The Crying Game

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

In this competition for the Miss Native American Transgender crown, Angel, 26, will best her three competitors in every category. Her performance of a traditional Tohono ritual in praise of I'toi, the Tohono "creator," will bring some members of the audience -- as well as her four younger siblings performing with her onstage -- to tears.

And she'll say all the right things about AIDS awareness in the American Indian community during the proverbial question-and-answer session.

But all of it might be for naught.

Trudie Jackson spent two months single-handedly preparing for the pageant. She wants the winner to tour the state, she tells the audience at the beginning of the show, and "represent us girls right." Miss Native American Transgender will enter gay pageants around Arizona, and talk about the spirituality of tribal transgenderism.

Without funding for Native American Pathways, though, such good intentions likely won't be realized.

Jackson made calls to about a dozen queens all over the state asking them to compete in the pageant. But she got just four contestants, including Angel Manuel and Crystal Mattias, who drove up from Tucson a week earlier.

Mattias isn't the only contestant who's had sex for money. Only Manuel, in fact, hasn't. But that won't disqualify anyone from this pageant.

Jackson ran the pageant on a shoestring budget. She spent just $150, on a small stage and a pair of floodlights. (She opted not to pay an extra $65 for a spotlight.) The raffle prizes, bouquets of roses, and other gifts for the contestants all were donated.

Jackson wanted to have the event inside the hip Hotel Clarendon. But when she was told the space would cost $500, she opted for the first-floor conference room of the NACHC.

Even though the pageant's emcee, Elton Nasgood, a gay Navajo who works for AIDS Project Los Angeles, has speeded up the competition by rushing through his monologue, the show is still about an hour behind schedule.

"We're operating on Indian time," he jokes with the audience.

The judges, including Navajo transgender Mattee Jim, who works for the Navajo AIDS Network in Gallup, and Louva Hartwell, the director of NativeOUT, a Native American GLBT nonprofit advocacy organization based in Phoenix, wait patiently for their votes to be tabulated.

Finally, the contestants gracefully appear onstage after a few local Native American drag queens lip-synching to J.Lo, Selena, and Madonna -- of course -- exit stage right.

Angel Manuel cradles a bouquet of flowers, blows kisses to her family, and tells a reporter that she's shocked she's the first Miss Native American Transgender.

Jackson stands offstage proudly, surveying the scene, as Dennis Huff and other NACHC administrators heap praise upon her for a job well done.

But Jackson is worried about the future of her program. She stresses about her own. Huff, she says, is trying to get her a job with the NACHC's anti-tobacco program in case the Native American Pathways Prevention Project is forced to shut down. But because of her criminal record, Jackson isn't optimistic.

As the audience exits, and the contestants fill duffle bags of makeup and wigs, Jackson wonders about Francessica, the teenager from the Navajo reservation, whom she met a few months ago at a "gay gathering" up in Fort Defiance, where Jackson tended a booth and passed out leaflets and brochures about safe sex.

"I really wish Francessica could have been here," she says.

And Francessica wanted to be here. She'd heard from Jackson a few weeks earlier, when Jackson called her parents' home, to check in.

Francessica hoped she'd be able to hitch a ride to Phoenix, but never got to Window Rock to find a trucker in time.

About a week before the pageant, Francessica contemplated her fate, standing at the banks of that nearly frozen pond near Frog Rock.

Francessica says she has uncommon instincts, that her grandmother told her once -- as a boy, still, in elementary school -- that she could someday be a medicine man if she so chose.

While Francessica seems to beam at the prospect of becoming a medicine man, she knows it's unlikely.

"I'd have to go back to being a man. I wouldn't be able to be out like this," she says, referring to the white pullover with the faux-fur hood she's wearing, and the heavy eyeliner and layers of foundation on her face.

"Right now, I have to decide if I'm going to be educated," Francessica says, "or if I'm going to be a whore.

"I'm somewhere in the middle."

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