Exclusive Interview: queer Navajo photographer Nate Lemuel featured in HBO’s We’re Here “I want to break every stigma that I can”

Tonight’s episode of HBO’s We’re Here, the fourth in the series, sees the three queens, Eureka O’Hara, Shangela Laquifa Wadley and Bob the Drag Queen go all sci-fi meets Priscilla with their opening looks as they arrive in the New Mexico desert. They head to Farmington and Shiprock, and in one of the most impactful stories of the series so far Bob meets Nate Lemuel, a gay indigenous photographer who’s eager to make a deeper connection with his Navajo people. Two of Nate’s LGBTQ+ Navajo friends, Darin and Lady Shug, collaborate with Bob on Nate’s powerful, meaningful drag performance at the end of the show.

Ahead of tonight’s episode airing on HBO at 9pm ET/10pm PT, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Nate Lemuel about his experience on We’re Here, and Bob the Drag Queen tells about collaborating with Nate to create this unforgettable drag show.

Bob the Drag Queen and Nate Lemuel. Photograph by Jake Giles Netter/HBO.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Nate, what was your exposure to drag before doing We’re Here, had you seen any live shows before?

Nate Lemuel: “My exposure to the drag scene before being on We’re Here was seeing drag shows here on the Navajo Nation and also when I would visit family in Phoenix. They were very different types of shows. Here on the reservation I feel like the LGBTQ+ creatives tell a story for the community on the Navajo Nation. It’s a more meaningful way of composing a very important message. I feel so connected whenever I see it, but I’ve only been to a couple of drag shows here on the reservation. I’ve done some work with the indigenous pride event, Diné Pride. Diné meaning the people in Navajo and there were so many shows that had so many different messages.”

Self Portrait by Nate Lemuel. Courtesy of Nate Lemuel/Darklisted Photography.

Drag can definitely be powerful and meaningful, as we see in many of the performances on We’re Here, but a lot of drag that we’re used to seeing say here in New York might just be a fun lip-synch number to entertain us.

Nate Lemuel: “Yes, it’s that difference of sending a well meant message with the right song compared to, with all due respect, coming out of the curtains in a Britney Spears outfit doing a Gimme More number! I mean every performance is celebrated with confidence, with poise and whenever I see a drag performer I see so much exuding from them that I want support them, even as somebody who is just watching from the audience. I feel like it’s such a beautiful thing.”

Lady Shug, Nate Lemuel and Darin. Photograph by Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

And one of your friends who appears on this episode of We’re Here with you, Ky Victor, does drag as Lady Shug. I was glad that we got to meet them, they seem like a very supportive group. But I wondered what your experience of growing up gay on the reservation was like?

“It was very closed in terms of expressing myself. I’m the only brother of my family. I have a sister who’s three years younger and I felt included in many things, but pushed out too. I felt different and I didn’t feel accepted, even though I felt accepted in my group of friends. It really stuck with me as I got older. I tried to find ways to deal with my stress and depression at times, and when I look back on it I kind of connect the dots as to why my life had turned out the way it has. I’m very proud of myself for how far I’ve come mentally and physically, because it wasn’t easy for me to get where I am at today and being a creative visual artist for my community here is something that I feel is important. I feel like learning about my tradition, my culture, learning about who I am and how I can fit into my community was something that I was always mindful of.”

Self Portrait, 2020 by Nate Lemuel. Courtesy of Nate Lemuel/Darklisted Photography.

You mention the indigenous pride that you were involved in, was that last year?

“Yeah, that was last year at Window Rock, Arizona. They’ve been having more events that bring the community together. It’s also a time for many others to bring awareness to issues like missing and murdered indigenous women and relatives, something that is never brought to the national news’ attention. You see a bunch of news right now about what’s going on in relation to COVID-19 and how the government isn’t helping us. I feel like the mainstream media loves reporting on our poverty as indigenous people and how we have limited access to clean water, but you know they don’t report on how capitalism, colonialism and racism continue to guide US polices to destroy our lives, our land and our natural rights. There’s so much to us that we want to share, that we want to grow with, that we need support for. And reaching for that outside help right now is very important and we’re getting it. We’re getting so much help right now from organisations and people. The communities are coming together carefully to build efforts to help our elderly indigenous, our grandfathers and our grandmothers. I want to do the best I can to help too. I stepped in this past month raising some money by selling some of my photos and doing a project with a friend of mine who runs a clothing line collective from Albuquerque.”

