By KJ Philp, November 2016 Issue. Meet the rest of the Class of 2016 here.
Arizona is one of the states with the largest percentages of Native Americans, including 22 federally recognized tribes. Phoenix alone is home to 43,724 indigenous people (source).
Originally from Winslow, Ariz., Sheila Lopez became a PFLAG mom in 2009 after her two oldest children came out as gay. She was passionate about bringing PFLAG’s mission, which is uniting LGBT individuals with families, friends and allies, to Arizona’s American Indian community. As a result, she founded Native PFLAG, the first chapter in the country to focus on supporting Native American communities and emphasizing traditional Native American LGBT and Two-Spirit teachings in June 2011.
Echo: What part of Native PFLAG’s mission is the most meaningful to you and why?
Lopez: Our mission is to support, educate and advocate. It’s hard to pick just one because they are all extremely important but this year we have focused on education.
Echo: Describe what makes Native PFLAG unique?
Lopez: Our chapter’s focus is on helping Native American LGBT individuals, their families and friends … Our group supports individuals/families from the following tribes: Gila River Indian Community, Hopi, Navajo, Pascua Yaqui, Salt River Indian Community, San Carlos Apache, and White Mountain Apache … However, our organization is open to all and we do have non-Natives that attend our meetings and events.
Echo: Native PFLAG’s goal is to “keep families together and foster the traditional teachings of being LGBT/Two-Spirit.” Will you share some of those traditional teachings with us?
Lopez: Traditional teachings were all positive when it came to LGBT individuals. LGBT individuals were recognized and had a role in our families and tribes. Unfortunately, with colonization those teachings were pushed aside. The term “Two Spirit” was adopted in 1990 at an Indigenous Lesbian and Gay International gathering to encourage the replacement of the term beradache, which is a negative term. Not all Native American LGBT individuals use this term to identify themselves but some do. A Two Spirit person is a male-bodied or female-bodied person with a masculine and feminine essence. The roles of Two Spirit people can vary from tribe to tribe. They can be name givers, match makers, medicine people, holy people, peace-makers, mediators, warriors, adoptive parents and much more (source).
Echo: Does Native PFLAG have a presence on neighboring reservations?
Lopez: Yes, we have partnerships with H.O.P.E. (Helping O’odham Pursue Equality) on the Gila River Indian Community and with Salt River L.O.V.E. (Lifting Our Voices for Equality) on the Salt River Indian Community. Both groups can be found on Facebook. We were also asked to speak at an upcoming conference being held by the Hualapai tribe.
Echo: Is that a direction Native PFLAG would like to continue to grow?
Lopez: We would like to continue our partnerships and reach out to other tribes and encourage them to create support groups for LGBT individuals, their family members and friends.
Echo: Will you introduce us to your current board members? We want everyone to be able to share this honor.
Lopez: I am currently the chapter president and I am Navajo and Hispanic. Paulino Valenzuela (his tribe is Pascua Yaqui) is our treasurer and has been part of our organization since 2012 and has been instrumental in keeping our organization going. Marsha Chischilly (her tribe is Navajo) is our newest board member. I would also like to recognize Jonathan Clark a long time supporter and previous board vice president.
The founders of our group are myself, Ken Lewis and Analisa Xavier.
Echo: Who are some examples of past guest speakers you’ve had at your meetings?
Lopez: Senator Jack Jackson Jr., Vee Newton, Millie Carter Bloodworth, Trudie Jackson, Debra Peevey (ONE Community) and Isadore Boni.
Echo: Since you’ve been in your new role, can you fill readers in on what’s changed within the organization?
Lopez: Our group started by only holding support group meetings where individuals could come and share, like a typical PFLAG support group meeting but we soon found out that our members wanted more social/family/community events so we change things up. For example, this year we have had a few support group meetings, educational meetings (speakers and movies), our anniversary celebration and PRIDE prep. For more details, visit nativepflag.org.
Echo: Since Native PFLAG’s inception, have you observed an increase in acceptance and allies?
Lopez: Yes, I have seen an increase of acceptance and allies. I’ve seen the need to talk more about the issues faced by LGBT people, their families, and friends.
Echo: What kind of feedback have you received from the Native American community
Lopez: Very positive feedback and the need to raise awareness of the positive traditional teachings.
Echo: In what ways has founding Native PFLAG changed your life?
Lopez: I have been able to meet some incredible people that are working hard to improve Native communities in Phoenix, surrounding reservations, and across the country. I also have been able to share my story with others and hopefully inspire them to be the change in their communities.
Echo: What came about in our personal life that made you aware of the need for a group like this?
Lopez: In 2011, we (myself and my husband at the time) attended the Navajo Nation Fair the largest fair on the Navajo Nation. Prior to 2011 there was no education on LGBT support groups at this fair, only HIV/AIDS awareness groups brought attention to different sexual orientation/gender identity/expression on the Navajo Nation. We spend days there giving out information about PFLAG and realized that many people wanted support and needed someone to talk to. A Navajo elder encouraged us to keep up the work because she said it was needed for the community. Soon after I met Ken Lewis, who works at Native American Connections (NAC) in Phoenix and he was working on helping NAC become more aware of the LGBT community and the issues faced by the community. From their website: NAC is a non-profit that is improving the lives of individuals and families through Native American culturally appropriate behavior health, affordable housing and community development services. Ken Lewis was also partnering with Analisa Xavier who was at GLSEN at the time. He talked about the need of supporting the families that lived in the NAC community apartments and so we held our first meeting at NAC’s Coral Canyon apartments and we were able to reach out to individuals that use NAC’s services. It has been a great partnership and we have been meeting at their properties for almost five years now. For a brief time we were meeting at Native Health, another nonprofit organization that we partner with.
Echo: What goals do you have for the organization’s future?
Lopez: To bring in leaders that will bring in new ideas and energy to continue our mission of support, education and advocacy.
Echo:I know Native PFLAG has participated in AIDS Walk and the Phoenix Pride Parade; where else can community members expect to see you out and about?
Lopez: We do our best to be a part of the many native community focused events such as the upcoming Native American Recognition Days parade (participated the last 5 years), we have had information tables at the Mesa and ASU powwows, and presented at the Pascua Yaqui tribe. We were also selected to present Safe Space workshops at the annual AISES national conference (see below), Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition annual conference, Salt River Men’s and Women’s Gathering, Southwest American Indian Rainbow Gathering and the 2015 National PFLAG convention.
Jonathan Clark and I were founders of the first LGBT/Ally Rainbow Gathering at the National Conference for the American Indian Science & Engineering Society (AISES) a non-profit focused on increasing American Indians in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. Jonathan and I have been presenting workshops at that conference since 2011 and we will hold the 5th annual rainbow gathering this year.
Echo: Who are some of your role models/inspirations and why?
Lopez: My children are my roles models. They were brave to be who they are and they educated me when they came out …
Echo: If you could summarize your efforts and experiences in 2016, what would you say?
Lopez: Native PFLAG celebrated five years supporting the community and has made new partnerships and continued to strengthen our partnerships with HOPE and LOVE. We also had two young native people (and their families) share their coming out stories at our NARD event. It was the first time we heard from young native people.