For four years, Heather Purser fought quietly but persistently for the right to get married. Then last summer, she captured the attention of state politicians and national media when she persuaded her small tribal community in western Washington to write gay marriage into its constitution. Months later, Purser was awestruck to find herself in Washington Governor Christine Gregoire's office on a rainy afternoon, minutes after the governor announced that she would push the state legislature to recognize gay marriage. Gregoire had gathered a small, celebratory circle of gay-rights advocates in her office. The governor beamed at Purser, and asked if she planned to tie the knot. "I'm much too young to get married," Purser blurted out. Then she said she was 29, and Gregoire doubled over in gales of laughter.
Shy, understated, and drily comedic, Purser doesn't seem like a fighter until she begins to tell her story. A member of the Suquamish Tribe, Purser grew up near the Port Madison Reservation in western Washington. The daughter of a white woman and a Suquamish man, Purser was taunted for her red hair and pale, freckled skin. Growing up, she watched many of her family members and friends struggle with chronic unemployment, alcoholism, and domestic violence. At 18, she started college at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas. But she never felt she fit in there: Purser looked white to the other students and had a blunt sense of humor, and for that, she became the target of verbal and physical attacks.
She eventually transferred to Western Washington University, where she attended gay pride events and finally became open about her sexuality and her identity. YES! spoke with Purser—who was an intern here in 2009—about her journey to self-acceptance and her community's struggle to heal from decades of abuse, racism, and discrimination.
Madeline Ostrander: Historically, how did your tribe treat gay people?
Heather Purser: I'm not sure because we lost a lot of our stories. We went through a long period of time where we didn't talk about the past. When I talked to elders specifically about gay rights, they said they felt like everyone should have the right to be happy.
But when I was growing up in Suquamish, I felt my sexuality was something to be hidden, because the other gay people that I saw were very closeted.
Ostrander: Did your family support you when you came out?
Purser: I came out the first time when I was 16—then I went back in. My mom was against it and then got violent. For several months, she would, one moment, start screaming and, another, try to be supportive and talk about gay safe sex. My dad took off, left the house, and didn't deal with it.
I got scared. I met a Catholic guy whose family I liked. We dated from the time I was 16 until I was 22, and I converted to Catholicism for a few years.
I came out again when I was 22. My family acted like they didn't care. My cousins joked about it. At the time, my boyfriend wanted to start dating other women. I said, "Well I just want to date other women too."
Ostrander: You've said that the tribe's decision to recognize gay marriage has helped you heal. What does that mean?
Purser: It helped me get over the bitterness I had toward myself for being different. I felt accepted—like I mattered to my community.
Because of what happened with my mom, I was afraid to be myself. My dad was the one who dragged us to traditional ceremonies. But he abandoned me in my process of coming out—while I was beaten up by my mom. I took out my anger on my Indian side: I blamed everything on my father and my tribe. I felt rejected.
As a kid, I heard that everyone is important in my community. But it didn't seem to be true, so I was pissed off and confused.
At Haskell, I had to be constantly on guard about who I was. I already stood out so much because of the color of my skin. I couldn't be comfortable expressing my real self.
Then I transferred to Western, and I started to feel much more comfortable expressing my sexuality.
Ostrander: When did you decide you would ask your tribe to formally recognize gay marriage?
Purser: I began thinking about it at Western: Sometimes I felt guilty because I was so free to be myself, and I knew that people back home—my cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, siblings—didn't get to feel the same. I wanted to share that feeling with them.
Many people on reservations are angry as f**k over the horrible things that happened to them. It comes from the boarding schools that most elders in my tribe were forced to attend as kids. In those schools, they were beaten up for being themselves, for expressing their culture—and locked in closets, molested, tortured, and so many horrible things that most survivors never talk about. The survivors passed on abuses that still exist in our community today.
Not long after I graduated from college, I was at my niece's birthday party at a park, and there was a gay couple who had just had a commitment ceremony in the park. They were talking about gay rights and I said, "I'm going to get my tribe to recognize gay marriage." When they walked away, my sister asked me about it. Once I had said it, I realized I was going to have to do it. [Laughs.]
But I wasn't sure where to start. For months after college, I had nowhere to live, and I floated from couch to couch. I started drinking a lot, smoking marijuana, and acting like a victim. One night, at a cousin's house, several of us had been been drinking, and there was a major fight and everyone, even the men, were crying afterward. After that, I couldn't sleep. I went out to the garage to smoke with another distant cousin, and we talked. I told her all my dreams. I told her about wanting to be a writer. I even told her about wanting the tribe to adopt gay marriage into our laws.
She listened, then after a moment of silence, she said, "You're never going to do all that sh*t if you keep sitting in this garage with me."
