Further dashing my hopes that I may someday live a “normal” life, Ty Mansfield (King of the Gay Mormons) called me the other day (to proposition me, he said; I told him I was going to tell the internet). Apparently the leaders of the Navajo Nation wanted to meet with us the next day because they are trying to restructure their government and need to know what to do with the 2005 law they passed stating that marriage is only between a man and a woman. So we went.
I must say I was pretty nervous. I may have been mistaken for an Indian in the past, but I’m not one, and I had no idea what sort of cultural barriers I might run into. Do you shake hands? Or do you just raise your palm and say “How?” Is “Navajo” plural? Is it offensive? Was there any way I could score some Navajo tacos out of this deal? Was I going to have to smoke something? Did thinking about these questions automatically make me unqualified to help them?
So the next afternoon I texted Ty “What are you wearing?” which cracks me up. He didn’t answer in time for me to change my own outfit, so I showed up in a nice shirt and tie, and he showed up in the standard shorts and polo. Oh, well. I don’t mind being overdressed. Plus at least I didn’t go with my first thought, which was this: “Hmmm, it should be something part Indian. What do they wear? Feathers? And then something part gay… A feather boa! Perfect!” Really, all you gay Indians out there, if you want to start building understanding and tolerance in your community, you probably need to start building your outfits around the feather boa. I think snakes are even sacred to your people anyway. Wasn’t your Quetzalcoatl god a feathered serpent? It’s a good thing the American Indians have me to sort out their complex social issues for them.
So we showed up and Ty apologized for what he was wearing, probably mostly to make me feel more at ease, because the nicest any of the Navajos was dressed was a bolo tie, which I felt was a little stereotypical. The obvious leader of the group was an elderly man who had served as Supreme Court Justice in the Navajo Supreme Court for 13 years. The rest were aides or interns or something, but their opinions seemed to matter. They asked question after question for an hour and a half, and we answered them all. Each of the men seemed to have his own individual agenda, to which our words were constantly twisted. The whole meeting seemed a large balancing act, paring away what I didn’t believe, some from this side, then some from that side, until we got to the core of it.
Here are some things that I gathered that seem to matter to the Indians:
Their government and laws (they have their own constitution that does not fall under the U.S. constitution) have grown inorganically, mirroring our constitution. A push is being made to return their government to its traditional setup, with spiritual leaders called “medicine men” at the head. A problem with this is that the medicine men’s treatment of early signs of homosexuality is to send the person into the desert for nine days. That’s a long time.
The Navajos have not ever had a case of two of their citizens of the same sex trying to marry. They view the law as moot, built to reflect the current political trends in the U.S. At the same time, they worry that such a law only engenders prejudice, and would not want the laws they have set up acting as the catalysts for hatred.
Many fear that the Navajo people have forgotten their roots and rich heritage. According to the leader, gays were traditionally treated with much respeck (that's a Navajo word they taught me that means "respect"). “Just like you would treat a firstborn son or twins with respeck,” he said to me, which I felt was the sentence which most clearly pulled back the curtain on the differences between our cultures and mindsets. We learned that that mindset had changed over the last hundred years, as conservative U.S. values have seeped into their community, and that several of the current leaders among the Navajos have begun to accept those values as a part of the Navajo historic heritage (the same thing exactly has happened among the Mormons; we're forgetting that our church membership wasn't always aligned with the Republican Party).
The Navajos also don’t wish to make a homosexual person feel that he or she must necessarily live a homosexual lifestyle just because he or she feels homosexual desires. Their first law is respeck for all people. They also seem heavy on the “live and let live” policy, for which they have another special Navajo word they taught us that I don’t remember.
Now, here are some points that I made during the meeting:
First, they may have never had a case of two Navajos of the same sex trying to get married, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It’s the same with Utah: I can’t imagine wanting to live in Utah if I were trying to live in a gay marriage and adopt children and all. There are better places for that. But that doesn’t mean our law is moot. There are activists out there who would try to get married in Utah specifically to challenge our laws. And the fact that we have a law set up means that we already know in advance how we are going to deal with that when the time comes. I told the Indians that their nation would probably someday come to a similar point, where their laws are being tested not from within, but by a movement from the U.S. that aims to challenge their beliefs. Inorganic laws can serve as a good preemptive defense against inorganic activism.
Next, I told them about the changes we helped effect in the BYU Honor Code, and how the most important part to me was that it now specifically states that a person can be open about his sexuality. Homosexual behavior is still not allowed, but the new wording prevents the problem of the rule itself fostering anti-gay feelings. In this way, the law takes responsibility for itself.
Furthermore, I said, I would never want to coerce someone into living what I believe. I also would not want to push someone into living the opposite of what I believe. What I would rather do is clear the way before them and let them choose their own path (that’s how Navajos talk, right?). I gave the example of the teenage boy who went and got a tattoo without asking for parental permission, an action which was clearly against his family’s values. His family, however, maintained the attitude, “oh just let him do whatever he wants.” The flaw in that thinking is evident when one takes the teenager’s actions to the next level. What if what he wants is to do drugs? I told those Navajos that it’s fine to let people make their own decisions, but that doesn’t mean that at any point we stop teaching them our values and spiritual traditions, and that we have a responsibility to those over whom we have a charge to help them make good decisions, as well.
I don’t know how much anything we said actually reached them, or whether they’ll be able to communicate any of it back to their government in any useful way, but I felt that the meeting went very well.
After the meeting, we talked to one of the aides, who, it turns out, is Navajo and Mormon and a closeted homosexual. Yikes! Sucks to be him. He is working in his government right now, trying to bring about social change, which is the reason he can’t come out. He’d lose his job. It was really neat to talk to someone who was fighting the same fight, but on a different battlefield. My prayers are with that kid. I can’t imagine how tough it must be to mix three different clashing cultures in one life. I hope he writes a book.
Anyway, I do have one regret from the meeting. It’s that probably if I had just remembered to bring some firewater and beads to the meeting, I could right now own a LOT of Arizona. Yeah, but who wants it anyway, right? I mean... right?