Navajo same-sex marriage bill voted down at first of several hearings

Lengthy debate forecasts challenges the measure will face in the coming weeks

By: - April 15, 2022 5:00 am

(Getty Images)

A Navajo Nation committee voted Wednesday against legislation that would permit same-sex marriages, though the bill is far from dead. 

The Navajo Nation, the largest reservation within the United States, banned same-sex marriage as part of the Diné Marriage Act in 2005. As a result, same-sex couples cannot get married on the Nation, and Navajo government doesn’t recognize their marriages if they’re granted elsewhere. 

That means same-sex couples don’t have the same rights on the Nation for things like shared health insurance, hospital visitation, life insurance, adoption and foster care, and other necessities of shared life. About 173,000 people live on the Navajo Nation, making it one of the last, biggest regions inside the U.S. where same-sex couples cannot marry. 

Navajo Council Delegate Eugene Tso sponsored a bill in late March that would repeal or alter sex- or gender-specific language from the Marriage Act, which specifically prohibits marriage by members of the same sex in a section that also bans incest and polygamy. 

The Navajo Nation Council’s Health, Education and Human Services Committee on Wednesday devoted about an hour and a half to the measure, during which delegates switched between Navajo and English to discuss their support or opposition to the law. 

Ultimately, the committee voted 3-2 against legalizing same-sex marriage, though it will be heard in the coming weeks by other committees, including the Budget and Finance Committee and the Law and Order Committee, before the full Council. A delegate predicted it won’t near passage or failure until sometime in May. 

Navajo Nation lawmaker seeks to legalize gay marriage, igniting new debate

Nathaniel Brown, a delegate and an advocate for the LGBTQ community, said upholding the ban fuels a stigma on the Nation that he’s seen often result in tragedy, like youth suicide or bullying. And he said it’s preventing many couples from returning to the Nation to build a life for themselves and future generations. 

“We also had a really bright young gentleman who left the Department of Justice as an attorney, because the Navajo Nation does not recognize same-sex couples, and the medical insurance and other insurance,” Brown said. “‘Why am I working here if I am being discriminated against?’”

Brown, moved to tears, also said anti-LGBTQ attitudes and laws might be contributing to another scourge — missing and murdered indigenous women and relatives. 

“It’s those individuals that feel like they are disposable. They don’t feel k’e,” he said, using the Navajo word for kinship. “And they leave us.”

Three delegates spoke in opposition to the measure and later voted against it.

Delegate Edison Wauneka cited religious objections and said that same-sex couples should just get licenses outside the Navajo Nation, even though they aren’t recognized as married the moment they step onto tribal land. 

“We don’t have the authority to address what the Heavenly Father said,” he said. 

Council Delegate Eugene Tso (Courtesy Navajo Nation Council)

Opponents also said it shouldn’t be up to the Council and instead be put to tribal members in a referendum. But the Council passed the original 2005 bill banning same-sex marriage without relying on a referendum, Delegate Carl Slater pointed out to Source New Mexico. 

Public comments submitted ahead of the hearing were in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage but not by a wide margin. About 90 people wrote in with their comments between March 22 and 27, and several area church leaders have circulated petitions during services. In addition to the petitions, a group of Navajo Nation Christian churches recently paid for a full-page advertisement in the Gallup Independent opposing the measure and citing Biblical teachings as why. 

Of the public comments, 49 were in favor of recognizing same-sex marriages. Thirty-six were opposed. 

Jennifer Nez Denetdale spoke to the committee at the request of Tso, the bill’s sponsor. She’s a member of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and an American Studies professor at the University of New Mexico. 

In her work as a historian and researcher, she said, she looked into traditional gender expression and roles on the Navajo Nation, including the recognition of two-spirit people who embody masculine and feminine traits, known as Nádleehí.

“The forces of colonialism, including in American education, introduction of Christianity, and the civilizing program through the federal government has led to this loss of our memory that at one time, depending on who you talk to, we recognized three to five genders,” she told the committee. 

That Christian colonialist impact on recent generations can be seen, Nez Denetdale said, in where many LGTBQ youth seek solace if they grow up in an unwelcoming household. 

“Stories shared by our LGBTQ2S (two-spirit) relatives indicate that in a world where they are treated with discrimination and hate, their grandparents are often refuges,” she said. “Grandparents love their grandchildren, regardless of their gender identity.”

Delegates Slater and Charlaine Tso voted in favor of the measure. Delegates Wauneka, Parnell Halona and Paul Begay, Jr., voted against it.

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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