SHIPROCK — When participants in the Navajo Nation LGBTQ Symposium opened the blue folder they received at the registration table, they noticed a sticker stating "Celebrate life. Make a difference."
Upper Fruitland resident Michelle Sherman created that statement of encouragement. It's the name of the organization she developed to educate young LGBTQ — which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning — individuals about making a difference in their communities.
Being gay on the reservation is challenging because some LGBTQ members cannot be totally open about their sexuality, Sherman said at the symposium's community panel discussion on Thursday at Diné College in Shiprock.
Sherman, who identifies as a lesbian, said her gender is female but her identity is male. Because of that, another challenge she faces, both on and off the reservation, is deciding which restroom to use, Sherman said.
Not many restrooms in Farmington are gender neutral, and finding one on the reservation is next to impossible, Sherman said. There are times, she said, that she waits until she returns home to use the restroom.
At least at Diné College, the restroom issue has been addressed, said student Summer Snow, who participated in the panel discussion.
Snow, who identifies as transgender and lesbian, said she wasn't comfortable using the restroom at the college because she could not exercise her preference. She brought the issue to college officials, and they established a policy that allows students to choose the restroom they want to use.
"I opened that door for the transgender community here. We are allowed to use the restroom we feel comfortable using," Snow said.
Another way to support LGBTQ members is to educate elected officials about the community, said Lexx Benally, who was part of the panel discussion.
"I think the LGBT community is one of the strongest and (most) powerful (communities) that's out there, but we keep our mouths shut because our leadership does not acknowledge us," Benally said. "I think now is the time we need to be acknowledged and be a part of society."
Elton Naswood, who organized the symposium, said the purpose of Thursday's event was to continue to promote dialogue and education around LGBTQ issues.
The symposium also provided information for providers who serve the LGBTQ community and created a space for individuals who identify as LGBTQ to ask questions, talk about issues and find resources in their communities.
The first symposium was held last year at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz.
"We were happy to hold the event in Shiprock because that's another part of the reservation that we want to be able to organize the community together," Naswood said.
He said event organizers would like to continue hosting the symposium in different communities on the reservation.
Deswood Tome, special adviser to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, told the audience that the president would sign into law a repeal of the Diné Marriage Act, if the Navajo Nation Council approved it.
"The president has said, 'The choice it yours. It is your choice. The government cannot interfere with your choice,'" Tome said.
In 2005, members of the tribal council enacted the Diné Marriage Act to recognize marriages "contracted" outside of tribal lands, but the act also states same-sex marriage is "void and prohibited." The law also does not recognize polygamy and marriage between family members.
"It is up to you to go out there and bring awareness and to bring the intended results that you are seeking with the change in legislation," Tome said.
Alma Rosa Silva-Bañuelos, who attended the symposium, reminded those at the event about what one presenter said earlier in the day about the heterosexual patriarchal system using tradition to oppress and eliminate lesbian, gay, transgender and two-spirited people.
"For me, it's about how do we start to remember who we are and how do we help our community remember who we are, and, in a sense, move beyond the bedroom?" Silva-Bañuelos said. "Because being queer, LGBT, trans, two-spirited is not about who we sleep with. It's about what we bring to our community and society."