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Sheila Lopez’s Children Led Her to a Navajo Tradition of ​Acceptance

Recognition of two-spirit people resonates in the LGBTQ community

spinner image sheila lopez and emanuel one of her children sit on a couch in their home
Sheila Lopez says her children, including Emanuel (left) helped make her more accepting.
Cassidy Araiza

When Sheila Lopez, 48, realized that her two older children identified as LGBTQ, the information set her on a path to rediscovering her Native American cultural traditions and a new understanding of gender and gender fluidity. Mother to Samantha, 31, Emanuel, 28, and Matthew, 19, Lopez is an electrical engineer living in Phoenix, Arizona, and is of Mexican and Navajo ancestry. She established the country’s first native PFLAG chapter in 2011 to support LGBTQ people and their families. In the future, Lopez hopes to continue educating others on LGBTQ issues, particularly those on Arizona’s Navajo reservations. This is her story.

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What Is ‘Two-Spirit’?

  • ​The term “two-spirit” identifies a traditional role in Native American societies held by someone deemed to be gifted with both a masculine and feminine spirit
  • These highly valued individuals may be religious leaders, healers, warriors, hunters, caregivers, foster parents, teachers, counselors, advisers, artists, pottery makers or basket weavers. In essence, two-spirit roles restore balance and foster healing. ​
  • The term is not synonymous or interchangeable with concepts like “gay” and “LGBTQ.” Two-spirit does not describe sexual orientation but an understanding of gender. ​
  • The term was first coined to describe this tribal role at the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1990.​
  • From the Ojibwa words niizh manitoag, the term “two-spirit” is a modern way to refer to the wide variety of terms used across hundreds of Native American cultures to describe different genders, gender fluidity and the roles often assumed by these individuals. It does not replace the individual terms that Native American people use.​

Sheila Lopez: They say that in the Navajo way, when you have a child who is gay or trans, it’s an extra-special blessing. And I totally agree, because my children really opened my eyes.

My mom is Navajo, from Greasewood, Arizona. Her father, my grandpa, was a medicine man. My dad is Mexican, from Winslow, Arizona, where I was born and raised at a time when there was a lot of discrimination. That kind of set the tone, unfortunately, for my reaction when my kids came out, because what I knew about gay people or trans people was that it was “bad,” or you made fun of it. Those were the two things I knew. Then I had my three children.

When my daughter was a senior in high school, I thought she might be seeing a girl. I decided we needed to talk.

“Are you dating this girl?” I asked her one afternoon while picking her up after school.

“Yes,” she said.

I thought, This can’t be. My daughter can’t be a lesbian. I don’t understand this. Maybe it’s because she hasn’t been with a boy. ​​“You’re confused,” I told her.

I’ll never forget that day. I really wish I would’ve educated myself before I asked her, because my reaction wasn’t good. I just wasn’t prepared for that conversation.

That day, she shared two things that have always stuck with me. The first one was, “Mom, why would I choose this when I know society is going to be against me?” The second was that she had planned to wait until she went to college to tell us. She was ashamed because, she said, “I would be a disappointment.”

My daughter’s amazing. She went to school, got her biomedical engineering degree; then she became a dentist. Today she lives with her wife. For her to be afraid to tell me and her dad and to feel like she would be disappointing us, it’s heartbreaking.

That same day, I asked my older son, “Are you gay?” He denied it at first, but when we got home and he found his sister in tears, he said, “Mom, how dare you do this to us? How dare you drag us out of the closet? You don’t do that to people. You let them come out at their own time, and you let them share that information with you.”​

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I was in shock. All that first week, I was confused, crying.​

We were Catholic at the time, so we went to talk to our priest. “Well, it’s your house, it’s your rules, and if they don’t follow your rules, call child protective services on them,” he said. I was shocked. We heard all kinds of advice from family, from friends, from coworkers — some good, some not so good.

I then asked my mother to tell me about our Navajo teachings about people who are gay. But my mom was raised in a Catholic boarding school, and she didn’t learn those things. She said, “The only thing I remember, Sheila, is your grandfather telling me you have to respect everyone.” That’s when I started to educate myself about our traditions and our cultural understanding of gender. We’re not the only tribe that has multiple genders. There are tribes that have a third gender, multiple genders, all around the world.

​My understanding is that our Navajo tradition recognizes four genders and has words for each. You have asdzáán, a feminine woman. And then you have hastiin, the masculine man. If you were to put my family in these four genders, I'm definitely asdzáán, and my ex-husband, their father, is hastiin. In the middle, you have dilbaa, a masculine female. And then you have náhleeh, which is a feminine man. I can see how my son and daughter could be recognized as these two genders.

And so, the teachings are that you show respect. These individuals have always been part of our community. We have words for these genders. It wasn’t “bad.”

Today, some native people have started using the term “two-spirit” to refer to these genders. Some Navajo people identify using this modern term, and some do not. The two-spirit term came up in the 1990s, when a group of LGBT folks gathered in Canada. They wanted to have their own term that they could identify with as LGBT and native individuals. ​

It was my son who urged me to go to PFLAG, initially. They were going to march for pride and were calling on parents, family and friends to march with them.

PFLAG is the oldest nonprofit organization that supports LGBTQ people, their families and friends. I started to go to social powwows, where I would have a PFLAG information table, and share my story. I really wanted to educate, especially the Navajo community. It’s like, “We have got to wake up to what our teachings were before. How could we shun our LGBT loved ones? This isn’t our way.”

My kids are so brave. They’re strong. Because when I think back, especially my two oldest, when they came out, they stood up to me and their dad. They were brave, and they were going to love whoever they wanted to love, and they weren’t going to let the world or me or their dad tell them differently. They were going to be who they are.

This is why I need to be an advocate. If I help one person, I’ve done what I need to do here. I also feel like I’m making that wrong right. That wrong that I did with my kids when they came out. But I didn’t know better.

I know better now.​

Julia Bencomo Lobaco is a contributing writer and was The Arizona Republic newspaper’s Spanish-language editor and first bilingual columnist. Lobaco spent more than 15 years as executive editor of the AARP magazines Segunda Juventud and VIVA, and the AARP en Español digital platform. She retired from AARP in 2019. ​​

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