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Diver Heather Purser Pioneers Same-Sex Marriage for Suquamish

A profile of diver Heather Purser, who pioneered same-sex marriage in the Suquamish Tribe.
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Earlier last month in Seattle, as all the threads for a planned Human Rights Day banquet were being woven together, Heather Purser, Suquamish, who was to be among the honored guests, was shuffling through mud and ooze.

Under 50 feet of water. Down on the cold bottom of Puget Sound. Wrestling with giant clams.

“It’s usually pretty murky because we’re running on the bottom with weights. I have 10 pounds on each ankle and I have 50 pounds on my waist,” says Purser, one of only two female divers for Suquamish Seafoods, a company owned by her tribe. She spends many of her days seeking out an iconic Pacific Northwest sea creature, the geoduck, the world’s largest burrowing clam. Even though a geoduck can have a siphon, or neck, a couple of feet long, they can be hard to spot. “You look for tiny differences in the sand—sometimes like a little crater, sometimes it’s a barely visible line,” Purser says, explaining how she divines where the geoduck have burrowed into the ooze. “You’ll see a little patch in the sand that looks strange, and then you dig it out with your hand.”

The bottom of Puget Sound in December is an unusual place to find a human rights honoree. But then Purser, who risked rejection by asking her tribe to support same-sex marriage, is a delightful blend of the surprising and the unusual. She is quick to laugh, often at her own foibles, and tells her sometimes painful story with unflinching frankness.

Her family can trace Suquamish lineage back to a time when it had its own clan longhouse near what is now Bremerton, Washington. Yet a full-blooded grandfather was so traumatized, Purser says, by isolation and punishment in a boarding school that he married a non-Indian and urged his children to do the same. “It is part of the reason I’m pale. He didn’t want any of his children to face the discrimination he faced.”

Purser has fair skin and red hair that makes her “Indianness” invisible. Being lesbian is like that, too, she says, invisible yet a vital part of her identity.

After more than 20 years of wrestling with inner conflict about her skin color and her sexual orientation, Purser, 29, stood up at her tribe’s annual General Council meeting last March and asked if the tribe would support her desire to be able to legally marry another woman. General Council is where all tribal members can, by voice vote, approve or reject issues brought up by other members. Her request was approved.

This totem pole, carved by David Boxley, Tsimshian, of Alaska, will be unveiled in a Totem Pole Raising Ceremony at the Native American Center, at Fort Lewis College, in Durango, Colorado. (Photo courtesy Native American Center, Fort Lewis College)

Purser dives with 10 pounds on each ankle and 50 pounds around her waist.

Purser was overwhelmed at the affirmation. “Indian people, especially in my community, are way more understanding [about discrimination] because they’ve been through it. The elders know what it’s like to go to school and have their hair cut off and be called a filthy, sick person just because of who they are.”

But tolerance hasn’t been universal. When she was attending the all-Indian Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, Purser was jumped and beaten for being different. She was crushed when the school dropped its inquiry into the incident. In western Washington, a drunk man shouted slurs and threw a bottle at her and a girlfriend for walking down the street holding hands. But among her own tribe, she has found a haven. “Suquamish are very live and let live. Very progressive. Here, we were all family. Suquamish has always been my safe place. I’ve always believed that the best and the biggest changes begin in your own communities.”

The change is big indeed, said the Seattle attorney who nominated Purser for three human rights awards presented to her December 8 at the Seattle Human Rights Day Celebration. “Heather is at the tip of the spear. She is leading the charge,” said Chris Stearns, Navajo, chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission. “The Suquamish Tribe is the first jurisdiction in the state of Washington to recognize same-sex marriage.”

ICTMN: When did you first realize you were gay?

Purser: At about 7. There was a movie that had a gay character, and my older sister explained what gay meant. And it clicked for me—I mean it really clicked. I knew I didn’t quite fit in with everyone else, but learned there were some other people in the world who didn’t, either. I officially came out when I was 16. My mom found a book I’d been writing—a lesbian romantic fiction—and she beat me up. I got thrown down the stairs. I got screamed at. She called all the people in the family and told them to watch their children around me. And she read the book—the most embarrassing, awkward parts—out loud. She made all my siblings sit down at the kitchen table. It was just a story about two girls who met and kissed sometimes. It was about falling in love and being romantic—all the things that I wanted.

How did your dad react?

He asked, “Are you gay?” I said, “I don’t know.” And he just dropped me off at the house. It’s a cycle of dysfunction and chaos that has been passed down. I forgive my mom. She had a very traumatic childhood herself. She continued the tradition. And I know she didn’t want to. I forgive my dad for not knowing what to do.

Was there an “ah-ha” moment, when you realized you needed to speak up and ask your tribe to back same-sex rights?

There were several of those over the years. But it just burst out of me one day. I was talking to a gay couple I had just met at my niece’s birthday party, and they were saying “Oh we just got married—too bad it doesn’t count.” And I said I was going to get my tribe to legalize same-sex marriage. And my sister was listening and asked if that was true. And I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” [Laughs] So it all came together, and I said that’s what I want to do. I went around and started talking to people, saying I think this should happen, and what do you think? And everyone was all for it.

When you left your “safe place,” as you call it among Suquamish, and went away to college at Haskell, what happened there?

