By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
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.
And a local Native TG outreach agency -- the only one in the country -- has given others some small hope that there are options besides working as prostitutes. A Native American transgender beauty pageant earlier this month rallied support for the queens, even from the mainstream gay community, which in the past hasn't exactly co-existed harmoniously with the T-girls.
One former bartender at a central Phoenix gay bar says the staff used to refer to the Native American queens as "WeHopis" -- "as in, 'We hoping we can get a ride home,' or, 'We hoping we can get laid,'" he says.
The jokes turned into violence, and, according to Phoenix police, there have been dozens of reports of assaults and threats between gay men and the Native American TGs in the past several years. The action's calmed considerably, as the TGs have left the streets. The Native American Pathways Prevention Project and its outreach coordinator, Trudie Jackson, deserve much of the credit.
But just as the project is making headway, it could be shut down by the end of the year. A large chunk of the project's federal grant money expires on December 31.
Which is bad news for girls like Francessica, Demetria, Alisa, and other Native American transgenders emerging from their fractious homes back on the rez and migrating to Phoenix, looking for something better.
"Most of the girls come to the city looking for inner peace," Crystal Mattias says. "But they won't find it so easy."
Transgenders have a long, celebrated history in Navajo culture. That much is agreed upon by Tribal Council members and anthropologists alike.
But perceptions have changed.
Wesley Thomas, an anthropology professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, has written a half-dozen essays on Native American gender and sexual identity, published in academic journals from institutions including UCLA and the University of Illinois.
As a Navajo born and raised on the reservation in Crownpoint, New Mexico, Thomas' focus has been the historical and present-day role of transgenders in Native American culture, particularly his own tribe.
"I became interested in the topic when I noticed some Navajo men dressing up as women, dancing in traditional winter ceremonies," Thomas says. "I wanted to know why."
While he's found that most every other American tribe has issues with homophobia and intolerance for its own transgenders, who just like Navajos are moving to urban areas "looking for safety and security," Thomas says it's the Navajo Nation that is least tolerant.
Thomas, who is gay but coyly says that's not a term used in his culture, is well-known (and largely disliked) in Window Rock and throughout the Navajo reservation. Most of the politicians and medicine men familiar with Thomas vehemently disagree with his interpretation of the history of transgenders in Navajo society.
The basic story, though, is not disputed.
Navajo male-to-female transgenders were once referred to as "nadleeh," which literally means "a constant state of change." According to Thomas, they were well-regarded by their community for centuries, appointed by medicine men as "chosen people," having the benefit of living life as both a man and a woman.
They've also been known as "two-spirits," a convenient Western term that became popular -- at least academically -- in the 1980s.
The story of the nadleeh originated not long after Navajo creationism. First Man and First Woman, the Navajo version of "Adam and Eve," were separated by a river, as the story goes, after a disagreement between the two over women's liberation. Each gender kept to its own side of the river, and after some time, men were forced to appoint some of their own to perform the so-called duties of women, such as cooking and cleaning.
Soon thereafter, both genders looked for other options to keep themselves satisfied sexually. Women turned ears of corn into primitive dildos. Men, on the other hand -- according to Thomas -- turned to one another, and to the nadleeh, who were already acting as women.
Thomas says almost every North American tribe has at some point had its own version of the nadleeh.
"Quite a few of the Plains tribes, some along the Gulf Coast, and, of course, in the Southwest," he says.
Until the early 20th century, that is, as those living on the reservations began assimilating to Western ideals, and Christian missionaries found the rez to be fertile ground for converts.
But many Native Americans, Thomas says, especially those in the Navajo Nation and local Pima tribes, deny that transgenderism everplayed a significant historical role in their cultures.
Albert Deschine is one of them.
Deschine is a former Navajo tribal councilman, who lost his bid for another go-round as chapter president of Fort Defiance (a small community just north of Window Rock) in 2004 and now serves as an adviser to the Tribal Council's Human Services committee.
Just doors down from the Tribal Council chambers, where various committees and councilmembers are meeting on a Monday afternoon, the topic at hand kept Deschine talking for nearly two hours.
Of Wesley Thomas, Deschine asks:
"Is that the homo archaeologist? Yeah, I know who that is. I hate that fucking fag!"