Belief, 2019 by Nate Lemuel. Courtesy of Nate Lemuel/Darklisted Photography.

“I love helping my community. A long time ago I used to be an art teacher, when I came out of high school before I became a photographer. I was trying to find out who I was, where I fitted in. I got brought into my community by interning for the boys and girls club, which was right down the street from where I lived. That’s where I developed a sense of interest in art and learning about my community and how some of the kids were just dropped off and picked up. It seemed as if though some of those kids really needed an older figure to look up to at that moment in their lives. The reason why I mention that is because it relates to the work that I did today with Orenda Tribe, which is a clothing brand. They had me go out to a little community not too far from Shiprock and I documented these teachers that are giving their time to donate around 180 sack lunches and homework to families in these remote houses that are out on the reservation on dirt roads, delivering food weekly and trying to give their families PPE. It was really fun to be a part of that and just seeing the process of dedication and love for each other was really amazing.”

Nate Lemuel on HBO’s We’re Here. Photograph by Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

Could you tell me about your motivations for doing We’re Here, why you wanted to be part of it and what you wanted to say to your community by doing it?

Nate Lemuel: “With We’re Here, I gave it some thought before, not just for myself but for my community. A lot of the LGBTQ+ community here, we’re very connected as far as wanting to support each other, but at the same time, sometimes that can be misunderstood. I thought about the people around my age who are still trying to make things work for themselves, who are in their thirties and doing the best that they can, not just to support their families, but to support themselves. I thought of so many other people who were outed and their coming out stories were not easy. I wanted to acknowledge that and put that out there, because where I live from Shiprock to Farmington the community is divided in many ways, in terms of homophobia and transphobia, and of course there’s a big racial divide within that, within the border town and I’ve lived through it and experienced racism. I’ve heard it and I try to deal with it in a way where I’ve been wanting to help other people, because I can’t sit back anymore and pretend that things are just going to get better. I wanted to take action and that’s why I wanted to be a part of this.”

Bob the Drag Queen and Nate Lemuel. Photograph by Jake Giles Netter/HBO.

When you were rehearsing with Bob at one point we see you finish doing the routine and you said “it felt liberating…it felt like I almost lost myself for a minute.” Tell us about your experience of creating the show with Bob the Drag Queen.

“Bob is the most amazing mother I never had! There are times when you meet someone and you feel within a very short time and just a few words, that deep connection. You feel as if you don’t need to explain yourself, just by observing each other. I felt that comfort level with him so easily. We decided to create something that I wanted to impact our audience, I wanted to tell a story and have the interpretation live in the view of my audience. I always felt like I kind of wanted to be alive again, and this time I wanted to help those who are struggling to feel that they can be themselves, and sometimes it takes a restart to move forward into a better light.”

Sisterhood, 2019 by Nate Lemuel. Courtesy of Nate Lemuel/Darklisted Photography.

Yes, a kind of rebirth in a way, and in the show you mention the accident that you had and the experience of finding yourself after that. One of your friends, Lady Shug, when you’re sitting with Bob at the diner brings up the idea that queer people, and what we’d now refer to as Two-Spirit people, were traditionally sacred, special people, part of ceremonies, but that changed with the colonisers coming in and the Christian religion being enforced. I think it’s really powerful for any queer people, whether indigenous or not, to know about this, that they were revered. Could you tell us a bit about that and what it means to you, was it something that you knew about growing up?

