The Last American Places With No Marriage Equality

Photo: Cultura/REX Shutterstock.
People across the U.S. and around the world celebrated when the Supreme Court ruled that couples have the right to marry regardless of gender, but marriage equality still eludes some people in this country. Members of at least 11 Native American nations face tribal bans against same-sex marriage, including the two largest tribes in America.

There isn't extensive data on which tribes in which states allow same-sex marriage — a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign said the group stopped tracking once the marriage-equality fight moved to the court system — but, based on what information is available, hundreds of thousands of people still don't have marriage equality on their home turf.

Both the Cherokee Nation and Navajo Nation, tribes that together have some 600,000 members, explicitly ban same-sex marriage, and despite activism by Native American LGBT advocates, marriage-equality supporters could have a long fight ahead of them.

The Cherokee tribal council approved a ban on same-sex marriage in 2004 after two women applied for a marriage license, and although that couple won the right to get married, no other couples did. The Navajo Nation passed a law, the Diné Marriage Act, overriding a veto by the Navajo president to put it into place. The Coalition for Navajo Equality has been working to repeal it, and Navajo tribal leaders will meet later this month to discuss LGBT issues.

After the Supreme Court ruling, Alray Nelson, lead organizer for the Coalition, said in a statement, "Our Nation’s long march towards equality can only move forward. The same must be said for the Navajo LGBT community. Today’s victory will provide a foundation for future action by gay and lesbian Navajo couples who only want to be treated with fairness and respect by their Nation."

Couples could get marriage licenses outside of reservations, but as one Native American LGBT activist told the Huffington Post, without the recognition of their tribes, couples lack access to the same benefits —housing, child custody, and property rights — that non-native same-sex partners just spent decades fighting for.

Even though most of the largest tribes don't specifically sanction same-sex marriage, opposition is nowhere near uniform across the more than 500 recognized tribes in the U.S. According to Marriage Equality USA, the Coquille Nation, which is based in Oregon, became the first tribe to pass a law allowing same-sex marriage, in 2008. This meant that members of the tribe were able to marry their same-sex partners six years before non-native couples in the rest of the state could. More than a dozen tribes currently allow same-sex marriage, and many have statutes that recognize the marriage laws of the states where the tribes are based.

Even if every tribe that currently bans same-sex marriage suddenly reversed course, LGBT advocates still have many crises to confront. Almost 20% of gay male Native American couples live in poverty, compared to less than 3% of white gay men, and 20% of Native American trans people live in extreme poverty. And in 2012, more than half of Native American students reported that they have dealt with physical violence because of their sexuality. Bringing marriage equality to everyone in America will be a further positive step, of course, but just like the rest of the country, it will be only one small component of improving life for LGBT Native Americans.
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