The Crying Game

Page 6 of 7

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."

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.

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Joe Watson