The Navajo language does not contain a term to describe gay relationships. That’s according to Deswood Tome, a special adviser to Navajo President Ben Shelly.
“In our cultural teaching and language, there is no recognition of a woman and a woman or a man and a man marrying each other,” he said. “You can’t even say that in the Navajo language.”
Tome offers this not as an excuse for the Nation’s ban on same-sex marriages, but as a starting point for a discussion on reversing a 2005 Navajo law that prohibited plural marriages, unions between close relatives and marriages between “persons of the same sex.” The Dine Marriage Act of 2005, passed as then-President George W. Bush championed on the national scale to ban same-sex marriages, has become a sore point for gay couples and gay rights activists on the Navajo Nation.
Prior to 2005, the tribe did not restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, Tome said. The act, which passed unanimously through the Navajo Nation Council in April of 2005, was the first to define marriage.
“It went before the Council at a time when nationally there was a lot of discussion around gay marriage,” Tome said. “The Council felt compelled to ensure that marriage remains as it is known in our Navajo language and teaching, that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Sixty-seven delegates originally voted in favor of the act, which immediately voided same-sex marriages and stated that the purposes of marriage are “to promote strong families and to preserve and strengthen family values.”
The tribe’s stance on gay marriages, however, has forced it into the national limelight in recent months. In December, two of the three states comprising portions of the reservation took bold stands in favor of gay rights.
New Mexico’s Supreme Court on December 19 legalized same-sex marriages. On the following day, a district court judge in Utah – one of the most conservative states in the country – ruled that the state’s ban of same-sex marriages violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protections for all people.
Alray Nelson, an openly gay Navajo man, is using the national spotlight to push for gay rights on the Navajo Nation. Nelson, the 28-year-old founder of the Navajo Equality Coalition, wants to see a shift in the way his tribe views gay unions.
“Hatred is foreign to us as a people,” he said. “It hurts me to know that our leaders in Window Rock are telling people it’s OK to get married off the reservation, but don’t come home because we’re not going to recognize your rights here.”
Nelson, who has been in a relationship for three years with his Navajo boyfriend, Brennen Yonnie, said the couple will not consider marriage until the tribe guarantees protections. Without the tribe’s support, Nelson said, he and Yonnie will not qualify for home-site leases, property rights or the opportunity to adopt a Native child.
“That’s the root of where everything’s at,” he said. “If we can’t secure and maintain our rights, that’s discrimination.”
Nelson grew up in Beshbetoh, Arizona, where his grandparents taught him to respect people’s differences, he said. When bullies targeted him because of his sexual orientation in middle school and high school, he decided to take a stand against discrimination. Now he’s at the forefront of a grassroots movement to repeal the 2005 law.
“Our argument is that it discriminates against families and couples,” he said. “Marriage provides certain rights to couples, but gay couples are being denied rights.”
Nelson plans to take all avenues available to him to get the law changed: drafting legislation; taking the matter before the Navajo Supreme Court; and pushing for a referendum vote, which would put the decision in front of the voting public.
“When the Navajo Nation defeats the marriage equality act, and we will, other nations can follow our example,” he said. “If we move forward and repeal the act, that will send shock waves across Indian country and the U.S., letting them know the Navajo Nation is on the right side of history.”
Despite the global spotlight and a growing group of vocal activists, gay marriage is not a priority for the tribe, Tome said.
“I don’t see at any time the Council addressing this matter, unless there’s a lot of awareness raised and it just is something vitally important,” he said. “There are so many other matters of importance that the Nation is pursuing at this time.”
Inaction among lawmakers does not mean indifference, however, Tome said. Should Council members vote to change the law, President Shelly would sign it.
“The president regards gay people as the five-fingered people,” he said. “The president regards Navajo gay people as a part of us. We’re no different; we’re all the same.”
That sentiment is shared by Jock Soto, a Navajo ballet dancer and teacher whose 2011 marriage to Luis Fuentes was covered by the New York Times. Soto, who spent part of his childhood in Chinle, Arizona, left home at age 13 to pursue a career in ballet.
While living on the reservation, Soto said he was respected by his family and peers, even though he knew he was gay from a very young age. He began dating men at age 15.
“I’m totally for gay marriage,” he said. “I believe if you love someone, you should be allowed to marry them. I believe two people are stronger than one.”
For Soto, who married at age 46, marriage equality is more about security than politics.
“If you fully believe in it, you should do it,” he said. “I feel secure in this marriage. I’m not worried about looking for someone anymore. Even when you wake up in the morning and you realize you only have $20 in your pocket, you know you’re going to get through it together.”