The Crying Game

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

She moved to Phoenix from Shiprock, a small town on the Navajo reservation. And then she was just like Raymond Soos or Alejandro Lucero. Only, unlike them, she somehow survived the streets -- for 15 years.

"I was jumping in and out of cars to make my rent money," says Jackson, 38, a heavyset transgender with shiny, dark brown hair and plump hands and fingers. "That was my survival. I was out there cleaning house, and my friends [also working as prostitutes] got jealous."

About eight years ago, those same so-called friends -- envious that Jackson pulled in as much as $1,000 on a good weekend working on Van Buren -- stabbed her in the chest twice, she says, leaving her to die on the street with a punctured lung.

Trudie Jackson
Jeff Newton
Trudie Jackson
Everson in eighth grade.
Everson in eighth grade.

Then she was busted on possession charges coming out of a crack house in downtown Phoenix, according to police reports, with three "8-balls of rock" clenched in her fists. She spent nine months in the Arizona Department of Corrections in Florence.

In prison, Jackson quit drinking and drugs. When she got out, she found the Two-Spirit Shields Project. Run by the Native American Community Health Center, the program -- with an average annual budget of about $75,000 -- was funded by federal grants from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. It targeted Native American transgenders who were at risk for HIV/AIDS.

According to Dennis Huff, NACHC's behavioral health director, Native American TGs and "risky behavior" go hand in hand.

"The girls have been shunned by their communities on the reservation," Huff says, "and they believe the only hope they have is to work on the streets."

After its first CDC grant ran out in 2002, the Two-Spirit Shields Project was reincarnated as the Native American Pathways Prevention Project. To this day, it's still the only program of its kind in the country -- expanding its role (largely thanks to Jackson's efforts) to include educating local tribes like Pimas and Yaquis on what transgenderism actually is so that straight Natives are more tolerant. The project also hosts weekly group meetings at the NACHC, with as many as two dozen TGs attending each session.

When Jackson was first hired by NACHC three years ago, she was working as a janitor. Now, she's the outreach coordinator for Native American Pathways.

In the past year, Huff says he's noticed Jackson's confident swagger. Like most of the T-girls, she can't afford sex-change surgery but gets hormones for free from the Phoenix Indian Medical Center. She's developing breasts, and her voice is up at least an octave without much strain on her vocal cords.

Huff calls Jackson the "den mother" to local Native American TGs. She drives a Dodge minivan around downtown Phoenix and physically hauls in TGs off the street to get them tested for HIV and other STDs.

She also plans fund raisers, like the first-ever Miss Native American Transgender Beauty Pageant.

It might also be the last.

Jackson's preparing for the worst if, in fact, as Huff fears, the program ceases to exist come December 31.

With more than a half-million dollars invested in the program since its inception seven years ago, Pathways' main source of funding from the U.S. Conference of Mayors will expire at the end of this year. And with just one success story -- Jackson -- out of more than 500 Indian transgenders in the Phoenix area who have sought assistance from the program, additional funds are unlikely.

"Idealistically, we'd be able to change society for the girls. But that's not realistic," Huff says. "Realistically, I thought we might be able to at least improve the girls' self-esteem, create a safer environment, and make them more secure.

"But we haven't been able to do that, either."

There's no mistaking Angel Manuel for Shania Twain. But Angel, like Shania, can work an audience, like the one that showed up for the first Miss Native American Transgender Beauty Pageant on a chilly Saturday night in mid-December.

Angel lip-synchs Shania's "Man! I Feel Like a Woman," strutting her bulky frame of nearly six feet and 250 pounds across a tiny wooden stage in the first-floor conference room of the Native American Community Health Center.

All eyes are on Angel, who's dressed in platform boots, a white Oxford and a leather miniskirt, topped off by a black Stetson.

"We don't need romance. We only wanna dance," Shania's voice belts out, with intermittent moments of crackling static, from two speakers flanking the stage. "We're gonna let our hair hang down!"

Cue the Stetson, which Angel ditches with the flip of a wrist, electrifying the standing-room-only crowd of about 100 people inside a conference room that, according to a sign indicating the "maximum occupancy," holds just 88.

Angel's solo drag show is as tight as her miniskirt, and her family -- her mom, stepdad, and six siblings, who drove up to Phoenix from the Tohono O'odham reservation earlier in the day -- leads the cheers of overwhelming approval.

Go, girl!

Work it, sister!

"Most Indian [transgenders] don't get support from their families, which is weird to me since I get so much from mine," Angel says. "Most of the girls can't be who they want to be."

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