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

A Navajo Nation lawmaker recently introduced legislation to recognize gay and lesbian marriages on the Navajo Nation, potentially legalizing same-sex marriage in one of the nation’s last, biggest holdouts.

Navajo Council Delegate Eugene Tso sponsored a bill in late March that would repeal or make gender-neutral sections of the Diné Marriage Act, which passed in 2005 and specifically prohibits marriage by members of the same sex in a section that also bans incest and polygamy. 

Same-sex Navajo couples who received marriage licenses off the Nation are not recognized to be married on the Nation, current law states.

The Navajo Nation’s estimated 173,000 residents are the biggest group of tribal members in the country whose same-sex couples don’t enjoy the same rights as straight couples. Since the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that states cannot ban same-sex marriage, tribes have reacted differently. Some have gone along and followed their state laws, while others have upheld their bans or didn’t weigh in on the topic.

The Cherokee Nation, for example, which has about 140,000 members living on the Cherokee Nation but reports about 760,000 members nationwide, recently upheld its ban on same-sex marriage. However, the tribe accepts as valid marriage licenses issued outside its boundaries. So upholding that ban has little effect on same-sex couples. 

Marriage on the Navajo Nation confers rights to spouses regarding health care and shared property, among other things. 

Once Tso proposed the bill, the legislative process on the Nation required a five-day public comment period. After that, the legislation will be heard in four committees. A spokesperson guessed the bill won’t be heard until this summer or fall. Tso didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

But the legislation being introduced has renewed a debate on the Navajo Nation and surrounding areas. About 90 people wrote in with their comments between March 22 and 27, and several area church leaders have circulated petitions during services. 

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Of the public comments, 49 were in favor of recognizing same-sex marriages. Thirty-six were opposed. Four comments were deemed “comments/recommendations.”

A Source New Mexico review of the public comments shows many of the arguments opposed to same-sex marriage cited Biblical teachings. One form letter, along with dozens of attached signatures, asked that Council delegates, “Vote NO to any form of homosexual matter, behavior, attitude pursuant to the Bible, including same sex marriage.”

Comments in favor of same-sex marriage cited the necessity of providing equal rights to individuals regardless of gender or sexuality, and also, in many comments, dismissed the arguments toward banning same-sex marriage as colonialist. 

Many comments argued the recognition of “two-spirit” people, who simultaneously embody feminine and masculine spirits, is truer to the Navajo culture and society. The Navajo refer to these people as “Nádleehí,” which generally translates to “one who transforms.”

“Our two-spirited ancestors are credited with the invention of many tools, songs and roles in ceremonies,” one such comment reads, from commenter Curtis Berry. “Our heritage cannot be ignored, it must be remembered. I ask you not only to think of your people today, but for people of our history and support us all.” 

On March 26, the Gallup Independent published a full-page advertisement opposed to same-sex marriage. It was paid for by an unnamed group claiming to speak on behalf of 174 Navajo Nation churches, along with a phone number. 

Bobby George, pastor at Trinity Navajo Bible Church, answered that phone last week and told Source New Mexico he was a spokesperson on behalf of 174 churches that banded together first when the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the NavajoNation in 2020. The churches responded by fundraising and donating necessities, he said. 

He said he knows that the group of churches all agree with him about same-sex marriage being a sin because he called “enough” of them before the advertisement ran. He would not say how many of the churches he called, and he did not provide a list of the churches within the network as of Sunday night. 

“I called enough,” he said. “… The issue here is that (same-sex marriage is) an issue that Christians do not believe in. That’s the bottom line.” 

George said he is not familiar with the argument for same-sex marriage based in the history of “two-spirit” people, but he said the Bible’s written prohibition on the homosexual relationships – calling them “an abomination” –  is proof enough that the Navajo Nation should not legalize it. 

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“There’s no written history about how the traditional people really did things and what they believed in,” he said. “It gets passed down from person to person, you know, mouth to mouth.”

George acknowledged that the oral tradition is cherished among Navajo people and is the widely accepted practice for transferring knowledge and wisdom between generations. But he said advocates for same-sex marriage are using that to fake a justification for legalizing marriage now. 

Since the advertisement ran, George said he’s gotten numerous phone calls from those who agree with his stance, including some outside Christian groups, though none he said he was familiar with. 

While Tso’s bill would require tribal government to accept same-sex marriage, it also keeps in place traditional marriage ceremonies in hogans between men and women.

“Traditional Navajo society places a great importance upon the institution of marriage and believes the elaborate ritual of marrying using the traditional method is believed to be blessed by the ‘Holy People’,” Tso writes in the legislation. 

Despite not allowing same-sex marriage, the Navajo tribal government has allowed for Pride celebrations and enacted the “Equality Act,” which makes discrimination against those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

This article was first published by Source NM, a sister publication of the Arizona Mirror and a member of the States Newsroom network of local news sites.

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Patrick Lohmann/Source New Mexico

A group proselytizes at the Gallup flea market on April 2, 2022. The Navajo Nation government is considering legislation to legalize same-sex marriage.