Darrell Joe sits across the table over a Denny's breakfast, cup of coffee in hand, rattling off projects he is working on and programs he wants to start in his new job with the Navajo Nation's AIDS office.

He is a 30-year-old professional in a high-profile position, his calendar filled with meetings and conferences. There is an ease in his voice. He knows who he is and what he wants. He is happy.

But it was not always like this.

Joe remembers when his journey began: when he and his cousins, playmates growing up in the small Navajo community of Iyanbito, N.M., went off to school.

That is when other kids started hurling epithets at him. Soon, some of his cousins were embarrassed to be seen with him.

"That's when I started to think, 'Okay, I'm different.' I couldn't figure it out, and I think that's when I started pretending that I lived in certain worlds," he said.

His search for a place to belong as a gay man and as a Navajo would take him far from his home and his culture to an urban existence in Western society -- and back again.

Joe is one of the growing number of gay and bisexual Navajos walking a cultural tightrope, uniting elements of Navajo and Western culture to establish a place for themselves.

"They sort of had to create their own world," said Wesley Thomas, an assistant professor of anthropology at Indiana University who specializes in American Indian gender studies.

The modern view of homosexuality in the Navajo Nation is shaped by tribal tradition and Western influence, Thomas said.

Navajo origin stories embrace the idea of cross-gender identities. In some of these stories, men with feminine characteristics are known as nadleeh -- they dressed like women and were considered important religious figures with a special role in ceremonies. They also shared in conventional female duties, such as cooking or caring for children.

In Navajo tradition, sexual relationships between nadleeh and non-nadleeh men were considered heterosexual.

"In the Western gay culture, you have men who look like any other guy and behave like men, and that's their identity as a gay male," said Jack Jackson Jr., a gay Navajo who serves in the Arizona House of Representatives. "On the reservation . . . you see a lot of gay men who look more feminine and act more feminine, and it seems it's from their upbringing in a more traditional way."

A modest number of nadleeh have lived openly as transvestites on the reservation for generations, said Harry Walters, an anthropologist who teaches Navajo culture at Dine College in Tsaile, Ariz.

Some in the community now see nadleeh as an early manifestation of homosexuality and use it as a broad term for anyone who is not heterosexual.

Yet Thomas and Walters said the traditional understanding of nadleeh is disappearing, in part because the cultural significance has not been passed from one generation to the next -- but also because of changing attitudes.

With the arrival of Western religious influences, Navajo families began to hide away homosexual relatives or encourage them to live as heterosexuals, Thomas said.

"The nadleeh were very much a part of Navajo culture right into the late 1800s," said Thomas, who is also a gay tribal member. "Now we have children and grandchildren who dismiss [nadleeh] as part of Navajo culture. It was . . . relegated to something that was part of Western culture and not Navajo.

"There is now a search by these Navajo gays and lesbians to find out who they are," he said.

With that search has come an attempt to organize.

Melvin Harrison, head of the Chinle-based Navajo AIDS Network, said there was not a community for homosexual, bisexual or transgender Navajos when he began HIV prevention work on the reservation in 1988.

"Ten years ago, 15 years ago, there was no place for these individuals to go," Harrison said. "That's the big change I've seen is that we have people who come to our office just to get a hug, to laugh, to wear makeup. Then they wash up and go home and be their other selves."

No one can remember a formal organization that served homosexual, bisexual or transgender Navajos before the network's formation in 1990. Homosexuality is not discussed within the traditionally discreet Navajo Nation.

Some credit the traditional nadleeh teachings for greater tolerance among older generations. Joe said his grandmother, for instance, always knew he was different but never judged or ostracized him.

Still, the homophobic attitudes that first emerged with the decline of the nadleeh persist, although tribal members disagree to what extent.

Pernell Sam, a transgender Navajo from the small town of Many Farms, near Chinle, said the two-inch scar on his back is painful proof. The 28-year-old was stabbed at a party seven years ago by a man who he said used to call him epithets in high school.

"They never caught that guy," Sam said. "I still see him around."

Countless tribal members stay in the closet, fearing that kind of backlash, Harrison and others said. As a result, it is hard to know just how many gays are on the reservation.

As a young man, Joe was too afraid of the reaction he might get from friends, classmates and others if he came out. A cross-country athletic scholarship to college in Idaho was his ticket away from the reservation.

Eventually, Joe set out for San Francisco. There, a stint as a volunteer with an AIDS prevention organization led to a career. But something was still missing.

"I was living in two worlds," Joe said.

He returned to Gallup, eager to reconnect with his culture and help the local AIDS prevention effort, using models from his work in San Francisco.

That work led to the Naa Ts'iilid Hozho, or Beauty Rainbow Project. The HIV prevention group, which is part of the Navajo AIDS Network, targets homosexual, bisexual and transgender people. The rainbow is a symbol in Navajo religion and the Western gay movement.

Beauty Rainbow Project is a public health effort and an important support network. "As far as the gay community on the Navajo reservation, we're it," said Marco Arviso, who heads the group of about 20 people.

They gathered one recent evening under a patch of cottonwood trees in the shadow of Canyon de Chelly in Chinle.

There was Aaron Begay, a 29-year-old transgender who works at Dine College. He said he believes the reservation is generally an accepting environment for those such as him, "although we hear a lot of this negativity and name-calling."

Mitch, a bisexual public schoolteacher, recalled when the nadleeh were considered "almost like holy people."

Mitch is one of the few in the group who remains in the closet, unsure about how to balance his place among Navajos and in the society surrounding him.

Sitting next to him, Pernell Sam said he will not go back in the closet after coming out 10 years ago. "It's too hard," he said.

Sam is dressed in a plain gray cotton top and white pants, his face flawlessly smooth with feminine lines defining his cheekbones -- all changes from hormones he is taking in the hopes of someday getting a sex change. His mission is to help other Navajos understand.

"I have nothing to hide," he said.

Pernell Sam, left, and Marco Arviso are part of the support network on the reservation. "I have nothing to hide," said Sam, who is transgender.Darrell Joe, who works in an AIDS office, returned after pursuing his education in Idaho and working in San Francisco.