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.
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.
"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.
The outreach coordinator for the Native American Pathways Prevention Project, Trudie Jackson, as well as Tionne and five other queens who attend the weekly meetings (and asked that their identities not be revealed), told New Times that they, too, knew of the same girls being murdered while working Van Buren.
Unfortunately, the girls only knew each other by their street names and didn't have exact dates for the murders, making it impossible to even ask for police reports.
A search for recent transgender deaths through the medical examiner's office was fruitless, because victims are not listed as their chosen sexual gender, but rather by the one to which they were born.
Cliff Jewell, a Phoenix police homicide detective, agreed to search a database of all hate crimes from the past 10 years for New Times, but by press time had been unable to find any possible matches for the homicides Jackson, Tionne and others described.
In fact, Phoenix police were only able to provide reports on two confirmed homicides. But just those have been enough to scare most of the TGs off the street, if not entirely out of the sex trade.
On March 4, 2002, two City of Phoenix sanitation workers were driving down an alley north of Thomas Road on 18th Street when one of them noticed the lifeless body of Alejandro Lucero hunched over in an alcove.
Lucero was a 26-year-old Hopi transgender. Months earlier, according to police reports, he'd moved to Phoenix from Gallup, New Mexico. He moved in with his brother, Lorenzo, also a transgender, and they were living together in a central Phoenix apartment.
When the sanitation workers discovered Alejandro Lucero's body, he was dressed in a woman's blue tank top, a strapless padded bra, "low rider" jeans, and blue thong panties. It wasn't until forensic investigators showed up almost an hour after Lucero's body was discovered that police realized Alejandro was not, in fact, a woman.
At the conclusion of an autopsy the next day, when Lucero was "found to have abrasions and contusions to the lower left edge of his jaw, down the left side of his neck and on the upper left portion of his chest," the medical examiner determined that Lucero had died from strangulation and blunt-force trauma.
"We were never able to establish who Alejandro really was," says one Phoenix homicide detective who asked that his name not be revealed, as he continues to work on the case almost four years later. "His murder was the first time he ever popped up on anybody's radar screen."
Raymond Soos -- known on the street and to friends as "Amy" -- was different. The Salt River Pima Indian was known to work Van Buren and frequent gay dive bars looking for tricks.
On February 16, 2002, just weeks before Lucero's murder, Soos hopped into a stranger's car for the last time. Phoenix police determined that Soos, after a night in downtown Phoenix, was picked up somewhere near the former Cruisin' Central (a gay bar that has since moved to Seventh Street, and is now known as Cruisin' 7th), either turning a trick or just looking for a ride back to her home on the reservation just south of Casino Arizona.
Soos' body was discovered by hot-air balloonists, lying in the middle of Jomax Road near Cave Creek. She had been beaten, run over several times by the car in which she was picked up, and left for dead.
Phoenix police have since determined that both Lucero's and Soos' unsolved murders were hate crimes. But they've found no link between the two.
"We did not determine that they were related. That's not to say that they aren't, but there was nothing similar about the two other than the lifestyle of the victims," the homicide detective says. "It's been my experience in 25 years of law enforcement that transgenders are targeted, period. A guy gets a six-pack of beer under his belt, picks up a hooker, and when he finds out the hooker is actually a man, he gets angry."
But girls like Tionne insist there's a pattern of homicides committed specifically against Native American transgenders.
"The cops," she says, "they don't care about us. They don't investigate enough."
According to the anonymous homicide detective, many of the girls Tionne suspects of having been murdered were more likely to have overdosed on drugs, or simply moved back to the reservation.
Phoenix Police Detective Tambra Williams agrees. "We're going to treat every homicide the same as any other," says Williams, the department's liaison to the gay community. "So many of the girls, and their families, may want to place blame. They don't want to know that their friends and relatives OD'd."
But, Williams admits, the Native American TG community is a target for violent crimes.
"When you have that much of your community homeless, on drugs, abusing alcohol," she says, "you've got such a huge propensity for violence. And when that community is gay or transgender, those who would commit those violent acts see them as weak individuals."
She adds, "They see them as easy targets."
Trudie Jackson was once like Francessica, yearning for an urban environment where she could blend in and disappear.
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.
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.
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."
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."