LGBT advocate plans to make case for marriage rights before top Indian court, despite entrenched cultural conservatism

Originally published on Al Jazeera America – Jan. 29, 2014

WINDOW ROCK, Navajo Nation — Navajo gay marriage advocate Alray Nelson blasted Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” in his battered Lexus several times on the long Arizona road to Tuba City, where he would give testimony at a hearing on violence and discrimination against gay Navajo.

Nelson feels the pop lyrics inspire his movement to demand a reversal of a gay marriage ban that he says is tantamount to respect from the tribal government.

Unlike gay-rights activists off the reservation, who are also fighting to legalize same-sex unions, Nelson must not only counter the opposition of social conservatives, but also a fraught social discourse on Navajo spiritualism and his own checkered past.

En route to the hearing, Nelson, 28, stopped at his childhood home in rural Beshbetoh to discuss his advocacy at the helm of the Navajo Equality Coalition. He sat in the kitchen with his grandmother, who asked not to be named and who still is uncomfortable with her grandson publicizing his sexuality.

“He had a girlfriend in junior high or freshman year. They were going really good. Then that girl’s mother came and said they were related,” the 62-year-old matriarch said. In Navajo tradition, unions between even distantly related members of the same clan are strictly taboo. But Nelson’s grandmother blames the failed relationship for his sexuality. “It was a turning point for my grandson,” she said, adding that to this day, she no longer shakes hands with the girl’s mother.

Still, Nelson believes anti-gay views are not endemic to Navajo culture but were introduced by white settlers. Although his grandmother says she is happy with his boyfriend of three years, Brennan Yonnie, she doesn’t want Nelson to put his sexuality in the spotlight. “For his safety, that’s what I want for him,” she said, referring to a few cases of hate crimes against gay people in nearby Farmington, N.M.

Before he set out again, Nelson suggested that the whole family meet at a later date to discuss his advocacy. If everyone opposed his actions, he said, he would stop his movement to bring the issue of allowing gay marriage before the Navajo’s top court this spring.

But back in the car, with another Lady Gaga song playing, Nelson said he would most likely push forward, regardless.

Headed uphill

As the battle for gay marriage heats up on the Navajo reservation, Nelson will have to face not only his relatives but the Navajo Nation’s political leadership in Window Rock, the seat of government for the tribe.

But discussing the issue there is not easy. Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim said he would speak to Al Jazeera about economic issues but not gay rights.

Still, the subject — partly due to Nelson — is unlikely to go away. Gay marriage, trumped only by issues like economic development and recent bids to bolster natural-resource development, could divide the Navajo electorate in upcoming tribal elections this November, particularly among social conservatives affiliated with many of the churches on the reservation.

Deswood Tome, an aide to Navajo President Ben Shelly, said the incumbent in the upcoming November 2014 elections will leave the decision up to legislators — at least 16 of 24 are needed to undo the ban — and local communities. Tome said Nelson was welcome to campaign for legalizing gay marriage but made it clear there would be no support from the top.

“The president is not going to go out there and advocate for gay marriage in the Navajo Nation. There are bigger priorities at this time. And gay marriage is not a priority,” Tome said.

For Nelson, it is. If the nation issued marriage certificates to same-sex couples, not only would that aid them in filing to lease land in the tribe’s complicated land trust system and jointly adopt a Navajo child, but it would also help straight Navajo see their LGBT fellow tribe members as equals. That echoes arguments elsewhere in the United States, but there is another point in Navajo country not found off the reservation: the argument that the gay-marriage ban was adopted from outside the sovereign Navajo Nation.

Proponents of the Diné Marriage Act admitted in 2005 that the legislation was adopted in reaction to a push by then-President George W. Bush to insert gay-marriage bans into state constitutions. Jim acknowledged the phenomenon of Navajo Nation laws’ borrowing elements of U.S. legislation was a sensitive issue for a sovereign people. “Laws are created sometimes — we align our laws to that of the federal government to make it easier for our people. The key question for this is what works. It must be gauged in a way that advances Navajo Nation sovereignty,” he said.

