The Crying Game

Despite a celebrated history, Native American transgenders struggle in the modern world

Growing up on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona, little boys play basketball, torture their younger sisters, and try to emulate their fathers.

Everson played with dolls and wore his mother's makeup.

Not much has changed for Everson since elementary school. Two years ago, at 15, Everson got his own cosmetics, accentuating his pouty, pink lips with a thick border of lip liner. He grew his hair long, plucked his eyebrows pencil-thin, and started wearing clothes made for teenage girls.

Now, as "Francessica," a 17-year-old doe-eyed, pre-op male-to-female transgender with a bony frame and wavy black hair, living with her parents and six siblings just north of Window Rock, Arizona, she turns tricks with straight guys on the "rez." The men pick her up hitchhiking, paying $30 for a blowjob from a girl they never know is actually a boy. But Francessica prefers to hitch rides with truckers heading west on Interstate 40, all the way to Los Angeles, where she can spend a couple weeks making three times as much as she does on the Navajo Nation.

She goes back home the same way, to a family she says is apathetic and cold. (They refused to talk for this story.)

Sometimes, though, Francessica wishes the semi would take a detour south to Phoenix.

"Nobody here has any money," Francessica says, standing on the banks of a vast but shallow pond near her family's home in the shadows of sacred Frog Rock. "I've given away more freebies on the reservation than I want to."

Francessica wants to move to a big city where other Native American "T-girls" work the streets, like Albuquerque, Denver, Minneapolis, and especially Phoenix, once she's finished with high school.

Her transgender friends, Demetria and Alisa (formerly Donovan and Darrelvon, respectively; all three asked that only their first names be used), plan to do the same.

Demetria graduates in May from Many Farms, a boarding school about an hour away from her parents' house in the village of Sawmill. Alisa's got another year after that. And Francessica's got two years left at Navajo Pine High School.

All three say they want a college education. But they've resigned themselves to working on the street to make ends meet.

"The queens in Phoenix make so much money," Demetria says, as a gust of wind makes the below-freezing air blowing off the pond feel even colder. "[Working as a prostitute] isn't what I really want to do, but I don't want to struggle, neither."

Being raised on the reservation -- where comparisons to the Third World are apt until you notice the satellite dishes and new Ford F150s -- has made them despondent and reckless.

The Navajo Nation is littered with dilapidated houses, squeezing families of a dozen or more into two-bedroom shanties falling apart from the foundation up. DirecTV gets disconnected fast, and the new trucks are often repossessed not long after they're purchased.

There's no gaming on Navajo land, to mitigate the financial circumstances -- although it's coming in the next year or two -- but there is an under-the-table economy: rugs and jewelry, sold but not declared.

Alcoholism and drug abuse are rampant, even though the rez is "dry," with liquor possession and distribution having been outlawed here since 1977. If the girls can't score booze from the bootleggers, they pursue other options.

"We'll drink whatever we can up here," Francessica says. "Cough syrup, Listerine, hairspray."

And, of direct consequence to girls like Francessica, Demetria and Alisa, while the Navajos (as well as most other North American tribes) once respected and revered transgenders -- medicine men used to refer to them as "chosen people" who could share their wisdom living as both a man and a woman -- that romantic folklore of ubiquitous tolerance is no more. Homophobia, along with Western Christian conservatism, has crept into the Navajo Nation, as well as other tribes in Arizona -- Apache, Pima, Tohono O'odham, Hopi.

Francessica's parents are no different, their daughter says.

"My parents are embarrassed of me. They hate me," she says. "They just want me to turn 18 so they don't have to take care of me no more and they can kick me out."

Compounded, conditions on the rez make the girls (they call themselves "queens," "TGs" or "T-girls") flee for the mean streets of Phoenix, where they believe urban attitudes will treat them more kindly -- and profitably.

There are some who have been there already, who made that long journey from the reservation to the city. They, too, heard older queens "glam it up a bit," says Crystal Mattias, a Tohono O'odham transgender who worked as a prostitute for four years. She's now an administrative assistant at a medical clinic in San Carlos, on the Tohono O'odham reservation near Tucson.

It doesn't take long to see that working on the street isn't such a glamorous life.

"When you leave the reservation and come to the city to work the street," Mattias says, "you lose yourself. You get your spirit stepped on."

Even worse, some have been shot, stabbed and beaten to death. Two confirmed murders a few years ago -- and rumors of more, according to some girls who used to work on Van Buren -- have scared many off the street.

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