Lady Shug, the 2016 Miss New Mexico Pride winner, and a prominent voice in the Navajo Nation's LGBTQ community.

Photos of Queer Life on a Sprawling Native American Reservation

The Navajo Nation—the biggest reservation in the US—can get lonely, especially if you identify as LGBTQ. But advocates and members of the community hope that change is coming.

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Nov 14 2017, 3:15pm

Lady Shug, the 2016 Miss New Mexico Pride winner, and a prominent voice in the Navajo Nation's LGBTQ community.

When many Navajo LGBTQ people reflect on their daily existence on the largest Native American reservation in the US, “isolation” is the word that comes up most frequently.

“The reservation is my home, but there’s nothing here for the LGBT community,” says Lola De La Hoya, who came out as trans after graduating high school.

The Navajo Nation covers over 27,000 square miles of arid and mountainous land, taking in the vast deserts of three southwestern states. At the last US census, some 174,000 people lived scattered across its remote towns and communities.

For Navajo trans people like De La Hoya, this geography only serves to compound their alienation from families and peers. “My parents took down all of their pictures of me when I came out, and they try to not be seen with me in public,” she says.

Navajo culture traditionally recognizes a wide variety of sexual orientations and gender identities, including a third gender known as nádleeh, though the belief has faded over time after Christianity and colonization imposed a more binary understanding of gender.

LGBTQ Navajo people, however, are increasingly looking towards their heritage to argue for their rights, building alliances within their communities and with other Native American groups across the US. Some are also drawing support from an unlikely source: their grandparents.

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“A lot of elders still follow the traditional system, but most people don’t even know about it now,” says Michelle Sherman, a lesbian who lives with her grandmother. “When I came out to my family, they kicked me out, but my grandma told them that this was a normal part of Navajo culture.”

Travis "Buffalo Barbie" Goldtooth, who identifies with both genders and uses female pronouns, says that her grandmother was firmly on her side when she came out. “You be who you wanna be,” her elder instructed vehemently. “Don’t let anyone else tell you how to be!”

Although the Navajo Nation has a long way to go in advancing LGBTQ rights, Navajos like Lady Shug—a transgender drag queen and advocate who won Miss New Mexico Pride in 2016—believes her community has the power to instigate change.

“We are a rare community," she emphasizes. "We need to let our tribal officials know that we’re here and we need their respect.”

Lady Shug getting ready for a drag performance at the West Colorado Pride Festival. She performed nearly every weekend as part of her Miss New Mexico Pride duties.
Lady Shug using foam to accentuate her hips before a drag performance.
Sharnell Paul, a transgender teen, at her home with her horses in Dennehotso, Arizona.
Paul, 19, was recently removed from the "Women of the Navajo" calendar after someone outed her to the publisher.
Travis "Buffalo Barbie" Goldtooth sitting in front of Shiprock, a prominent landmark for Navajo people. She identifies with both genders and uses female pronouns.
Buffalo Barbie at home with her dogs in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.
Lola De La Hoya at a friend's where she often takes refuge from the criticism of her parents.
Lola De La Hoya's daily regimen of testosterone blockers and estrogen pills. A lack of transportation and access to hospitals makes it difficult to maintain her treatments.
De La Hoya getting ready for a drag performance at Gay Prom, one of the few events of the year aimed at Navajo LGBTQ people.
Michelle Sherma and her grandmother live together. Her grandma helped Sherman's parents understand traditional Navajo notions of gender and their daughter's identity.