Recently, Diné drag queens Nate Lemuel and Lady Shug were allowed to share their queer Indigenous perspectives and voices on a large platform–HBO’s series We’re Here. Ryan Young talks to the two queens for Native Max about maintaining their relationships with the community during the pandemic, continuing to hold LGBTQ2S+ spaces and support while social distancing and their experiences on We’re Here.
For many queer and Indigenous people, spring and summer kick-off social gatherings for our communities, including powwows, ceremonies, drag shows, and other pride events. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many, if not all, of these exciting events we were looking forward to attending will be canceled and postponed to an unforeseen future date. While everyone works to do their part of practicing safe hygiene and social distancing, we are still feeling the impact of not being able to physically and socially connect with people in our communities. However, thanks to social media, our communities have adapted to these new health guidelines with community leaders continuing to provide support, resources, and entertainment for Indigenous and queer-Indigenous people around the country. Our presence and representation have also continued to expand to the big and small screens, where we have been able to share our perspectives and voices on larger platforms like HBO.
We’re Here is a new series that debuted on HBO this year that features renowned drag queens Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara, and Shangela Laquifa Wadley as they visited different small towns to recruit residents to participate in a one-night-only drag show. On Episode 4, which premiered in May, the queens’ journey to Farmington and Shiprock, New Mexico where they meet Nate Lemuel (he/him), a gay Diné photographer (Darklisted Photography). Lemuel also brings along his friend, Diné drag queen Lady Shug (they/them or her/she), to guide him as he steps outside his comfort zone.
Native Max had the pleasure of connecting with Nate and Lady Shug to talk about their feature on We’re Here, their experiences as queer Indigenous/Two-Spirit people, and how they are staying connected with their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Native Max: Could you share your story on how you got involved with We’re Here? What was that experience like? Did you feel you and your community were represented well on the show?
Nate: The producers got a hold of me via Instagram. My experience with We’re Here was amazing. I usually never get to express my real self; I am the one who is always behind the camera rather than in front of one. I want to say that I did represent my communities well throughout the process. I know many individuals who have had a hard time being accepted within their community and their families. I’ve experienced the hardships of being queer on the reservation and off of it. I also knew it was time to let everyone know who I am, who I continue to support, and where my foundation of that support comes from, my friends.
Lady Shug: When HBO was reaching out to people to be a part of this project, they reached out to the community and the area, and my name kept popping up. I did three interviews with three different producers. I already did drag for 10+ years, and they kind of wanted somebody new to the art form. They kind of felt like I was already established, because I’ve been nationally published in magazines and featured in articles. Nate called me and said, “because you’ve been so active in that community as a Diné person, I have so much respect for you, and I don’t want to step on your toes, I’d want you to be here as well.” I was his go-to, or his little Yoda on this journey to We’re Here. We had multiple conversations prior, and even after every time we filmed, we would call and just talk. I was his support. I was very fortunate that Nate had such high praise for me, and so much respect for me as a person and as an artist to include me in his story; I was just genuinely myself during filming. The crew, the cast, and the producers kind of just fell in love with Nate and everything and with me.
Unfortunately, with television, you know because of editing and timing, we did a lot of filming that didn’t air, but I was very gagged that they showed my performance of that night. Nate and I were the closing acts of the night. And I didn’t expect to be featured in the season finale–they did ask me to do the music video towards the end, and Nate produced it and filmed me at the Shiprock monument. Overall, the experience was something that felt so natural, felt so right, and it was much needed. I told the producers there’s not any presence of queer Indigenous people in the main media. You never see a full-blooded–I hate to use that term ‘full-blooded’ because that goes back to blood quantum, and that’s another story to talk about–or you never hear about anybody being out and proud, who is also Indigenous. You never see people who look like you, talk like you, who are from your neighborhood, born and raised on the reservation, on TV. For Nate and I to have that platform is amazing.
We have a bunch of amazing Indigenous artists who are queer or trans and doing amazing things, but they’re still not included. I am trying to break those boundaries even within our Indigenous communities as a performer, as an artist, and as an activist. We were wholly ourselves and tried to intertwine our truths of how it is to be raised on the reservation, to live on the reservation, and be surrounded by these border towns like Farmington and Gallup and all these racist towns that look down on us as Indigenous people and as queer people. I was very happy with how We’re Here portrayed that for us, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m so excited for Nate because he’s doing amazing things; I feel like I’m doing amazing things too, and I’m finally turning some heads or, you know, turning on some lights, finally making some tread work and space for queer artists to be included. That’s the biggest thing you know, people forget about us who identify as queer/trans/Two-Spirit. It was a very humbling experience, and I kept saying to the directors, “I’ll be ready for season two!” [laughs]
What have your experiences been like performing in drag inside and outside of your community?
