Alray Nelson speaks to the Tuba City Human Rights Commission.Massoud Hayoun/Al Jazeera
Some of Nelson’s other obstacles are not as tangible as they are in Window Rock. They are more personal. He has issues from his past he must contend with that possibly make him an even more controversial figure to his critics and opponents. In 2010 he pleaded guilty to filing false police reports saying he faced anti-gay threats and violence while he was student-body president at Fort Lewis College in Durango.
He completed 200 hours of community service and a year of unsupervised probation. It is an incident Nelson and his family fear may be used to tarnish his cause. But he remains resolute.
When he arrived at the Tuba City Human Rights Commission meeting, with little over a dozen people attending, he signed up to give testimony. “The lawmakers who are trying to oppose what we want to do are on the wrong side of history,” he said in his speech.
Navajo's vice president made a brief appearance at the seven-hour hearing but left before Nelson spoke. But some commission members expressed enthusiasm for Nelson’s project.
“The tribe can make this happen,” said Commission Chair Steve Darden, responding to Nelson’s speech.
“I stand by the fact that we have agreed as a body that we cannot use Navajo tradition to discriminate against people. That’s what the arguments are: What is truly Navajo tradition and culture? … What is truly Diné?” he said, employing the Navajo word for their people and language.
During the hearing, a Navajo transgender entertainer, Lola Tsosie, 32, who lives in a border town off the reservation, echoed Nelson’s view that Navajo tradition means equality. “My grandmother taught me we are all five-fingered people,” she said, using the Navajo term for humans.
But one man in his late 20s said his family, with whom he lives on the reservation, tried to pray away his sexuality in a traditional sweat-lodge ceremony. “Recently my family had a ceremony and prayed away that fluid sexuality that exists, apparently, for my family,” he said. He said the ceremony doesn't appear to have worked.
Many in Navajo and other Native American communities say the term “Na’dleeh” — “two spirits” in Diné, or beings with female and male spirits that possess special spiritual gifts — encompasses how past generations conceived of LGBT people. “According to Diné philosophy and culture …being gay means you are two-spirited. You have male and female figures in you. That makes you a holy person,” said Tyson Benally, 24, who studies traditional arts and culture at Diné College in the town of Tsaile.
Benally was raised — by parents who, he says, were not bothered by his coming out — not far from the college, where he has revived a long-defunct Gay Straight Alliance. The Diné Marriage Act feels foreign to Benally. “I don’t know where this all comes from," he said.
But interpreting such elements of traditional Navajo culture is far from straightforward. Others say the concept of two spirits more specifically refers to hermaphrodites or people suffering from multiple personalities.