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    #WeAreSacred: Equality Through Hózhó in the Navajo Nation and Beyond

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    Many readers may be unaware that when the Supreme Court established marriage equality across the U.S. in its landmark 2015 Obergefell decision, the ruling did not automatically apply to the over 500 sovereign Native American nations. Today, many tribes have marriage equality, but the largest Native American nation, the Navajo Nation, does not.

    The Navajo LGBTIQ civil rights organization Diné Equality (Diné is the native term for Navajo) and its allies have launched a groundbreaking initiative this spring to change that. They face considerable challenges, but if they are successful, the breakthrough will not only benefit Two-Spirit and other LGBTIQ Diné but also inspire other tribes without equality to follow suit. And it goes beyond that. Diné Equality’s campaign gives all Americans the opportunity to awaken to the important historical context from which the current Navajo marriage equality ban derives and to learn from the distinctively Diné approach Diné Equality is taking to lift it.

    The name of Diné Equality’s campaign to pass the legislation is “Equality Through Hózhó.” Hózhó is a Diné word meaning “balance and beauty.” The organization’s hashtag is #WeAreSacred.

    Hózhó is central to Diné life and culture and refers to an “all-encompassing beauty” that is “a product of striving for harmony in how one lives one’s life,” according to an Indiana University Online Exhibition of Navajo weavings. Hózhó values “health and goodness” and harmony with other people, the natural world, and the spiritual realm. Living in Hózhó and “walking in beauty” entails being “an active, ongoing force for good.” Every person “must determine how to realize it personally.”

    For centuries before contact with Europeans, the Diné embodied Hózhó, as the Diné Equality website describes they “revered & honored our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer & two-spirit family members” and assigned them “sacred roles many of us continue to hold today.” Navajo language and culture have traditionally recognized at least four genders, with Nádleehi (often described as feminine males and intersex people) even playing a pivotal role in the Diné creation story.

    European American colonization shattered that Hózhó and destroyed the Diné’s nuanced, nonbinary understanding of gender grounded in real life experience. As the author Trista Wilson describes, Europeans through conquest “imposed their own religion and social norms upon the tribes, resulting in … the demise of two-spirit aspects of traditional Native American culture.”

    Sadly, many Navajo internalized conservative American Christianity and its attendant homophobia, resulting in far too many Navajo people today being unaware of centuries-long Diné embrace of diversity in gender and sexuality. As the Two-Spirit Diné activist Oriah Lee put it to NPR in 2019, the longstanding “tradition has disappeared because it is so Christianized here.”   

    This internalization of Christian and other homophobic Western ideas into the modern Navajo mainstream and erasure of the understanding and memory of a very different inclusive tradition exacts a huge human cost on LGBTIQ Diné. A staggering 70 percent of LGBTIQ Navajo youth have attempted suicide, according to NPR, compared to the also unacceptably high rate of 23% otherwise in the U.S. As one Diné leader put it, the discriminatory legal framework and attitudes cause LGBTIQ to “feel like they are disposable.”
     
    And in 2005 amid a flurry of anti-marriage equality measures sweeping across much of the U.S., the Navajo Nation banned LGBTIQ people from marriage and prohibited Navajo recognition of marriages of LGBTIQ people performed in American states.

    Diné Equality describes how the discriminatory 2005 legislation disturbed Hózhó because it “divided our people & created deep community disharmony.” They now seek to restore the lost harmony by repealing the ban. In late March, Navajo Council Delegate Eugene Tso, an LGBTIQ ally, introduced legislation that would establish marriage equality in the Navajo Nation as well as strengthen women’s rights in marriage.

    But anti-equality Christian forces within the Navajo Nation mobilized against the legislation, invoking the same type of rhetoric as their non-Native conservative Christian counterparts. Public comments on the marriage equality bill submitted before its first committee hearing favored marriage equality by a 58% to 42% margin. However, the first Council committee to hold hearings on the legislation voted against it 3–2, with the deciding vote cast by a Christian conservative. Tso recently withdrew the bill, promising to reintroduce it this summer after more research, refinements, and public education about its purpose.

    The struggle will be difficult, but we love that Diné Equality’s self-affirming campaign is based on beauty and the fact that LGBTIQ Diné are sacred and had always been part of a community embracing harmony, balance, and belonging. Diné Equality is offering the Navajo Nation a unique opportunity to assert its sovereignty and traditions in a dynamic way by casting off colonial-based discriminatory dogma and reclaiming its own insightful understanding of gender, sexuality, and community that has existed for centuries and which courageous queer Diné people live out today.
     
    The broader American society has much to learn from what the Diné and many other Native American peoples have long understood about beauty, diversity, fluidity, and harmony. As Diné Equality puts it on its Facebook page: “It is important for us to hold true to our traditional ways and to honor the LGBTQ+ identities that make us one family … . [W]e are all sacred beings and our community strengthens this Hózhó.” That wisdom applies not just to Diné but to all of us.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    Published on May 19, 2022