LS: So back story: Lady Shug started in Las Vegas, Nevada, over ten years ago. I grew up on the reservation in the eastern agency. I thought I was the only gay kid or the only different kid. I never knew anything about queer culture or drag in general until I moved away and left my reservation right after high school. I don’t know how I ended up in Vegas, but I went to my first gay club and started seeing people who were openly free about who they were. I was very timid. I was a little reservation kid living in this big city trying to figure out myself, and I fell into drag. I was a backstage manager, and I would help them get dressed, and I was just in awe because I never thought they could be so beautiful. I never imagined myself doing drag until one day when my drag mother was like, “Hey, somebody canceled, so you are going to perform.” She put me in drag for the first time, put me on stage, and I performed. And since then, it just took off.
I was very fortunate. I had a beautiful career in Las Vegas. I worked with many celebrities. I was working on the Las Vegas strip for seven nights a week at one of the biggest gay clubs in the world. My femininity as Lady Shug came out, and it empowered me not only as an artist but as a person because a strong matriarchy raised me, and that’s where I got my strength and power.
Then my grandmother got sick, and so I wanted to move back; she’s a lot better now. After I moved back here, I fell in love with the land, fell back in love with seeing people who looked like me, smelled like me, talked like me, people that understood my background and came from the same neck of the woods that I did. I didn’t want to leave as I felt like I established what I needed in Las Vegas. I had a beautiful career out there. But living out here so far away from these big towns like Phoenix and Denver and Albuquerque, I would have to travel about two to three hours or more to go to a gig. One day I woke up and said: “This is crazy, why do I have to drive?” Our people in general that live on the reservations lack resources like water, electricity, and essential stores where we can buy stuff. We have to go to these border towns to survive. For me to survive as an artist and as a performer, I would have to travel.
I was like, “You know what? Screw this. I’m going to bring drag culture to my people”. And the best time to do it was during our tribal fairs, so for the past three years I was doing pop up shows during the Window Rock Fair. The first year I did my show at the Ké Infoshop in Window Rock, it was raining cats and dogs, but everybody stayed. Everyone had blankets and umbrellas, and there were like 200 people that stayed. We started an hour late because it was coming down so hard. I was worried, but as soon as the rain stopped, it was overcast. A rainbow came out, and then I came out singing Rihanna’s song “Umbrella,” and people just lost it. There were little kids and elders, and the audience stayed until we couldn’t perform anymore. After that, it became an annual thing, and every year I would try to reach out to the Fair board to try to perform inside the gates, instead of outside. They never wanted it; they tried to protest my shows, tore down my fliers, decided not to let it happen, but we were strong in numbers. I was very fortunate this past year that the Navajo Nation Fair in the city picked us up.
In the history of any tribal fairs in Turtle Island, we were the first drag show to headline a tribal fair and be inside the gate on the main stage. Not at a side tent, or put in the corner, we were on the main stage. We were the opening act for Snow Tha Product, and it was an all-Indigenous cast. I felt appreciated that after three years of hard work, our blood, sweat, and tears paid off because I made it inside the fairgrounds. But, you know, they book all these amazing Indigenous artists, musicians, poets, rappers, singers, dancers, etc., but they never book the queer community. They need to remember there’s a queer community that is also very talented and too super fabulous. I’m very grateful for performing in cities and performing with celebrities and some amazing artists in Las Vegas, but it doesn’t compare to performing for my people.
My biggest inspiration of just being unapologetically myself and not being ashamed of who I am and living the life of being non-binary and being fabulous as just who I am is just to inspire other kids; other youth that might have issues or might be that one kid that looks like me that lives in the middle of nowhere and thinks they’re the only gay kid in their community. Now we are blessed to have social media, so it’s a little bit easier, and I’m trying to make those covers of magazines, those news press conferences, and be on We’re Here. I want to make my presence known for myself, for my community, my peers, and the young folks. Even our elders, because some elders are still in the closet, who are still not comfortable with themselves. I am hoping that my story or my presence inspires them to break down that boundary of always being told that we are in the wrong or our lifestyle is not right. I have some relatives that are much older than me that are like, “I saw you in the newspaper. You inspired me to come out to my mom, which I never thought I would do, and this is because of you. I got the courage to come out to my mom after 40+ years.” And I’m like, wow, you know, that’s amazing. Stories like that just touch me, and I want to continue to be that voice and be that beacon of light for our queer and trans Indigenous people. They’re very sacred people amongst our community, and we were forgotten about. I want to make sure that people make space for us, and that was the biggest goal on We’re Here to let them know and to let the world know, that Indigenous folks are not just a myth but also that queer and trans folks are part of that community, and are bad*ss artists. Nate does amazing photography. I think I do amazing drag, but some people might disagree [laughs]. When I was in Vegas performing, I was taught to be a glamour girl, and I was just worried about the look. As I got mature and my voice got louder, I also realized that a lot of my peers were about Indigenous resistance.
