The Crying Game

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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.

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Joe Watson