The Crying Game

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

He goes on to declare that Thomas is nothing more than a "nadleeh activist who thinks the nadleeh deserve some special privilege."

"If you ask that guy, he'd probably tell you that the sun [the Navajo God] is a homo."

Deschine -- who refused to be photographed for this story -- then proceeds to draw a diagram on a dry-erase board illustrating, with stick figures, "what really happened" between First Man, First Woman and the nadleeh.

Wesley Thomas, Indian transgender expert.
courtesy of Wesley Thomas
Wesley Thomas, Indian transgender expert.
Navajo Speaker of the House Lawrence Morgan
courtesy of the Navajo Tribal Council
Navajo Speaker of the House Lawrence Morgan

He explains the division of First Man and First Woman almost identically to Thomas' thesis, even saying that the "nadleeh went across the river with the males," but adds the caveat, "supposedly."

"That's the part I really don't agree with," he says.

"If you listen to the nadleeh activists," Deschine continues, "they act like men can't do anything on their own. Well, that's not true. The nadleeh today are just trying to find a spot in our society, and I refute that.

"There was nothing special about the nadleeh," he adds. "They were nothing more than a degenerate gene. Every society has one. There is no way that a Navajo man would have sex with a nadleeh. We're not that idiotic. We're not a backward community."

Just last month, the Tribal Council unanimously passed the Diné Marriage Act, proposed by Fort Defiance councilman Larry Anderson Sr. (Anderson did not respond to repeated phone and e-mail requests for an interview.) The law officially bans gay marriage and civil unions within the boundaries of the reservation. Deschine makes a point to mention that the tribal law prohibiting sodomy has been upheld, as well.

Deschine then explains part of the reasoning behind the Diné Marriage Act, bringing his voice down almost to a whisper. He says there was an era between creation and women's liberation that Navajos rarely speak of -- a "time of disease and death in our culture" -- and he wonders aloud if the nadleeh were responsible.

He also blames recent diagnoses of HIV on the reservation on the nadleeh, specifically girls like Francessica who have unprotected sex with supposedly straight men -- men whom Deschine contends likely don't know she's actually male. Since 2000, according to the Navajo Nation's Division of Health, more than 250 Navajos living on the reservation have been diagnosed HIV-positive, with 56 dying of AIDS.

"It just keeps getting bigger and bigger," Deschine says, "so we're doing something [approving the Diné Marriage Act] to safeguard ourselves."

Deschine's conclusion: "The best place for the nadleeh is to be at home with their family -- try to be productive there, because once they come into the community, there's no place for them."

Not all Tribal Council members concur.

"I disagree with that," Lawrence Morgan, the Tribal Council's Speaker of the House, says. "Whether they're gay or nadleeh, they're still human beings just like me and you."

Morgan, in his second term as Speaker after winning reelection last November, is torn. He says that while he never would have proposed the Diné Marriage Act himself, he "had to support the council."

"They voted unanimously to approve it," he says. "It only outlaws gay marriage. They can still hold hands, they can sit in the park together, and go to movies together.

"I think the Diné Marriage Act," he adds, "is really misunderstood by the general public."

Morgan volunteers that he has a nephew "that probably plays a [transgender] role." His nephew, Morgan adds, dresses like a female and acts like a female. "But there's no such thing in Navajo culture as 'transgender.' It's just the way they act."

Wesley Thomas says there's a rash of denial and homophobia among the Tribal Council members.

"People who have respect for other people do not run for the Tribal Council," Thomas says. "The Tribal Council always seems to look for something that is trivial, something to keep themselves entertained. They don't even have enough money to fix potholes, and they're worrying about gay marriage.

"I think that at the same time that we as Navajos have lost ownership of our culture, having assimilated to Western ways," he says, "we have become culturally arrogant."


For the past few years, Native American T-girls have been afraid to work the streets of Phoenix. Most have assimilated to working in the sex trade via the Internet or escort agencies.

"I haven't seen any Native Americans on Van Buren, gosh, in at least six months," says Phoenix Police Vice Sergeant Chris Bray. "But those [transgender] girls used to go down there in droves. As many as 30 of them a day."

Many, like Tionne, a slender 28-year-old Navajo with almond-shaped eyes, continues to work off and on as a prostitute. She rattles off the names of friends she says have been murdered -- either shot, stabbed or beaten to death.

Tracy.

Rachel.

Michelle.

"And there were others. They just disappeared," says Tionne, sitting in the parking lot of the Native American Community Health Center in central Phoenix, where the Native American Pathways Prevention Project is located. Many of the girls who work on the street attend weekly group meetings organized by the project, and get tested for HIV and other STDs.

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