Trans living in Los Angeles, she misses the Navajo hospitality, culture and communicating in Navajo.
I asked Yué to explain intersecting.
“Being Indigenous and Trans — Just saying that breaks up my identity. I am Indigenous on one side, I was raised with tradition, culture beliefs, and language. Then I am Trans and I view and experience the world differently than someone who is CIS gender. I see through the eyes through various lenses, so to bring those two together because I am Indigenous and Trans I know stuff within the Indigenous community I can see stuff from a Two-Spirit perspective because I’ve been raised in a man’s world now transition into a woman’s world.”
The Navajo tribe has cultural oral history, photographs and even language that documents the existence and acceptance of individuals that identify within the LGBT community. The Navajo creation story speaks about the Nádleehí who are considered the third or multiple gender. However, with the vast encroachment of Christian beliefs on tribal reservations many communities are divided between traditional and modern beliefs. The traditional beliefs of the Navajo tribe recognize up to 4 genders: asdzáán (feminine female), hastíín (masculine male), nádleehí (feminine male), and dilbaa (masculine female).
Today, the tribe does not provide resources for the LGBTQ community. However, Navajo grass-roots activists have formed to advocate and secure equal rights and protections for the Diné LGBTQ community. Diné Equality is one organization, established in 2013 to work towards a more inclusive Navajo Nation. The organization came to fruition to fight against the Diné Marriage Act (2005) that states “marriage between persons of the same sex is void and prohibited.” From then on, the organization focused on protecting civil and human rights of Navajo LBGTQ individuals. The organization today focuses on education not only about the LBGTQ community, but also about nondiscrimination ordinance, school policy and procedure, to address bullying and harassment, health care, family welfare as well as addressing individual freedom to marry.
Sharnell and Yué are young trans woman in their early twenties who are fighting for their Navajo Trans rights which they feel are “not quite there,” especially on the Navajo reservation.
Sharnell has persevered after her experience with the Women of the Navajo. Today she works with a construction company as a female welder helper. She hopes to become an actual welder and she still dreams of going back into barrel racing which she did before her transition. She says her father misses going to rodeos with her, and she misses that, too. For now, she is not only a welder, but also a sought-after runway model for indigenous designers on the reservations. Her hope is that some individuals will hear her story that will show you can be who you want to be. Despite the Navajo tribe being very conservative and intolerant, she is grateful that her parents sought to understand her identity. “When I was 5 years old, I started expressing feminine quality, traits and my mom got information from my grandmother who told her about the Nádleehí, how a person is half man and half woman and how she brought the people together,” she relates. Lastly, Sharnell said she was blessed that her family has accepted her as her.