Looking for love in wide-open spaces, the dating dilemma of gay Navajo

LGBT tribe members face obstacles of distance on the reservation, yet dating apps and bars don’t appeal

In sparsely populated areas of the rural Southwest, smartphone apps for gay Navajo are of limited use.
Massoud Hayoun/Al Jazeera

BESHBETOH, Navajo Nation — In New York's West Village neighborhood, gay men can find hookups and occasionally romance just a few feet away, at bustling gay bars or on social networking smartphone apps like Grindr. The same holds true in countless gay-friendly districts across urban America, from San Francisco and Atlanta to Houston.

But when a smartphone successfully picks up a signal and connects to gay apps in much of the heavily rural Navajo Nation, the nearest user can be more than 100 miles away. The same distance factor is true for gay bars — none of which exist on the sprawling desert territory that is home to some 170,000 people, covering a land area larger than several Eastern U.S. states.

What can be cornerstones of gay life for some people in other parts of America are still foreign to Navajo gay people, some of whom may never have lived off the reservation. In fact, some gay people in the Navajo Nation say they are more able to find long-lasting romantic partnerships by the more old-fashioned method of being introduced via family and friends, as their parents and grandparents did.

“It's obviously easier to meet someone on Grindr. (But) it's disgusting, because there, people just show photos. But that's not that appealing to me,” said Jimmy, a Navajo professional in his late 20s who wanted to use a false name because he's still grappling with his family’s acceptance of his sexuality.

Jimmy went to school off the reservation, in a city where gay apps are more prevalent. But the concept of meeting a prospective partner online was not for him. "I would like that human connection,” he said.

It is not just the lack of high-tech access that shapes gay life among the Navajo. For gay people in Beshbetoh, the sparsely populated rural childhood home of 27-year-old Navajo gay marriage advocate Alray Nelson, the nearest gay bar is in Albuquerque, N.M., about a four-hour drive away.

Nelson met his partner of three years, Brennan Yonnie, through friends, for lack of a better option at the largest Native American nation in the United States, he said. “Brennan and I met each other through friends. I asked him after he said hello if he wanted to go to dinner,” Nelson said, at the site of their first date, home-style food chain Cracker Barrel. “It's home-cooked food, and I wanted it to be somewhere a little dim,” Nelson said.

Nelson and his boyfriend remember, rather vividly, their first physical interaction. Yonnie rested his head on Nelson's shoulder at the carnival in the Window Rock Navajo Tribal Fair, a large annual to-do.

“Oh my God, such a cliche,” Yonnie said. A month later, the two young men kissed. 

For the few men on the reservation who have gay apps, there is some ambivalence about what role the apps should play in their lives. Jimmy has an on-and-off relationship with gay apps. In that regard, though, his feelings likely mirror those of many people outside the reservation — whether gay or straight — who might be reluctant to find romance online or who want to meet a life partner rather than just date casually. “I keep deleting (Grindr), because I don't want to just be easy or be sexual,” he said. “I don't picture myself meeting my partner on Grindr.”

The resentment some Navajo gay people have toward gay social media apps is also felt by some vis-a-vis gay bars. Stella Martin, 33, a Navajo transgender woman and student at the University of New Mexico, living in a border town off the reservation, Gallup, N.M., says gay bars are "oppressing our LGBT people and Navajo.” She cited the issue of widespread alcoholism on Native American reservations.

"(Gay bars) use (the LGBT community) to make money. There's a stigma around the drunken Indian already,” she said. Unlike on the reservation, liquor is available in Gallup, but Martin thinks a gay bar there would be a bad idea.

HIV/AIDS awareness advocate Jeremy Yazzie, who also lives in Gallup, agreed. "It'd add fuel to the fire — the high rise in HIV infections among Native Americans,” he said, arguing that intoxication can lower inhibitions and lead to unsafe sexual practices.

Off the reservation in Gallup, Yazzie, who is gay, uses Grindr not for dating but instead to spread information about testing for STDs on behalf of the Navajo AIDS Network.

But just as in many other parts of the U.S., gay people in the Navajo Nation also face genuine concerns over physical violence and prejudice. “At straight clubs, you have to be really careful who you talk to, because they might take you to the back and kick your ass,” said Tyson Benally, 24, a fine arts undergrad at Navajo's Diné College. Benally met his partner at a small gay pride function in Gallup.

There are no apparent plans to bring gay bars to the Navajo Nation, where opposition from a single prospective neighbor can block a commercial land lease. But Yazzie says gay apps are slowly rolling into Navajo country with greater connectivity, and they are facilitating hookups.

Nelson and Yonnie suggest there's an innocence lost if a community goes after a stereotypical big city gay experience of apps and bars — that the intimacy of first romantic encounters could disappear.

Gay Navajo contemporary artist and graphic designer Jolene Yazzie (no relation to Jeremy), 35, spoke with Al Jazeera just after returning from a getaway to San Francisco, where she said she would have liked to meet someone.

“I just wanted to meet new people,” she said. “It's just really hard to meet people.” Speaking with Al Jazeera at the Navajo Museum, where her art is being shown, Jolene Yazzie came with her sister, who has a husband and 5-year-old. “I'm jealous of her all the time,” she said, “I'm always telling her that.”

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