When Rei Yazzie started his transition and his voice began to change, he knew it was time to prepare for a tá’cheeh – a traditional male puberty ceremony. To do so, he would need the help of a Diné medicine man – an ask that can take time – but, more importantly, he would need to find a traditional healer willing to accept a transgender man.
“The older generation haven’t acknowledged or embraced (people like me),” said Rei Yazzie. “I want to reach out to somebody who is going to acknowledge that.”
Rei Yazzie is not alone in his struggle to secure prayer or ceremony from traditional healers, yet he descends from a tradition that recognizes multiple gender roles.
In the Diné language, there are at least six genders: Asdzáán (woman), Hastiin (male), Náhleeh (feminine-man), Dilbaa (masculine-woman), Nádleeh Asdzaa (lesbian), ‘Nádleeh Hastii (gay man). All come from the Diné creation story, in which asdzáán and hastiin, a cisgender married couple, were not getting along and separated. When that happened, dilbaa and náhleeh emerged from hiding and were seen as a special group that could perform the duties of both women and men, stepping into the vacated partner roles. They were accepted by asdzáán and hastiin, who realized their survival depended on them.
I identify as “bah” or dilbaa náhleeh (masculine woman) or nádleeh asdzaa. I prefer a masculine gender role that doesn’t match my sex, but I continue to face bias over my gender expression. I am sad when I think that, at one time, my people accepted me for who I was. Yet, I believe that respect for traditional practices and stories can help restore that acceptance.
Diné people have always understood gender as a spectrum rather than a binary, an understanding that has come from traditional teachings and our creation story. In order to stop discrimination, our traditional healers must set an example and accept people of all genders, including Rei Yazzie and me.
I was 4 years old when I knew I liked women. My whole family danced in powwows, but I didn’t like the girl category my parents picked out for me, so I told my father I could dance better than my brothers. I began dancing northern traditional, a boys’ category. I was 14 when the powwow community found out I was a girl, and I was bullied by people who called themselves “traditional,” as well as by their children. They would say homophobic things when I walked by or refuse to shake my hand if I placed in my category. It became difficult to continue to dance – emotionally, physically and spiritually. I started to doubt myself and internalized that hatred; I questioned myself and hated being gay. It didn’t help that my brother – my powwow buddy – didn’t accept me when he found out I was gay. I stopped dancing for a couple of years. Today, however, I dance when I have the courage.
In September of 2017, I asked my wife to marry me. We were determined to have a Navajo wedding and tried to find a traditional healer who would consider a marriage between two women. At one point, I found a medicine woman who supported same-sex marriages, but only if they were performed in a church or other non-Diné venue. She said that according to Navajo tradition, we couldn’t be blessed in the same way as a man and a woman, and she declined to perform the ceremony.
I felt like I was 14 again, frustrated and angry.
We eventually asked my wife’s uncle, who agreed to hold a ceremony for us last fall, and we were blessed to bring our families together inside a hoghan to celebrate, support and acknowledge our marriage. But for people like Rei Yazzie, such a blessing may still be a long way off.
Navajo ceremonies, including marriages, coming-of-age customs and even basic prayers, are essential to ensure the survival of the Diné people. There are more than 350,000 enrolled Navajo people who still need their language and culture, and we cannot discriminate against relatives who identify as nádleeh, dilbaa, nádleeh asdzaa and nádleeh hastii.
Traditional healers must talk about the Navajo creation story, understand and explain gender roles, use correct gender pronouns, and conduct ceremonies that honor multiple gender roles and different forms of relationships. Otherwise, we will lose those traditions for good.
I caught up with Rei Yazzie at the Diné Pride Christmas Drag Show Benefit at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, in December. He told me he still hasn’t found someone to help him take part in a tá’cheeh, but he’ll keep trying. Rei Yazzie and I come from the same creation story. We take pride in who we are and we shouldn’t be denied access to ceremony just because our gender roles don’t match our sex.
Jolene Yazzie is a student at Metropolitan State University, and a journalist and photographer based in Denver. Yazzie was formerly an editorial intern at High Country News. This article was first published in High Country News (hcn.org) on Jan. 7.