LGBT Navajo Youth Discover Unlikely Champions Navajo LGBTQ youth are three times as likely to attempt suicide as their white counterparts. Some are finding unexpected allies among elders whose tradition embraces the "two spirited."

LGBT Navajos Discover Unexpected Champions: Their Grandparents

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In the United States, nearly a quarter of LGBT teens attempt suicide. For LGBT youth who are Navajo, the figure is 70 percent, according to a study. In some families on the Navajo Nation, an unlikely champion is coming forward to celebrate gay youths. Member station KJZZ's Laurel Morales reports from Flagstaff.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: When she was 5 years old, Michelle Sherman learned exactly what her mother thought of gay men.

MICHELLE SHERMAN: I remember seeing two guys holding hands. And then my mom's like, oh, that's disgusting. So it kind of was, like, OK. Maybe it is disgusting.

MORALES: But then Sherman realized she was attracted to girls.

M SHERMAN: And I really thought something was wrong with me.

MORALES: At only 11 years old, she attempted suicide. Through her teens, Sherman tried to fit in on the northern edge of the Navajo Nation. But she was living a double life. At 19, her sister walked in on Sherman and another girl in her bedroom.

M SHERMAN: She just barged in the door and, you know, yelled at me like, what the hell are you doing? Like, you shouldn't be doing this.

MORALES: Her sister said what she was doing was wrong.

M SHERMAN: Disgusting and - you know, made me feel less human. She's like, what do you think grandma's going to think about you?

MORALES: That's when Sherman felt she had to leave the reservation and her family. At 19, she moved to Phoenix and turned to alcohol. It wasn't until she sought help from a Navajo medicine man that she reconnected with her grandmother, who embraced Sherman as a lesbian. It turns out it was her grandmother who has known and has loved Sherman all along for who she is.

ALICE PALMER: (Unintelligible).

MORALES: Ninety-three-year-old Alice Palmer recently suffered a stroke and is now difficult to understand. But she and Michelle have always been close. They watch wrestling, grind corn and go to the flea markets together.

ALRAY NELSON: When I came out to my family, my mother, of course, took it the hardest. But my grandparents didn't.

MORALES: Alray Nelson is a Navajo LGBT rights activist. Historians say federally run boarding schools and other assimilation tactics have taught generations of Navajo, including Nelson's parents, that same-sex relationships were wrong. Nelson says just look at Navajo leadership. In 2005, the tribal council passed a law forbidding same-sex marriage.

NELSON: We are seeing clearly the after-effects of what colonialism can look like and how it really shifted our values as Navajo people, whereas, at the time, if you were LGBTQ and grown up in a Navajo traditional families, families celebrated that fact. They said that we were sacred. They said that we had sacred roles.

MORALES: Roles as mediators, as leaders - Navajo medicine men and historians say the two-spirited, as they're sometimes called, are a crucial part of the Dine creation stories.

In Michelle Sherman's family, her grandmother Alice has persuaded other family members to open their minds. Even Michelle's mom, Virgie Sherman, agreed to go with her last June to the Dine Pride Festival, where Michelle gave a speech.

VIRGIE SHERMAN: I was there for her. She can talk to audience. She wasn't even embarrassed about what she is. Yes, I'm proud of her.

MORALES: As her mom talks, Michelle looks down at her forearm where she's tattooed a black diamond, the same design her grandmother used to weave into her rugs. On the other side of her arm are scars from her suicide attempt, reminding her every day that she's still here, that she has a purpose. And that's to help Navajo youth like herself. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.


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