Michelle Sherman was 5 years old when she discovered she was different.
“I remember seeing two guys holding hands and then my mom’s like, ‘Oh that’s disgusting,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, maybe it is disgusting,’” Sherman said.
Michelle started to believe she was “disgusting” and at only 11 years old, she attempted suicide.
“I really thought something was wrong with me,” Sherman said. “But then the thing that stopped me was my grandmother.”
Sherman’s grandmother, 93-year-old Alice Palmer, has grown up in Upper Fruitland, New Mexico, on the northern edge of the Navajo Nation, and raised her family there. She and Michelle have always been close. They watch wrestling together, grind corn together and go to the flea market together.
Through her teens Michelle tried to fit in, but she was living a double life. At 19, her sister walked in on Michelle and a girl she was dating in her bedroom.
“She just barged in the door and yelled at me, 'What the hell are you doing?'" Sherman said. “‘You shouldn’t be doing this. Like what’s wrong with you? This is gross. This is disgusting,’ and made me feel less human. ‘What do you think grandma’s going to think of you?’”
That’s when Michelle knew she had to leave. The last thing she wanted to do was disappoint her grandmother.
A quarter of Navajo LGBTQ youth have been kicked out of the house because they are gay. And they are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their white counterparts. That’s according to a Diné Policy Institute study. Many Navajo youth leave the reservation for Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, places where they’re more accepted and where they're allowed to marry a person of the same sex.
As it turns out, it was Michelle’s grandmother Alice who knew and loved Michelle all along for who she was.
Across the Navajo Nation, elders have come to the aid of granddaughters and grandsons when the rest of the family rejects them. Medicine men revere the “two-spirited,” as they’re sometimes called.
“When I came out to my family my mother took it the hardest, but my grandparents didn’t,” said Alray Nelson, an LGBTQ rights activist. “My grandmother sent me a handwritten letter when I was in college. My grandfather doesn’t speak English. He speaks Navajo fluently. He told my grandmother to tell me, ‘I would always have a home with them; that I’m his son.’”
Historians say federally run boarding schools and other assimilation tactics have taught generations of Navajo including Alray’s and Michelle’s parents to discriminate. Just look at Navajo leadership. In 2005 the tribal council passed the Diné Marriage Act rejecting same-sex marriage.
Nelson heads up Diné Equality, which is working to repeal the law.
“We are seeing clearly the after effects of what colonialism can look like and how it really shifted our values as Navajo people,” Nelson said. “Whereas at the time, if you were LGBTQ and growing up in a Navajo traditional family, families celebrated that fact. They said that we were sacred. They said that we had sacred roles.”
They had roles as mediators, as leaders. Traditionalists believe the two spirited are powerful and there are multiple genders. Navajo historian Jennifer Denetdale said the Diné creation story includes a “nádleehí.”
“Today we take the ‘nádleehí’ as a being who was what we would call an intersex person today, meaning that this is a person who has sexual organs of the male and the female and is considered to be a third gender in Navajo society,” Denetdale said.
When first man and first woman weren’t getting along, it was the “nádleehí” who intervened.
Bry Smiley, who calls herself “nádleehí,” said her grandmother stood by her side.
“My late grandma, Ramona, she used to call me her boyfriend,” Smiley said. “We were born on the same day May 9.”
It wasn’t until Smiley took an Indigenous Studies class in college that she learned what that meant.
“Navajo family used to pride themselves to have two-spirited people in their family,” Smiley said. “Some of them would take someone by the arm and say, ‘This is my boyfriend. This is my boyfriend.’ That would show people this person makes me rich.”
After Michelle Sherman earns her bachelor’s degree she plans to return to the Navajo Nation, where LGBTQ youth often don’t have access to resources, let alone the Internet.
“If I want to keep inspiring then why not do it at home?” Sherman said. “Just like my grandma, she’s here. She still inspires people.”
She looks down at her forearm, where she’s tattooed a diamond-shaped design her grandmother was famous for when she could still weave rugs. On the other side of her arm are her scars reminding her everyday that she’s still here that she has a purpose — and that’s to help Navajo youth.
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