I wanted to learn about how I could give back. Sometimes I feel like I’m not good about speaking. I’m a college dropout, but I’m still an artist, and I still have a voice. I wanted to use my voice, so I intertwined it with my drag. As Lady Shug has matured, my drag has too. The glamour is always going to be there, but now I’m using my platform to make a political statement. Lady Shug starts conversations and pushes boundaries that make people feel uncomfortable and pushes them to talk about different issues. I am excited because that’s my voice now. I might not be book smart, but my work is going to be visual, and it’s going to be in your face. And of course, it’s going to be glamorous.
How has COVID-19 impacted your life?
N: It has impacted my life in so many ways personally. What matters right now is that I reach out to as many people as I can, whether it’s sharing helpful information, delivering aid, or gathering important causes that are happening within our reservation and getting that attention help in any way I can. COVID-19 has made me look at everything so differently.
LS: When the pandemic started, I put my grandma on lockdown. I was very protective of my grandma when I was caring for her during this pandemic. I’ve been trying to encourage my followers and my family to practice social distancing. I already have that instilled in my head because when my grandma was sick, I was always washing my hands, always conscious of who was around her, making sure people wore masks and washing things constantly. It was a norm for me, and I was already doing it in my everyday life, so this whole thing of just being mindful of practicing hygiene and protecting my hands and face and surroundings was normal.
In the midst of the pandemic, many queer Indigenous gatherings were postponed and canceled. How are you maintaining your relationship with your community?
LS: After episode 4 of We’re Here with Nate debuted, Bob the Drag Queen and I were having an Instagram Live discussion after our episode debuted, and they inspired me that night to start a challenge. The #shugchallenge asked my social media followers, my friends, and my family on social media to help me collect supplies for people that were affected by COVID-19 on the Navajo reservation, and I geared it towards our unsheltered relatives. The latter were being forgotten by a lot of these fundraisers and organizations. Those are our relatives, our family, as well as Mother Earth’s kids too. Between May and June, people donated sleeping bags, underwear, scarves, the little things that unsheltered folks need. I was very overwhelmed; the challenge got bigger than me. It made me feel very humbled, especially because the stuff I asked people to donate was eco-friendly or recyclable also to protect Mother Earth. I see a lot of these organizations collecting items, but they forget about where that plastic is coming from. I focused on making sure our donations were biodegradable, eco-friendly, organic, and not bad for the environment.
I also just started the #shugchallenge2, which is geared towards helping trans teens and youth. I wanted to uplift them, sponsor and mentor them, talk with their parents, and become a friend and let them know that there are people around to help them. I have five kids that I’m working with, and I’m still looking for more. I wanted to help get them some things to make them happy like pride swag or chest binders; some asked for art supplies because they’re into art or makeup. After all, they love makeup. I am putting together packages to let them know that they are loved and are supported. Especially with what is going on right now with our Black trans sisters getting murdered. I’m pretty sure they see that on social media, and that’s a scary thing for a young trans person to see. They wonder, “Am I going to be safe? Am I going to be next?” I just want to let them know that there are people who will support them so they can do greater things. I am so happy for “We’re Here,” and diving into this work has been helping my mental health. Sometimes I deal with depression, and my inner saboteur sometimes gets to me. I am very thankful to be working and trying to do that work and be that voice for my people
N: During these times of hardship, I have been working to help my community in many different ways. From selling art for community donations, working for organizations and collectives who are getting aid and PPE to the communities and hospitals on the Navajo Nation. I would carefully go out on the assignment of capturing photographs, filming individuals who are in the frontlines of helping the Navajo Nation during these times. Of course, I am taking extra safety precautions by making sure I have masks and sanitation before these trips. My mother works at the hospital, and she would tell me how progressive the facility would get, and most of the time, it’s not good news to hear. I lost two cousins to COVID-19 on both sides of my family. My heart hurts, and I am sure that they would have wanted me to help my community as much as possible. That is the motivation that is keeping me strong. My mother, who works at the hospital, she is the one who has always helped and supported me. I see so many of my friends who are artists do as much as they can to help raise money for donations, and it amazes me to see how supportive everyone is right now. It should always be like that. I always had the mindset of what my grandmother told me, which was to learn, be careful, pray, and make good decisions that will help you be successful. I think of all that my matriarchs said to me when I make the decisions to go out during these times to help. One day I am photographing Dr. Michelle Tom in Winslow, AZ, while at the same time delivering PPE to a hospital nearby. This is a different kind of photography I am documenting. I have launched my official website, Darklisted Photography, where I also started to sell my art, and I started photographing again. I have always been careful about my surroundings lately, and I know there can be ways I can present myself as an artist, and that is by helping out my community first and supporting those who are in need. What matters right now is that I reach out to as many people as I can, whether it’s sharing helpful information, delivering aid, or gathering important causes that are happening within our reservation and getting that attention to help in any way I can.