Nate Lemuel: “Well, Two-Spirit I was getting acquainted with it and learning about it by going to the pride events and meeting people who identify as Two-Spirit. It’s such an interesting presence to be around and they are in the tribes where the males and the females are referred to with the same term, it amounts to a third gender. I became close to some of them and I call some of them my friends. When they speak their minds it’s always important to listen to what they say. Based on their work roles they were known as healers. Two-Spirit males often became weavers in the Navajo. Combining them they were often among the wealthier members of the tribe and the Two-Spirit females engaged in activities such as hunting, warfare and became leaders in war and even chiefs. The gender variation of that distinguishes Two-Spirit people from men and women, including with dress, and lifestyle and with their social roles. So their presentation means everything and it’s always appreciated. I feel like it’s a supernatural intervention in the form of vision and dreams sanctioned by our tribal beliefs. I’m still learning about it too, so I can’t say too much, but with all due respect that’s kind of been where my mind goes to when I think of the term Two-Spirit.”

Nate Lemuel on HBO’s We’re Here. Photograph by Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

Going back you your performance in the drag show on We’re Here, could you describe what it brought out in you and the lasting impact it’s had on you personally?

Nate Lemuel: “What I wanted from it was to feel included and accepted, and I want to feel a continuation in the community as a person who is trying to advocate for the right things, and to make this environment that I live in, that I come back home to, more peaceful. I want the community to stop stereotyping us as different people who don’t feel right in the community. We are just as much a loving people as everyone else and I want to break every stigma that I can to make sure that everyone feels inspired; visually I want to interpret myself into an artist and help other people, and inspire other people with this performance.”

Crossroads, 2018 by Nate Lemuel. Courtesy of Nate Lemuel/Darklisted Photography.

Bob told me this was his favourite episode in the season.

Nate Lemuel: “That makes me really happy because it’s been like a Disney movie, I felt like Cinderella doing it because I was working the nightshift as a janitor at a college in Farmington on a weekly basis, Sunday night through Friday morning, every week. This was probably for about a year and a half, and before that I used to deliver newspapers in Farmington. Some of it’s crazy and some of it’s exhausting doing this as well as all the work that I do as a photographer, putting my dedication into it as well. I looked at having these night jobs as an investment, as a kind of way of getting myself to these events like fashion shows and music shows and supporting indigenous creative like myself; clothing designers, musicians, people that are advocating for other Native American tribes. I had a really good set of motivations and I kept telling myself every night when I was cleaning restrooms for these college kids, ‘you have to use this job right now to get where you’re going, you can’t stay stuck in one place forever because you’re going to be doing something great, not just for your community but for everyone. It will come to you, and you will do better things in the future.'”

Self Portrait by Nate Lemuel. Courtesy of Nate Lemuel/Darklisted Photography.

“I started telling people about how I worked and you could see it on people’s faces every now and then when I was working at events, I would look exhausted. That’s why I always had sunglasses on, that wasn’t just as a shield, my way giving people a hard time to read who I was, I was also kind of protecting my eyes from being awake from the night before! Because Thursday night I was working an eight hour job cleaning with chemicals, and then the next day I would already be packed and ready to go on my three hour drive to a fashion show or to a photo shoot in the morning. And my love for art has come to this point now from working hard at doing something I love. There’s so much behind my Darklisted Photography which is working with people that motivate me, that drive me into working like this and soon I’ll be launching my website officially at DarklistedPhotography.com and I’m really happy for everyone to finally engage with my work more professionally.”

Nate Lemuel on HBO’s We’re Here. Photograph by Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

And as far as your photography goes, what did you think about it being incorporated into the drag show on We’re Here?

Nate Lemuel: “Well, incorporating my photography into the show is an embracement of myself as a visual artist. When Bob and I collaborated and started talking about how we wanted to approach this performance, I gave him the thought of wanting to be alive again, because I was involved in an accident and photography was my way of recovering, and thinking that it could be an outlet to something better. So when I used my photography that was just me paying my respects to everyone that I’ve worked with throughout these past few years as a professional photographer. I wanted to let everyone know how much I care about what I do and know that I care about the work that they do too and what they are doing for their communities, I wanted to say a big thank to my audience.”

