Why are Diné LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit people being denied access to ceremony?

We should not be discriminated against when our gender roles don’t match our sex.

 

When Rei Yazzie started his transition and his voice began to change, he knew it was time to prepare for a tá’cheeh – a traditional male puberty ceremony. To do so, he would need the help of a Diné medicine man – an ask that can take time – but more importantly, he would need to find a traditional healer willing to accept a transgender man.

“The older generation haven’t acknowledged or embraced (people like me),” said Rei Yazzie. “I want to reach out to somebody who is going to acknowledge that.”

Rei Yazzie is not alone in his struggle to secure prayer or ceremony from traditional healers, yet he descends from a tradition that recognizes multiple gender roles. 

In the Diné language, there are at least six genders: Asdzáán (woman), Hastiin (male), Náhleeh (feminine-man), Dilbaa (masculine-woman), Nádleeh Asdzaa (lesbian), ‘Nádleeh Hastii (gay man). All come from the Diné creation story, in which asdzáán and hastiin, a cisgender married couple, were not getting along and separated. When that happened, dilbaa and náhleeh emerged from hiding and were seen as a special group that could perform the duties of both women and men, stepping into the vacated partner roles. They were accepted by asdzáán and hastiin, who realized their survival depended on them.

I identify as “bah” or dilbaa náhleeh (masculine woman) or nádleeh asdzaa. I prefer a masculine gender role that doesn’t match my sex, but I continue to face bias over my gender expression. I am sad when I think that at one time my people accepted me for who I was. Yet I believe that respect for traditional practices and stories can help restore that acceptance.

Diné people have always understood gender as a spectrum rather than a binary, an understanding has come from traditional teachings and our creation story. In order to stop discrimination, our traditional healers must set an example and accept people of all genders, including Rei Yazzie and me. 

Jolene Nenibah Yazzie, 4, in her Fancy War dance regalia at Lupton Chapter in Lupton, Arizona.
Jackie Yazzie, Jr.

I was 4 years old when I knew I liked women. My whole family danced in powwows, but I didn’t like the girl category my parents picked out for me, so I told my father I could dance better than my brothers. I began dancing northern traditional, a boys’ category. I was 14 when the powwow community found out I was a girl, and I was bullied by people who called themselves “traditional,” as well as by their children. They would say homophobic things when I walked by or refuse to shake my hand if I placed in my category. It became difficult to continue to dance — emotionally, physically and spiritually. I started to doubt myself and internalized that hatred; I questioned myself and hated being gay. It didn’t help that my brother – my powwow buddy – didn’t accept me when he found out I was gay. I stopped dancing for a couple of years. Today, however, I dance when I have the courage.

In September of 2017, I asked my wife to marry me. We were determined to have a Navajo wedding and tried to find a traditional healer who would consider a marriage between two women. At one point, I found a medicine woman who supported same-sex marriages, but only if they were performed in a church or other non-Diné venue. She said that according to Navajo tradition, we couldn’t be blessed in the same way as a man and a woman, and she declined to perform the ceremony.

I felt like I was 14 again, frustrated and angry. 

We eventually asked my wife’s uncle, who agreed to hold a ceremony for us last fall, and we were blessed to bring our families together inside a hoghan to celebrate, support and acknowledge our marriage. But for people like Rei Yazzie, such a blessing may still be a long way off.

Hannabah Blue and Jolene Yazzie outside the county government building in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they got their marriage license. The Navajo Nation wouldn’t issue one.
Amy Lanteigne

Navajo ceremonies, including marriages, coming-of-age customs and even basic prayers, are essential to ensure the survival of the Diné people. There are more than 350,000 enrolled Navajo people who still need their language and culture, and we cannot discriminate against relatives who identify as nádleeh, dilbaa, nádleeh asdzaa and nádleeh hastii.

Traditional healers must talk about the Navajo creation story, understand and explain gender roles, use correct gender pronouns, and conduct ceremonies that honor multiple gender roles and different forms of relationships. Otherwise, we will lose those traditions for good. 

I caught up with Rei Yazzie at the Diné Pride Christmas Drag Show Benefit at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, in December. He told me he still hasn’t found someone to help him take part in a tá’cheeh, but he’ll keep trying. Rei Yazzie and I come from the same creation story. We take pride in who we are, and we shouldn’t be denied access to ceremony just because our gender roles don’t match our sex.

Jolene Yazzie is a student at Metropolitan State University, and a journalist and photographer based in Denver, Colorado. Yazzie was formerly an editorial intern at High Country NewsEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.