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Gay Navajos find acceptance, yet seek support community

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. -- Darrell Joe sits across the table over a Denny's breakfast, cup of coffee in hand, rattling off projects he's working on and programs he wants to start in his new job with the Navajo Nation's AIDS office.

He's a respected 30-year-old professional in a high-profile position, his calendar filled with meetings and conferences. There is an ease in his voice. He knows who he is and what he wants. He is happy.

It wasn't always like this.

Joe remembers when his journey began: When he and his cousins, playmates growing up in the small Navajo community of Iyanbito, N. M., went off to school.

That's when other kids started hurling words like "queer" at him. Soon, some of his cousins were embarrassed to be seen with him.

"That's when I started to think, `OK, I'm different.' I couldn't figure it out, and I think that's when I started pretending that I lived in certain worlds," he said.

His search for a place to belong both as a gay man and as a Navajo would take him far from his home and his culture to an urban existence in Western society -- and back again.

Joe is one of the growing number of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Navajos walking a cultural tightrope, uniting elements of Navajo and Western culture to establish a place for themselves.

"They sort of had to create their own world," said Wesley Thomas, an assistant professor of anthropology at Indiana University who specializes in American Indian gender studies.

The modern view of homosexuality in the Navajo Nation is shaped by tribal tradition and Western influence, according to Thomas.

Navajo stories embrace the idea of cross-gender identities. In some stories, men with feminine characteristics are known as nadleeh -- they dressed like women and were considered important religious figures with a special role in ceremonies.

They also shared in conventional female duties, such as cooking or caring for children.

In Navajo tradition, sexual relationships between nadleeh and non-nadleeh men were considered heterosexual.

"In the Western gay culture, you have men who look like any other guy and behave like men and that's their identity as a gay male," said Jack Jackson Jr., a gay Navajo who serves in the Arizona House of Representatives. "On the reservation . . . you see a lot of gay men who look more feminine and act more feminine, and it seems it's from their upbringing in a more traditional way."

A modest number of nadleeh have lived openly as transvestites on the reservation for generations, said Harry Walters, an anthropologist who teaches Navajo culture at Dine College in Tsaile, Ariz.

Some in the community now see nadleeh as an early manifestation of homosexuality, and use it as a broad term for anyone who isn't heterosexual.

Yet Thomas and Walters said the traditional understanding of nadleeh is disappearing, in part because the cultural significance has not been passed from one generation to the next, and because of changing attitudes.

With the arrival of Western religious influences, Navajo families began to hide homosexual relatives or encourage them to live a heterosexual lifestyle, Thomas said.

"The nadleeh were very much a part of Navajo culture right into the late 1800s," said Thomas, who is also a gay tribal member. "Now we have children and grandchildren who dismiss [nadleeh] as part of Navajo culture. It was . . . relegated to something that was part of Western culture and not Navajo.

"There is now a search by these Navajo gays and lesbians to find out who they are," he said.

With that search has come an attempt to organize.

Melvin Harrison, head of the Navajo AIDS Network, said there wasn't a community for homosexual, bisexual, or transgender Navajos when he began HIV prevention work on the reservation in 1988.

"Ten years ago, 15 years ago, there was no place for these individuals to go," Harrison said. "That's the big change I've seen is that we have people who come to our office just to get a hug, to laugh, to wear makeup. Then they wash up and go home and be their other selves."

No one can remember a formal organization that served homosexual, bisexual, or transgender Navajos before the network's formation in 1990. Homosexuality is simply not discussed within the traditionally discreet Navajo Nation. "It's always been accepted, but deep down it's seen as something that's not normal," Walters said.

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