‘Strength through Native drag:’ Indigenous artists don’t let discrimination stop them

In recent months, state legislatures across the nation have introduced hundreds of laws targeting Two Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning plus communities, including several bills in Arizona.

Laws introduced directly impact the lives of 2SLGBTQ+ people in various ways, from their freedom of expression and health care to public accommodations and civil rights.

This year’s legislative session in Arizona — with Republicans maintaining a narrow majority in both the House and Senate —  was full of discriminatory bills toward the 2SLGBTQ+ community, including measures to restrict drag shows, wipe out a student’s preferred pronoun use and limit school bathroom access.

Overall, lawmakers introduced 11 bills, and six passed the legislative process and made it all the way to Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs’s desk, where all six were swiftly vetoed. 

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If these bills were signed into law, they would apply to the majority of the state, but that would not include the 22 Tribal Nations in Arizona, since they are sovereign, with their own laws and regulations for their communities.

Seeing the influx of discriminatory legislation that could impact the 2SLGBTQ+ community was not surprising for Diné Drag Artist Lady Shug, because growing up on the Navajo Nation, they know what it’s like to have their rights limited as a 2SLGBTQ+ person.

“It’s not just the U.S. government; it’s also our tribal government,” Lady Shug said, pointing out that the Navajo Nation has no laws protecting its 2SLGBTQ+ people from hate crimes or discrimination or ensuring their right to marriage.

“It’s something that I’m kind of used to,” Lady Shug said because, within their community, they have to fight to be included. 

Lady Shug said that existing as a 2SLGBTQ+ person is a form of resistance, and they hope that Indigenous 2SLGBTQ+ people always remember that. 

“You existing as a brown, beautiful, Indigenous, queer, trans, two-spirit person is your form of resistance, and nobody can ever take that away from you,” Lady Shug added.

The Navajo Nation has no laws devoted to anti-discrimination or hate crimes concerning Navajo 2SLGBTQ+ people living on Tribal lands. 

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission reported in 2016 that the Navajo Bill of Rights guarantees the rights of all Navajo citizens regardless of sex, and any entities that receive federal or state funding on the Navajo Nation must follow the anti-discrimination mandates.

The commission recommended that Navajo Nation leaders enact laws and policies to protect people regardless of sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. 

In 2005, the Navajo Nation implemented the Diné Marriage Act, which prohibits same-sex marriage. 

“For the Navajo Nation, there is no protection for same-sex couples,” Lady Shug said, and if they were to get married and live on the Navajo Nation, they would not be valued the same way as heterosexual marriages.

“Your marriage is not valid on our Tribal land,” Lady Shug said. “There’s no protection for us.”

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Seth Damon recently introduced Legislation 0139-23 that would repeal Title 9 of the Navajo Nation Code so that same-sex marriages are recognized within the Navajo Nation. Damon’s efforts come after previous attempts to repeal the act failed over the years, most recently in 2022.

“The prohibition against same-sex marriages does not uniformly welcome or support the well-being of all Diné,” Damon said in a news release. “The purpose of the legislation I’m sponsoring is to ensure that all Diné are welcome within the four sacred mountains and to recognize all marriages within the Navajo Nation.”

The legislation would also amend provisions within the Navajo Nation Code to conform with this repeal. Still, the traditional Navajo wedding ceremony method, involving a man and woman, would remain unchanged. 

Damon signed the legislation on June 23, which will make its way through four committees before being heard before the Navajo Nation Council, which has ultimate authority on the bill.

At a state level, Hobbs has made it clear that her administration will not tolerate any legislation that attacks the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

The Democrat has been a stalwart critic of anti-LGBTQ sentiment and has repeatedly vowed to act as a bulwark against discriminatory legislation. That commitment was reasserted on July 8 at an event hosted by civil rights and LGBTQ advocacy organizations to celebrate Hobbs’ actions. 

“As long as I’m governor, the LGBTQ+ community in Arizona will be protected,” she announced to enthusiastic cheering and applause. “I will continue to use my veto pen as many times as I need to.”

Drag in celebration of Native women

Navi Ho has been a Diné drag performer for years, and they’ve performed at shows across the Phoenix area. They also make it a point to perform at drag shows hosted by Tribal Nations and in shows that feature Indigenous drag performers because they did not see Indigenous representation when they started out.

“There’s not many of us,” Navi Ho said of Indigenous drag performers. “But we are out there, and we are proud of what we’re doing.”

Navi Ho said they had seen an increase in Indigenous drag performers coming from different Tribal Nations, and they’re happy to see it because Indigenous representation within the 2SLGBTQ+ world is still minimal.