It was a turning point for me. After that night I was done feeling sorry for myself and became determined to get what I wanted out of life. It was hard work and a lot of therapy. I began reading every self-help book I came across. I decided to figure out how to be happy. That and my time at YES! helped me learn the skills to stand up in front of my community and ask for change.
Ostrander: What happened when you brought the issue of gay marriage to your tribal council?
Purser: They said it sounded terrific, but eventually I got the sense that they were trying to put me off. I brought the issue to a public meeting. One of the councilmen said, "I'm all for it, but how can you guarantee me that non-Indian men won't start marrying tribal men just for their fishing rights or a new boat?" It was ridiculous. I started laughing, and then everyone started laughing.
Then I brought it up at the general council meeting, where everyone in the community shows up and votes, once a year.
Ostrander: Were you nervous?
Purser: Yes. Before I went to the general council meeting I talked with friends. They said, "Don't get your hopes up." I felt like I was doing the wrong thing, being selfish: Maybe people shouldn't have to care about gay rights.
The hardest part was admitting to people that I didn't feel equal to everyone in the room. I asked if they would accept me and grant me this right to feel like I belonged in my own tribe. I was afraid they would say, "No, we don't want that in our tribe."
There were 300 to 400 people at the meeting. I told them I felt like I was a second-class citizen. I said that I might want to get married some day. Then I asked the council if they would approve same-sex marriage in our tribal constitution. I sat down. A friend in the audience said to me, "Heather, you have to make them vote on it right now, because otherwise, they're not going to do anything." So I stood back up and asked for a vote.
It was a unanimous decision.
Ostrander: How did you feel in that moment?
Purser: I felt happy. Just happy. I turned around. My dad and my two brothers had gotten up and stood behind me during the vote, and they were waiting to give me a hug.
I felt that people heard me say I was isolated, and they wanted to do whatever they could to help me feel like I belonged.
Ostrander: Now that your story has made news all over the country, do you hear from other people who are wrestling with the same problems you've faced?
Purser: I get messages from people in other tribes. I heard from someone who said they were depressed and suicidal: They felt isolated. They were Indian. They said hearing my story helped them.
There have been a couple of people in my tribe who have since come out. They're young but when they see me, they're different toward me now. They seem at peace, while before they had a lot of hostility: They didn't like me because I was so openly gay.
Ostrander: You have worked as a diver on a crew that is otherwise made up only of men. How does that influence your sense of gender and identity?
Purser: It's crazy: Sometimes I don't know where I fall in the whole notion of gender.
There was a man I worked with who makes fun of gays all day long. He's always intimidated me because he's an excellent diver. Recently he was saying derogatory things, talking sh*t about me, my lifestyle, and my girlfriend, and then he smacked me across the face when I didn't react to him. I looked at him and said, "Don't touch me." Then he slapped me harder. He went out on the deck, so I walked out there and picked up his heavy dive glove and I backhanded him as hard as I could across the face. I said, "You're never going to touch me again. You're never going to say another f**ked up thing to me." Then I requested to switch crews.
Sometimes I have to be tough when I dive and force myself to get in the water when there are waves and the wind is picking up. I just want to cry and lay down and not leave the boat. But I tough it out and get in there. That's what the guys do. I tried to feel like a guy at first, during my first year. But now it's not about being masculine or feminine any more. It's just about living, staying alive, and doing my job.
Ostrander: Did the tribe's decision affect your relationship with your girlfriend?
Purser: I don't know how much the tribe's decision affected us, but I would never have been able to bring the question to my community, had I not met her.
When we met, it was as if we'd been best friends our entire lives, and I felt a lot better about pushing for gay marriage in my tribe. Suddenly I didn't care as much about being rejected by anyone, not even my tribe, because the love we have is a much stronger bond than I've held with anyone.
Becca taught me how to stop stressing out over everything and to focus just on happiness.
Ostrander: Did your relationship deepen your feelings about why it's important to have the right to marry?
Purser: I wasn't thinking about getting married myself. I was just trying to think of a way that we can make the community feel safer and more loving, more at home, more like we were traditionally supposed to be. Now that we have gay marriage as part of our laws, kids will grow up in a community where the attitude toward gays is much different. When we start creating laws that protect everyone, it's a sign that we're heading back in the right direction.
In Suquamish, we are told that we have to love each other and lift each other up as Native people. You hear it at just about every ceremonial gathering. But this message gets complicated because it's hard to feel things like love and respect for others when you've been hurt. Indian people are full of pain and misery because they had to suppress their cultural traditions for so many decades.
But all of that compassion and love is there. And love that powerful—so powerful that it made it through the boarding schools and all the racism and ugliness—I know it must be thousands of years old.