“It was my looks. I am really redheaded. It’s a very small school, so I stood out. I held my own for three years there. When people were mean, it was kind of a shock. They wouldn’t say I was white or I didn’t belong there. They just treated me like I was different. It was a few people, and it really shocked me. I always forgot that I looked different. It blew up into the worst drama of my life. [Editor’s Note: Purser was jumped and beaten in her dorm room and the school, after putting up hurdles along the way, she says, dropped a disciplinary inquiry.] I learned you have to pick your battles. [An administrator] told me on tape to go home and go to a school where there were more people like me. I really feel like it was because I’m pale. I never felt so discriminated against. I had never been able to see it because I was just off in my own happy land of I’m Just Like Everybody Else.

How did that affect you?

“At Haskell I had wanted to someday join [the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], and I wanted to save

The Thomas Building at Pennsylvania State University. (Image courtesy Penn State)

Purser with a geoduck

children from abuse and abusive families—I was doing social work. I was way more active. I think after that incident a part of me just went dormant for awhile. It hurt. It hurt so much. At [Western Washington University, where she transferred] I just didn’t seem to have a voice any more. I still forget that I look different. And it’s like I forget I’m gay, too. They’re just labels, you know?

When did you decide to speak up to the tribe about same-sex rights?

About four years ago I started talking to people, saying, I think this should happen, what do you think? Two years ago, probably fall of 2009, I worked up the nerve to go and ask council members. Finally, about a year after that, I went to a council meeting and it was open floor and I stood up and I stated again what I wanted [support for same-sex marriage] because I felt not enough was happening and I wanted to be a little more public.

And one of the councilmen actually said, “Well, this all sounds great and I’m all for that—but how do we know that men aren’t just going to start getting married so they can get new boats, or fishing rights?” [Laughs] I was like, I don’t know how many gay fishermen you think we have in Suquamish, but I guarantee [laughs] I don’t think my cousin is going to marry [a male friend] just to get spousal rights to fishing grounds. [Laughs] That’s not going to be a problem.”

Did this appearance before council raise the issue of same-sex marriage rights for others in the tribe?

No. I was the only one who was really doing anything about it. I also didn’t ask for too much help, because I just assumed nobody else cared—and that was ridiculous, because when I went to the General Council I realized how much people cared.

Did this take so long—four years—because you didn’t want to risk being hurt again, like you were at Haskell?

Yeah. I could not handle being rejected by tribal people again. I was so angry about everything after Haskell, and I hope this doesn’t sound petty, but I was really hurt. It felt like the ultimate rejection at Haskell—Oh man, the school’s not going to stand up for me? —I didn’t want to face that again, and I couldn’t handle it if it happened with my own people. I almost brought up [same-sex rights] a couple of years ago [at General Council] but got scared. I thought, Ooooh, what if they say no? I even stood up at one point ready to go down there—and I sat back down.

So what got you past the nerves?

I had met my girlfriend [Becca], and I’d never felt so happy. I’ve been in a few different relationships, but I really feel like she’s there for me in a way no one else ever has been. So even if I got rejected, I knew she was there.

Can you describe the scene? How does the council work?

There were about 300 people. We had it in [the tribe’s] Kiana Lodge. You wait for open mike, then you stand in line and wait your turn. A lot of people want to speak. Some people say, “Joe’s keeping me awake with his banging around.” “You need to do something about casinos or the noise!” [Laughs] There are complaints. There are suggestions. It’s the most exciting part of the whole thing—you don’t know what people are going to say. Sometimes it can just really surprise you.

Did you surprise the tribe, or did people say they’d been waiting for you to ask this for years?

[Laughs] A lot of people were like, “Finally, she’s doing something!” You know? And there were a few gasps.

What did you say?

I said, “I would like to get married some day. I’ve met someone really amazing, but I’m not able to because we’re both women.” And I said, “I don’t think that’s very fair.” I mentioned something about how there are a lot of different ways to live your life. And that as Suquamish we pride ourselves on being progressive and loving and accepting of one another, so I said, “Let’s put that to the test by having same-sex marriage as part of our Constitution.”

Did you address anyone in particular?

Council sits in front, and usually people talk facing the council. [But] I turned and looked at the audience. There were about 300 there. I knew most of them—we had all grown up together—but it was still pretty much a blur. Then I turned around and talked to council, and when I turned back around, there was my dad [Rob] and my brothers [Ty and Gus] standing behind me. And all the people said, “Yes!” I still struggle with issues with my dad, but I really knew I had his support at that moment. There were a lot of people crying. And the tribe officially signed [the amended marriage ordinance] in August.

What’s next?

I am now working on a canoe project for women. I started it because of violence against Indian women, because Indian women are the most victimized women in the United States. It really makes me angry, so I started planning this canoe journey for women to paddle in peaceful protest against domestic violence.

Is there a date set?

No. We are looking for wood now. We are going to carve our own canoe. Never having carved a canoe, I’m probably going to be doing this well into my 40s! [Laughs] This was lost, especially to the Suquamish, for so long. We hid [cultural and spiritual artifacts and practices] so well that we forgot everything. And I think people do that, too, especially gay people. You hide yourself so well that you forget who you are. I know I did for such a long time.