“It’s definitely inspiring people to be their authentic Native selves,” Navi Ho added.

Navi Ho grew up in the Phoenix area, but their family is from Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Growing up, Navi Ho never thought they’d see drag performers showcased on the Navajo Nation the way they have been in recent years. 

“It’s a wonderful thing to see the growth,” Navi Ho said, and they’ve been invited back to the Navajo Nation as a performer multiple times, including in Tuba City.

“It’s definitely a growth from when I grew up,” Navi Ho said.

“I think it’s beautiful,” they said. 

When Navi Ho heard about the anti-drag bills introduced and passed in Arizona, they thought it ridiculous because that type of legislation was unnecessary. 

“I think that the decision to make such a bill was based off of hate,” they said.

Hobbs recently vetoed two anti-drag laws, Senate Bill 1028 and Senate Bill 1030, which were approved by the Republican majority.

SB1028 bars adult cabaret performances, such as strip shows, from being held on public property or anywhere a minor may view them, punishing violations with up to a class 6 felony.

SB1030 mandates that city zoning officials issue permits and zoning regulations for establishments that conduct sexually explicit performances — which is already allowed under state law but not required.

Both bills were authored by Glendale Republican Anthony Kern, who called drag shows evil in previous debates and accused performers in family-friendly events of pedophilia

The wording used to describe drag performances within the legislation is not something that Navi Ho is familiar with because it doesn’t portray their experience when performing in drag. Instead, they focus on building a connection with the people in the audience. 

Navi Ho said they connect in a special way, and that makes them, as performers, feel better about who they are. That’s something lawmakers who create anti-drag laws will never understand, they added. 

As part of their drag aesthetic, Navi Ho said they bring their culture and traditional wear to their performances. They don a wig that is put up in a Tsiiyéél, a traditional hairstyle where the hair is wrapped with wool into a bun.

Navi Ho said they incorporate their culture into their drag performances because it’s part of who they are. People recognize and understand when they perform on the Navajo Nation and other Indigenous communities. 

When people see Navi Ho perform, they recognize that Navi Ho is celebrating Indigenous women.

“It’s like a wow effect,” Navi Ho said, making the experience amazing and beautiful.

Navi Ho said they’ve always gotten a positive response from the audience, including from elders and young people. This is why they don’t understand when lawmakers who don’t understand drag culture talk about it as something that is wrong or unacceptable.

“I don’t think that lawmakers understand what goes on in a drag person’s life,” they added.

‘Strength through Native drag’

Lady Shug is working to help more Indigenous drag performers showcase their art on a larger stage. They launched a drag show with an all-Indigenous cast called “La La Land Back,” and they’re currently on tour visiting different cities.

Lady Shug said they launched the tour this year alongside Two-Spirit Chickasaw performer Landa Lakes. The tour was featured at New York City Pride and the Smithsonian Museum in June, making them the first show to feature an all Indigenous drag cast at those venues.

“What we’re trying to do is trying to open doors, normalize Indigenous drag-ness,” Lady Shug said because Indigenous people are often forgotten when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. They’re rarely included in pride events or even mentioned in conversations surrounding the LGBTQ+ community.

“How is it that the first people of this nation are not a part of this conversation or invited to these festivals?” Lady Shug asked. Through this tour, Lady Shug said they’re trying to hold space for Indigenous communities within the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

Lady Shug said they wanted to be able to create this type of drag performance because they know what it’s like traveling three to four hours away from home to be able to perform in larger cities. They hope the “La La Land Back” tour will visit as many places as possible, including Tribal Nations.

“I want to bring drag to my people,” Lady Shug said, because for Indigenous people, especially elders and the youth, to see drag culture, it must be performed within their own community. If not, they would have to travel to surrounding cities off of tribal land.

With drag culture getting a lot of attention in mainstream media, Lady Shug said now is the time to show people what Indigenous drag performers are capable of. 

Whether the tour is brought to a city or hosted on Tribal Land, Lady Shug said they make it a point to hire local Indigenous artists to perform — keeping the cast entirely Indigenous and local.

“This is our time to show our power and our strength through Native drag,” they added. 

Lady Shug has always advocated for having the 2SLGBTQ+ community included in more events hosted within Indigenous communities. They said more often than not, organizers forget to include their 2SLGBTQ+ relatives when it comes to festivals, fairs or powwows. 

“I’m trying to navigate it where it’s normalized that we’re included,” Lady Shug said, adding that people can’t say they’re Indigenous and traditional yet forget to include their 2SLGBTQ+ relatives. 

“We existed before colonization, and we’ve always had roles,” Lady Shug said, and Tribal Nations have always had different meanings for 2SLGBTQ+ people in their communities.

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