Coalition For Navajo Equality Hopes To Overturn Tribal Anti-Gay Marriage Legislation

The Navajo Nation may soon see a review of its tribal ban on gay marriage, spurred on by the Coalition for Navajo Equality. The original legislation, which banned same-sex marriages in 2005, likely passed in part because of the climate of the federal government at the time, and limited state support for same-sex couples; now, many Navajo people would like to see that law overturned, following in the footsteps of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. 

NavajonationAl Jazeera reports:

Alray Nelson, founder of the Coalition for Navajo Equality, says he wants the Navajo Nation (flag at right) to respect same-sex relationships, just like two of the states that surround its territory — New Mexico, where gay marriage was legalized this month, and Utah, where it was recently ruled legal but faces a mounting appeal.

“There’s no organized faction against this, like in the fight (for) Proposition 8 in California,” said Nelson, 27, whose organization is seeking to make tribal legislators review a 2005 tribal ban on gay marriage early next year.

Opposition to the review may not be organized, but it exists.

Deswood Tome, a special adviser to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, told Al Jazeera that although Navajo respect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Navajo, marriage is traditionally between a man and woman.

Tome referred to a traditional phrase in the Navajo language that “means that ‘a man and woman come together.’ That's our core belief as Navajo people … I’ve never heard of a man and man.”

OFFICIAL.PHOTOGRAPH.President.Shelly-250x300President Shelly (right), it turns out, both agreed and disagreed with Tome's interpretation. While the tradition has been marriage between one man and one woman, Shelly stated that his personal belief is one of equal opportunity for marriage, gay or straight. Other tribal nations agree and fear that state and federal influences (such as George W. Bush's 2004 defense of DOMA) have caused dissent within their tribes.

In October two gay men became the third same-sex couple to be officially married by the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. Their territory is surrounded by Oklahoma, where gay marriage remains illegal and faces much opposition. 

After their marriage, a high-level official called a tribal meeting to discuss measures to block such unions, said Cheyenne and Arapaho Lt. Gov. Amber Bighorse-Suitor. 

“I was surprised when this broke that there was any opposition in the tribe. The attitude in Oklahoma seems to have infiltrated some of our tribal attitudes,” she said. 

The same-sex marriage debate seems to represent just one facet of an ever-shifting dynamic between states, tribal nations, and the federal government. Influences both positive (Utah and New Mexico's marriage decisions) and negative (Oklahoma's largely anti-gay stance) have traversed national borders.  

Hopefully the Navajo Nation will review the 2005 ban and decide, like the other tribal governments, to allow same-sex marriage. Good luck to the Coalition for Navajo Equality!


  1. Gregory in Seattle says

    The Navajo language and culture DO include same sex couples: I would refer Deswood Tome to the word nádleehé, a person born with two spirits. Such people were much sought after as spouses because of their high prestige, and frequently married someone of the same sex. Some nádleehé would be considered transgender in today’s society, but most would have been gay.

  2. TheSeer says

    A term “two-spirit” is a beautiful term for queer people. It leaves sexuality in the sphere of private (where it belongs imo). It warrants social autonomy for queer people. And it says that different sexuality is not the only difference of queer people (but there are others, both physical and psychological).

  3. wren says

    I totally agree with Jamal. I lived on the Navajo rez for eight years and in 2005 when the ban was enacted. The legislative banter at the time referenced the Bible and not the traditional creation stories about the nádleehé.

  4. RonCharles says

    This is an important move by the Navajo people to restore their own cultural identity. Like many American Indian tribes. Navajos did not historically discriminate against those of their tribe who were gay. This was an unfortunate prejudice that was adopted by their leaders at the behest of bigoted outside elements.

  5. J.R says

    Christianity and religion is to blame. Religion destroys everything that was once beautiful on it’s own. The history of the native american people was destroyed brutally by religion.

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