WASHINGTON, D.C. — For Heather Purser, the first pang came more than a decade ago as she gathered clams on Puget Sound’s Chico Beach, watching her cousin’s new husband assist with the digging. She figured she’d never have a legal spouse to help with the backbreaking work.
Then Purser, a member of Washington state’s Suquamish Tribe who knew she was gay at age 7, decided to act: She led a personal lobbying campaign that ended with her tribal council voting in 2011 to approve gay marriage.
“I realized that I do have the power to change my situation,” said Purser, 30, a commercial seafood diver from Olympia.
With more Native Americans making similar demands, the Suquamish tribe now is one of three that has signed off on marriage by same-sex couples.
Legal experts say it’s another example of tribes using their sovereignty to pass laws that apply only on their land.
With gay marriage legal in 11 states, legal analysts predict more tribes will follow, giving new rights to what many Native Americans call “two-spirit” individuals who carry both a feminine and masculine spirit.
But as Americans await a landmark gay marriage ruling from the Supreme Court this summer, the issue is causing division in Indian Country.
Most recently, in March, the council of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Michigan voted 5-4 to approve a gay marriage law. Just last year, the tribe’s leadership voted 5-4 to reject same-sex marriages.
On the same day the law took effect, two Navy veterans became the first couple — and so far, the only — to take advantage of it: Tim LaCroix, 53, a tribal member, married Gene Barfield, 60, his partner of 30 years.
Opponents are criticizing the new law in the current tribal elections.
“God created woman for man, and when you try to rewrite creation you can expect judgment to fall on your people,” said tribal elder Doug Emery. He ran for the tribal council but lost in Monday’s primary, though he hopes there’s enough turnover to scrap the law after the June general election.
John Keshick III, a member of the council who voted against gay marriage, said the tribe should accept the outcome.
“To me, it was a close vote, and I voted the way I was brought up,” he said. “But to me, it’s kind of like water over the dam — it’s done.”
Tribes have long wrestled with the issue.
In one of the first votes, the Navajo Nation Council in 2005 banned same-sex marriages and unions between close blood relatives.
Three years later, the Coquille Indian Tribe in Oregon became the first in the nation to approve a gay marriage law.
But with 566 federally recognized tribes, the majority have stayed silent.
Ron Whitener, executive director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, predicted that would change quickly if the Supreme Court or Congress threw out the Defense of Marriage Act and made gay marriage a universal right. The law allows states to not recognize gay marriages from other states.
Whitener said many tribes are hesitant to pass laws because of the hard legal issues involved: For example, does a tribe have jurisdiction over the divorce of a tribal member who married a non-tribal member on reservation land?
“That is the big hang-up for tribal gay marriage statutes, from a legal perspective,” he said.
Scholars note that before their introduction to Christianity, many tribes accepted their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members as “two spirits,” even giving them added respect because they were thought to have special powers.
Consequently, they say, gay marriage is easier for many tribal members to accept, though it still kicks up plenty of controversy.
“The debate in Indian Country is very similar to the debate in the United States in that you have strong feelings going both ways,” said Elizabeth Ann Kronk, director of the Tribal Law and Governance Center at the University of Kansas School of Law and a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Michigan. “What you see in Indian country is this struggle between the historical accepting of the two-spirit individuals versus the relatively new but yet very strong Christian influences.”
Whitener, a member of Washington state’s Squaxin Island Tribe, recalled how his openly gay cousin got elected to his tribe’s council, with his sexuality never coming up. He said tribal members have “a much more fluid spirituality” and tend to be more tolerant.
“This is a generalization, but I don’t think that homosexuality among most tribal groups was something that they considered taboo,” Whitener said. “There wasn’t a book that said this was a sin and that guided the entire cultural landscape for tribes.”
Purser is optimistic that the Supreme Court will make gay marriage the law of the land, leaving religion out of the deliberations.
She’s still single, living with 28-year-old Rebecca Platter, her partner of three years.
“We’re not engaged, but I do plan on getting married — and she’s definitely the one,” Purser said.
Purser spends her days diving in the deep waters of Puget Sound, gathering geoducks, one of the world’s largest clam species. She once dove 82 feet.
“I’ll have the most incredible epiphanies when I’m diving,” she said. “Most recently, I realized that women in my tribe — and actually women all over the country and all over the world — are seen as lesser. And we’re often abused and forced into silence.”
She said she knew at a young age that she was gay because she didn’t like boys and she always had crushes on other little girls, getting sweaty palms and feeling nervous to talk to them. She concluded that being gay was horrible: “I told my parents, ‘I think I’m gay and if I am gay, don’t worry, I’ll kill myself.’ “
Purser said she was sexually molested as a child but learned never to talk about it. After years of therapy, she decided to speak her truth.
So she talked about her sexuality for many years, with people she grew up with, with people who opposed her cause. She recalled one tribal council member laughing and telling her “to keep dreaming,” but she said her task became easier when the Coquille tribe acted.
When she approached her tribal council, she told them that approving gay marriage would be consistent with the tribe’s values to “respect all people and let people be who they are.” She told them she had no plans to marry but that she wanted to be accepted by her people when she did.
After the council unanimously passed a gay marriage law, Purser said she learned that making changes doesn’t have to be complicated.
“I realized that the only thing it takes is the courage to come forward,” she said.