Bob the Drag Queen on HBO’s We’re Here. Photographer Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

Bob, when we last spoke you said that this was your favourite episode, tell us about meeting Nate and spending time on the Navajo reservation, what was the experience like?

Bob the Drag Queen: “Nate is very different from me, his energy is a little bit shy and Lady Shug I actually have a lot in common with. We’re both really loud tenacious drag queens, really aggressive about our passions and so I don’t want to discount what Lady Shug did with this number as well. Lady Shug is a really well-respected drag queen in the area, and Nate’s friend Darin too, they both helped come up with this number together. So I had the main idea and they came up with a lot of great things to make it more accurate.”

Bob the Drag Queen on HBO’s We’re Here. Photographer Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

What did you want to capture with the number, to bring out in Nate with it and to say to the audience who were there with it?

Bob the Drag Queen: “Well, Nate was talking about the intersectionality of being queer and being an artist and being indigenous and being American, and when it comes to intersectionality how we are multiple things. I always say you are what you are and you are what you experience. I wanted to try to make a patchwork of all of his pieces and put it into one great big performance and I think we did a really good job with that. I’m really proud of this performance, it was really good. When I talked to Shug and Nate they were saying that there’s not a lot of drag there. Shug used to perform on the grounds, and then they said that she had to perform literally outside the gates of the prayer grounds for five years before she was acknowledged and allowed to come on to the actual grounds. That was one of the parts about ‘they forgot’, like they were saying, because a lot of the indigenous community is deeply Christian and there’s a traditional indigenous population who is not Christian and more into the traditional worship processes. So I think that what we saw was pretty rare and amazing. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of indigenous drag queens around and I think we got really lucky and we should think about that.”

Nate Lemuel and Bob the Drag Queen on HBO’s We’re Here. Photographer Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

You include some of Nate’s photography in the performance, projected on to him, why did you want to do that?

Bob the Drag Queen: “I told the designers what I really wanted and then once I started actually seeing the dress come to life I thought ‘oh my God, what would be perfect is if we were able to do this’, because again I was trying to work on the intersectionality, and being an artist and a photographer is a really big part of his personality and I wanted to make sure that I captured that. Nate and I are going to be going live on my Instagram to talk about the show too, so check that out.”

Lady Shug, Bob the Drag Queen and Darin Jamal Tom on HBO’s We’re Here.
Photograph by Jakes Giles Netter/HBO

What do you hope people around the country might take away from watching this episode and seeing Nate’s story?

Bob the Drag Queen: “More than anything I hope that people can visit Protect The Sacred, and if they can help out then that would be amazing. The Navajo Nation has been completely devastated by the COVID-19 outbreak and 30% of the people living in the Navajo Nation are living without water, that’s about 45,000 people, that is a lot of people.”

Shangela Laquifa Wadley, Eureka O’Hara and Bob the Drag Queen on HBO’s We’re Here.
Photograph by Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

The opening of the episode has a sci-fi meets Priscilla Queen of the Desert vibe with some incredible outfits. What’s it like being in such elaborate drag out in the desert in new Mexico?

Bob the Drag Queen: “Well, to be fair it’s not like they threw us out in the middle of the desert! If you turned the camera around there were actually like 40 people sitting there, so it wasn’t like we were by ourselves with one camera. But I will say this, it was tough terrain in those shoes! Those were probably some of the biggest shoes that I wore the whole season on some very uneven terrain, so that was a whole trip!”

We’re Here episode 4 airs tonight on HBO at 9pm ET/10pm PT.

Protect the Sacred has started as an emergency response to the growing crisis in the Navajo Nation from COVID-19, to find out more and donate please visit ProtectTheSacred.care.

Follow Nate Lemuel on Instagram @DarklistedPhotography and Darklisted Photography on YouTube.

Stay up-to-date with all things Bob the Drag Queen at her official website – BobTheDragQueen.com – follow her on Instagram @BobtheDragQueen, Twitter @ThatOneQueen and YouTube.com/BobTheDRagQueen.

Mothers Backyard by Nate Lemuel. Courtesy of Nate Lemuel/Darklisted Photography.

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