WITH MORE THAN 25 YEARS of experience working in social justice for the Indigenous LGBTQ+ community, Mattee Jim (Diné) has spearheaded change by speaking up for the people she represents with firsthand understanding and experience.
An Indigenous trans woman, Jim started her career after seeking treatment for her alcohol addiction. She credits her sobriety as motivation for her efforts. “A lot of the experiences in my past drive me to do the advocacy I do,” says Jim, who serves as a supervisor for HIV Prevention Programs for First Nations Community HealthSource, in Albuquerque.
Growing up in Gallup, she longed for the kind of representation she now provides. “I didn’t feel like I could be myself,” she says. “In my early twenties, I really experienced transphobia, and that led me to drinking.”
Now, she works to ensure future Indigenous LGBTQ+ youth don’t have similar experiences. Jim has spearheaded hate crime bills and nondiscrimination acts, has helped to make it easier for trans folks to change their legal names, and has been instrumental in getting gender-affirming health care included in Indian Health Services. She has also worked with coalitions throughout the state, including the Coalition for Equality New Mexico, the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, and the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition. “To see Native trans girls be themselves in high school is phenomenal,” she says. “For me, that’s progression.”
At Gallup Indian Medical Center, the clinic, overseen by Dr. Jennie Wei, currently has more than 100 patients. No longer are Indigenous trans folks required to travel hundreds of miles for treatment like Jim did in the early 2000s, when she moved to Los Angeles for hormone therapy. And thanks to Jim and her colleagues, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation in 2019 that makes it possible for trans people to change their gender designation with a doctor’s note and a court order stating they have received clinically appropriate treatment rather than proof of surgery.
Working in advocacy isn’t easy. At times, the difficult days make her question whether it’s worth the effort. That’s when she remembers the people she’s helped. “Change keeps me going,” she says. “It inspires me to see people change.”
Stella Martin (Diné) says Jim’s persistence helped change her life. They first met in a Gallup bar. “I remember seeing this very vivacious, over-the-top personality dancing to the music,” says Martin. “She was standing by this table that had condoms and HIV-prevention info. I was inspired that she was this happy, bright person, doing this important, serious work.”
Although it took several months, Jim eventually recruited Martin to attend a two-day, retreat-style workshop hosted by the Navajo AIDS Network, where she met many other trans women. “She inspired me to move forward with my career and goals in life,” Martin recalls. “She created a space and a platform where I could thrive.”
Martin, who now works with Jim at First Nations Community HealthSource, considers her colleague a sister. “As Native trans women, we struggle,” she says. “Having that personal experience really allowed her to be a prolific leader for all of us. She’s been incredible.”
Her work has not gone unnoticed. At the 2023 SWAIA Indian Market in Santa Fe, Jim met Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo). “She shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for the work you do in our community,’ ” Jim says. “For me, it was so profound that she knew me and my work.”