Anthony Johnson and James Makokis docked at Rosseau Lake College in Ontario and spotted a pile of orange wooden pieces on a white tarp. As competitors on Canada’s version of “The Amazing Race,” to fulfill their next challenge they had to assemble an eight-foot-tall Muskoka chair. Makokis is the type to screw things on backward, but Johnson used to build Ikea furniture as a university side hustle. So Makokis followed his husband’s lead as Johnson went to work with a power drill.

Later, Makokis told the cameras, “Anthony does home renovations. He’s so butch,” his voice sounding proud and enamored.

The pair completed the task, and the following two, on their way to being crowned victors of the show’s seventh season. Sure, a round-the-world trip, two new Chevrolet Blazers and $250,000 are winnings to celebrate. But for them, the biggest perk was the show’s national platform. It was a chance for the country — and the world — to witness a bold example of a gay, indigenous couple, the first to compete on the show. The prevalence of LGBTQ relationships on reality TV has grown in recent years, most notably with the Bachelor franchise featuring its first same-sex engagement (of Demi Burnett and Kristian Haggerty) on Tuesday.

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Johnson is a project consultant hailing from the Navajo Nation in Arizona. Makokis is a family physician specializing in transgender care from Alberta’s Saddle Lake Cree Nation. They both identify as two-spirit, an umbrella term that indigenous people use to describe people in their communities who are gender-nonconforming. “We jump between ‘male’ roles and ‘female’ roles,” Johnson said. “We just do what needs to be done so that life doesn’t stall.”

Faced with a gantlet of activities, including digging for clams, getting remote-control robots through a maze and racing on Flyboards (a type of hoverboard), the duo says that willingness to do what was required gave them their edge.

The final challenge was to construct an irrigation system. Again, Johnson took the reins.

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“When you grow up on the [reservation], if you don’t know how to do it, it doesn’t get done,” Johnson said. “We had to irrigate our cornfields, and we didn’t have running water.”

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They named themselves Team Ahkameyimok, spotlighting the Nehiyawewin that means “never give up.” They sported colorful clothing as they traversed six provinces, one territory, 14 cities and more than 20,000 kilometers, attire loaded with LGBTQ and environmental symbols. Their red, knee-length skirts sewn with rainbow ribbons stood out amid the dry-fit crew necks and tights other competitors wore. The skirts also represented missing and murdered indigenous women, Johnson said, as well as transgender and two-spirit people. In one episode, they donned blue T-shirts proclaiming “Water Is Life.”

They met in a two-spirit Facebook group. A moderator shared an Out magazine article about the Montana Two Spirit Society featuring a photo of Makokis, and Johnson was intrigued. He contacted Makokis while Makokis was on a book tour around Australia. Five hours flew by as they talked over the phone, Makokis on a white-sand beach in Fiji, Johnson in his exposed-brick Brooklyn apartment. Makokis later visited Johnson in New York City, where they biked, grabbed dinner in Little Italy and saw the Brooklyn Bridge.

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The two are used to being in the spotlight: They had their wedding in the middle of running the 2017 Vancouver Marathon, staging the ceremony on English Bay Beach before finishing the race as a married couple.

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Their resilience and trust in one another carried them through the tougher aspects of the race: chronic stress, restlessness, the selfish desire to take ownership of a task. They each had to learn when to fall back and let the other shine, or at least try their best, Makokis said.

When they crossed the finish line, social media erupted with cheers. Johnson and Makokis were fan favorites, beloved for their wholesome personalities, bubbly humor and inspiring messages. Their advocacy made them a lightning rod for praise and hope.

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They were not deterred by the viewers who weren’t fans of their advocacy and lobbed dismissive comments such as “Just run the race” or “Why does this need to be political?” The show was an opportunity to showcase diversity in front of millions, ideal for a couple always ready to represent their identities, Johnson said.

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“We’re born with status numbers,” Makokis said. “Our existences are political.”

So their work continues. The prize money will go toward dreams yet realized, like the cultural healing center in Kehewin Cree Nation they want to create.

Until then?

“Our last challenge is to get on ‘Ellen’!” Johnson said, citing the couple’s favorite daytime talk show.

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