What ways have you seen Native LGBTQ2S+ people continue to hold spaces and support each other during the current pandemic and regulations around social distancing?
N: Everything that has been happening as far as providing spaces for the Native LGBTQ2S+ is online. Drag shows are now live, webinars and events are celebrated on Zoom, and other artists are taking matters into their own hands by auctioning off their creative arts to help their communities. It is important as a community to keep in contact and to make sure everyone is doing okay. I take every measure of being careful, from planning a trip for work, or a trip to get groceries for the next few weeks. I make sure that I keep my spaces clean, and to remind myself to keep my hands clean, to wash my face masks after I am out and about, and to stay home if it is not important. I am putting myself at risk by helping out my community, and that is the decision that I am carefully looking at as I move forward with the support I have. I know I am doing great things, I have to keep reminding myself that I am here for a reason, and that is to help right now.
What could our tribal communities do to be more inclusive and supportive LGBTQ2S+ people?
LS: Include and invite queer/Two-Spirit and trans folks that are singers or artists or do drag. If you are a cisgender, heterosexual person help give us those spaces. Because our stories might be similar, don’t forget we bleed the same color. We are relatives. Our genders or orientations might be different, but we are all Mother Earth’s kids. I think once you hold that space for queer/2S/trans folks, the world will be a lot easier, and it will be a lot more fabulous. If people include us, it might be easier for those who are having issues with coming out. I was always taught that our presence, our existence is our resistance. Just you and I being unapologetically ourselves in public, and those spaces are the resistance. I would never want anybody to not feel like themselves. And as relatives as long as we include each other, the world will be a lot simpler. Stand up for our Two-Spirit and trans folks. A majority of the Two-Spirit and trans people that are Indigenous are the ones that are the caretakers and the glue to the family. They are the ones taking care of the elders and the children. And if you go back to our histories, the kids that didn’t have parents would be raised by their Two-Spirit relatives. They were the ones who were allowed to perform medicine, dances, and traditional values. They were the ones that were able to have both the male and female perspectives as they tried to carry the storytelling and culture. People forget that because of Christianity and this modern society of heteropatriarchy. They think that we are the wrong ones, but people like us are pushing those boundaries and demanding those spaces to include us because we are Mother Earth’s children. Once we become the norm, like we were in the past, the world will become easier for a lot of us and the new, upcoming youth. In my performance on We’re Here. Even me having a t-shirt with the word “fag” on it, which was a word that continually haunted me from middle school to adulthood. And now it’s my power word. It drives me, and it gave me a backbone. Granted, I would never want to have somebody go through the struggle and the issues I went through growing up, but, you know, that word was something that haunted me. To the people who want to be allies, watch how you talk to people. My great-grandma always taught me that what comes out of our mouths, especially as Indigenous people when we speak is a sacred thing. It’s like a ceremony. Our words are so powerful. And she always said, “be careful of what comes out of your mouth because those words become like a pebble you throw into the water. You’re never going to see that same pebble again. So once you speak those words, whether its ill will, or a slur, or something negative to somebody, you’re never going to get those words back, just like that pebble.” That word is still a scar on my heart. Educate yourself if you want to be an ally. Or ask questions.
N: The communities need to be more inviting; I think having more events that are directed towards the LGBTQ2S+ is essential. History is being made today from many movements, and we need to learn about the importance of history and teach others the real meaning of it today. Having more Drag shows, more celebrations that can involve families and be accepting and to participate is something that I would love to see in my hometown.
Is there anything you’d like to say to the younger generation who might be struggling with not having community spaces or maybe feeling alone during this time of social distancing and self-isolation?
LS: Know that there are people like myself trying to speak up for us and always remember where you come from always be proud to be Indigenous. Know that you can always rely on Mother Earth, especially during this pandemic. Go outside, talk to Mother Earth. Talk to Father Sky. Talk to the birds, the trees, the plants because those are our relatives too. Also, rely on yourself. Look in the mirror and realize you’re unique. You’re Indigenous, you’re part of a fantastic community and know that your voice is being heard in my heart and my soul. We are doing this for you. You can be anything you want to be, but always remember where you come from and who you are as an Indigenous person and be proud of it.