By Alray Nelson, NEQ Organizer
In 2005, the Navajo Nation Council voted to pass the Dine’ Marriage Act that prohibited same sex marriage on the Navajo Nation. Much of the debate in the Council Chambers, during this time, was centered around a discussion on how we interpret our oral tradition to answer this question of what marriage represented to the Navajo people. The legislation sponsor, Council Delegate Larry Anderson (Fort Defiance, AZ), said the purpose of the Dine’ Marriage Act was intended to strengthen Navajo families and cultural values. Council Delegate Kenneth Maryboy (Montezuma Creek, UT) also asserted that “in the traditional Navajo way, gay marriage is a big no-no… It boils down to the circle of life… We are put on the earth to produce off-spring.” The most compelling argument from 2005 was from former President Dr. Joe Shirley, Jr., who vetoed the Dine’ Marriage Act on the grounds that it was unnecessary and that such a discriminatory law would divide our people. From my observations, the first question I ask these Navajo leaders is “why were Council Delegates using our oral tradition, our cultural heritage, our language and the Creation Story against our own people?” It is obvious their actions created disharmony, divided families, and sent a message to our people that the Navajo government was okay with regulating our private lives. These leaders failed so many loving, committed gay and lesbian couples living on and off the Navajo Nation. And we are here to hold these people accountable because to be against LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) rights is to be on the wrong side of history.
Since the Dine’ Marriage Act, the rights and benefits provided through marriage are null & void for my partner and I. We cannot jointly file for a home-site lease to build a house for our family in Beshbetoh, Arizona, because of this law. We cannot jointly adopt a Navajo child or have protective rights as guardians because of this law. We are not safe in the workplace or in public because the Navajo Nation has no anti-discrimination or hate crimes prevention laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals from violence. My partner and I have no right to claim each other on our health insurance policy or neither can we apply for assistance as a ‘legal’ family because we have no marriage license that is usually needed to apply for assistance from the Program for Self-Reliance or for Medicare when were both elderly men.
Gay and lesbian couples share the same economic, healthcare, and child-raising experiences as our parents have. These everyday life decisions between two human beings in a loving, committed relationship have been taken for granted because of the Dine’ Marriage Act and we must repeal it now.
Even today, the Shelly-Jim Administration has asserted that marriage is between one man and one women because we have no songs, prayers, or a wedding basket ceremony for a man and a man or a woman and a woman. I immensely disagree. There are five ways you can contract marriage on the Navajo Nation, rather it be done before a Navajo judge with witnesses or by common law. My partner and I grew up in traditional households where family is a first priority. We both were taught that the Navajo way of life says every living being has a purpose and a reason to be. What our Navajo leaders in Window Rock need to understand is that you cannot legislate who can love who or regulate decisions made between couples and their families. The simplest, honest understanding of Navajo marriage is represented in these principles: love, security, stability, and family. Marriage provides this protection to gay and lesbian couples. We are part of this story. I only ask that the Navajo government treat us fairly and with respect.
Today, our Navajo leaders in Window Rock need to be cautious in how they approach and speak about same-sex marriage, bullying in schools, and LGBTQ community issues because a youth is listening. And this child could also be your relative, your son, or your daughter. The teen suicide-rate on the Navajo Nation and across Indian Country continues to increase. It breaks my heart to know that one of these young people could have been dealing with bullying because she was transgender, because he was called a ‘faggot’ in the hallway, or because both were not accepted at home. Native youth are twice as likely as any other race to die before the age of 24 and twice as likely to face abuse and neglect. What is alarming is that Native young people have experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder that rivals the rates of returning veterans from Afghanistan. This is the reality for the Navajo Nation, especially when we pride ourselves as the largest Native Nation in the United States. Across our communities we all must do our part to ensure we create safe, inclusive spaces for our children to be who they are. Our youth are listening and they are reacting. If a school principal, teacher, or student leader is reading this, you can make a difference by combating bullying and taking a stand against hate. Create a Safe Zone program, train your staff – coaches- teachers to be allies for LGBTQ youth, highlight the important roles LGBTQ people have always taken in everyday Navajo life, and call out students that use words like “That’s so gay!” - “fag!” – “dyke!”
As an organizer for the Navajo Equality Coalition, we are moving forward with parents, youth, elders, and community leaders to introduce the Dine’ Human Rights & Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2014. This comprehensive law will outline the importance of the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples and will set guidelines for law enforcement to properly prevent and report hate crimes occurring within the Navajo Nation. Upon working alongside the Navajo Human Rights Commission and with respected advocates like Dr. Jennifer Denetdale of the University of New Mexico and Chairman Steve Darden of the Navajo HRC, it is clear that discrimination, hate, and misunderstanding exists towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer Navajos. This can change when the 22nd Navajo Nation Council passes this human rights & hate crimes prevention law. In addition, we must remember the victims among our people who have passed away because they were targeted for their skin color, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. This hate crimes prevention law is for them and for the countless LGBTQ youth living in our communities. It is their fundamental human right to be protected and safe under Navajo law. That is our goal for the Navajo Equality Coalition as we continue to advocate for fairness, respect, and equality for the LGBTQ community.
If a Navajo leader is reading this, please understand that hate, bigotry, and division is foreign to us a people. Since the creation of First Man and First Woman to the birth of our language, songs, and prayers, to be Navajo is to be kind, empathetic, and accepting. Help us repeal the 2005 Dine’ Marriage Act and support passage of the Dine’ Human Rights & Hate Crimes Prevention Act. My grandparents Jerome and Eleanor raised me to be a strong, determined man that is driven to raise a family and build a home for his husband. My partner Brennen and I foresee a future with children that are provided an inclusive, nurturing home where our oral tradition, language, songs and prayers thrive. It is my resilient belief that our union as man and man would strengthen a Navajo family, sustain family values, and create stability. This is our plan and the Dine’ Marriage Act cannot reverse it, divide it, or change it.
No one is born to hate. No one is born to discriminate against others that may seem different. People learn to hate our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer friends and relatives. If we learn hate, we can also be taught to love. To be Dine’ also means to be understanding, strongly independent, and compassionate. Let us reclaim that identity. My Navajo people, be proud to have a gay son or transgender daughter because this is beautiful. Be proud to have a lesbian daughter or transgender son in your families because in the Navajo way, this is a blessing. Understand that we are your relatives, your coworkers, your sons & daughters, and we are part of your family. As five-fingered human beings, our place in among the Navajo people. We are not going anywhere because this is our home too.