Some of Nelson’s other obstacles are not as tangible as they are in Window Rock. They are more personal. He has issues from his past he must contend with that possibly make him an even more controversial figure to his critics and opponents. In 2010 he pleaded guilty to filing false police reports saying he faced anti-gay threats and violence while he was student-body president at Fort Lewis College in Durango.

He completed 200 hours of community service and a year of unsupervised probation. It is an incident Nelson and his family fear may be used to tarnish his cause. But he remains resolute.

When he arrived at the Tuba City Human Rights Commission meeting, with little over a dozen people attending, he signed up to give testimony. “The lawmakers who are trying to oppose what we want to do are on the wrong side of history,” he said in his speech.

Navajo’s vice president made a brief appearance at the seven-hour hearing but left before Nelson spoke. But some commission members expressed enthusiasm for Nelson’s project.

“The tribe can make this happen,” said Commission Chair Steve Darden, responding to Nelson’s speech.

“I stand by the fact that we have agreed as a body that we cannot use Navajo tradition to discriminate against people. That’s what the arguments are: What is truly Navajo tradition and culture? … What is truly Diné?” he said, employing the Navajo word for their people and language.

During the hearing, a Navajo transgender entertainer, Lola Tsosie, 32, who lives in a border town off the reservation, echoed Nelson’s view that Navajo tradition means equality. “My grandmother taught me we are all five-fingered people,” she said, using the Navajo term for humans.

But one man in his late 20s said his family, with whom he lives on the reservation, tried to pray away his sexuality in a traditional sweat-lodge ceremony. “Recently my family had a ceremony and prayed away that fluid sexuality that exists, apparently, for my family,” he said. He said the ceremony doesn’t appear to have worked.

Many in Navajo and other Native American communities say the term “Na’dleeh” — “two spirits” in Diné, or beings with female and male spirits that possess special spiritual gifts — encompasses how past generations conceived of LGBT people. “According to Diné philosophy and culture …being gay means you are two-spirited. You have male and female figures in you. That makes you a holy person,” said Tyson Benally, 24, who studies traditional arts and culture at Diné College in the town of Tsaile.

Benally was raised — by parents who, he says, were not bothered by his coming out — not far from the college, where he has revived a long-defunct Gay Straight Alliance. The Diné Marriage Act feels foreign to Benally. “I don’t know where this all comes from,” he said.

But interpreting such elements of traditional Navajo culture is far from straightforward. Others say the concept of two spirits more specifically refers to hermaphrodites or people suffering from multiple personalities.

Not a cure-all

Whatever the roots of Na’dleeh may be, some gay-rights advocates say same-sex marriage is not the most pressing concern facing gay Navajo.

The meeting in Tuba City on Wednesday was called, primarily, to discuss violence against women and LGBT people — and lapses in law enforcement. Because of issues responding to crimes and maintaining statistics, it remains unknown how many gay people are the victims of hate crimes in the Navajo Nation each year.

And for some LGBT Navajo, being comfortable being themselves in Navajo society takes precedence over plans to marry someday.

Graphic artist Jolene Yazzie, 35, features controversial images of women wearing traditional male headdresses at the Window Rock–based Navajo Nation Museum. She does not discuss issues of her sexuality with her colleagues at a nearby graphics firm. “I’m trying to get comfortable with myself too,” she explained.

But even as she struggles with feeling at peace with herself back on the reservation, Yazzie backs Nelson’s bid. “It would open up many doors here,” she said, explaining how marriage equality would foster an atmosphere of tolerance. In the Navajo Nation, land-lease applications are approved by local residents, and one opponent is enough to stop the process. If she wanted to open a gallery, she feels people would block the deal because of her art or orientation.

The debate on marriage — inside and out of the gay community here — is likely going to heat up, not go away. Nelson says he has already identified a few couples interested in helping to mount a formal legal battle against the Diné Marriage Act.

At a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Gallup, N.M., Nelson sat with his partner, Yonnie, tables away from the site of their first date. Nelson says that his fight aims to secure a future for their relationship — and much more.

“This fight for marriage is for Brennan. It’s also for the future of so many other gay Navajo couples,” he said.