Rep. Arlando Teller introduces himself with his hand raised, fingers spread.
His thumb is him. His index finger is his mother. Middle finger, his father. Ring finger, his mother’s father. And pinky, his father’s father.
“That makes me who I am,” he said.
The freshman Democrat from Legislative District 7 carries his “home” with him. It’s in the jewelry he wears, picked out by his mother and sister. It’s on the walls of his office, decked out in Native American art, including a bright portrait of his late maternal grandmother. And it’s the foundation of his story.
Teller was the first Native American to graduate from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 1995. He went on to spend seven years working at Sky Harbor International Airport before his life took a turn that paved the way for where he is today.
“Nine-eleven happened,” he said. “I needed a change.”
Did you need a change because of 9/11?
No, I met someone. It was a wonderful relationship. … It allowed me to do things I wouldn’t normally do. I wouldn’t have left the state. I wouldn’t have left my familiar places. But I chose to. I put my trust in the relationship and in him. And that allowed me to travel the world and get a new perspective on how well we actually do have it here in the States and how other countries and communities view indigenous people. That was an eye-opening experience.
You’re a member of the LGBTQ Caucus. What does that mean to you?
Being a Navajo, a traditional practicing Navajo, in my culture, my language, our philosophy, gays and lesbians were considered sacred people at one time. And it just happened that the Catholicism and the Christian movement really changed and skewed how Navajo as a people view gay, lesbian, transgendered people.
In our culture, it was the nádleeh, gay, people that saved the sexes. There was a battle of the sexes where the men and women would not get along. The men left the women and swam across a raging river and stayed there. Some men and women would try to go back with each other and swim across, but the river was too rapid and would sweep them to their deaths. So, there were men who took on the women role, and there were women who took on the men role. That’s where the gay sacredness came from – we as gay people helped fulfill those things. … There’s a sense of equality, a sense of connection that all Arizonans need to advocate for.
What was it like for you to come out to your family?
For me, there was a bit of shame. I had girlfriends in high school, and … when I met someone and we became boyfriends, I didn’t tell my mother. I didn’t tell anyone other than my sister who I’m really close with. It wasn’t until my separation from my partner in 2007. … I was in desperate need. The only person I could talk to was my mom. So, I called her. My mom is a social worker, straight-up person. I called her in 2007, I was in my mid-30s, and I said, “Mom, I’m living with a man, and this is what happened.” She was quiet. Then she yelled, and she said, “How dare you do this to me? I can’t believe you’re gay. How could you do this to me? I was really hoping for grandchildren.” It was all about me, me, me, me, me. And I was fine with that. I was sitting at the dinner table thinking I deserved this. And then, I said, “This is about me, your son. And I need your help. I need some guidance. Help me. Please, mom.” I heard her catch her breath. She was quiet for a while, and she said, “You’re right. I love you.” I was crying, like I’m ready to cry now, because she got it.
What did that do for your relationship with her?
It took that to bring us closer. In 2009, I was at work at Caltrans [California Department of Transportation]. She called me up at 10 a.m. and said she was at the [Oakland] airport.
Oh my gosh.
That’s what I said, like, oh my gosh. I get to Oakland, and she’s there with her purse and her little handbag. She’s a very impatient woman, and she says, “Take me to your boss.” … They held each other’s hands for, I don’t know, 10 seconds, 20 seconds. They’re looking at each other, and they started tearing up. My boss turned to me, and she said, “I accept your resignation.” … Within an hour, we had people at my apartment, and I had a rental vehicle. Within two hours, we’re moving everything out. By 4 p.m., my mom and the ladies were cleaning out my apartment. The guys were helping me pack the U-Haul as tightly as possible. By 6 p.m., we’re driving out of the Bay Area. I didn’t say anything. I was quiet the whole time. I finally snapped at Tehachapi Pass: “OK. What’s going on here? I’m not going to be quiet about this.” And she said, “I’m bringing you home. It’s time for you to come home to help us. It’s time for you to help your people.”
I got cleansed – it was a four-day ceremony. On the fourth morning, after we were up all night singing, my mom said, “I want you to tell all of us, your whole family, what your plans are. I want your two-year plan, five-year plan, 10-year plan.”
What was your plan?
I wanted to know who the movers and shakers of the tribe and the state and the feds are. … Those are the people who make the decisions that really affect our lives here. Within two years, I made friends with them. Jack Jackson, Jr., Albert Hale, Ann Kirkpatrick, the president of the Navajo Nation. Then, they asked if I would ever run for office. At that time, I didn’t know, but I wanted to do my best to help my people. … That was the turning point for me.
Coming home meant a lot. It allowed me to really vocalize and advocate for those who don’t have a voice or don’t feel like they have a voice. … The only promise I made [during the campaign] was to my mother. I promised not to forget where I come from.