Shane Ortega walked into the Americana Ballroom at the Loews Hotel Friday morning, with an enlightened mind, but a burdened heart. The two-spirit activist and retired Army Staff Sergeant carried the thoughts and memories of 14 fallen brothers and sisters that they had known through two combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

“For every silence for a fallen LGBTQ friend I’ve buried, to this day I still feel this old heaviness of having to stand teary-eyed at their memorial knowing that their flame, or their book was extinguished, or was never fully read, never fully experienced…the beautiful knowledge that they possessed will never be fully shared or possibly offered again within our community,” Ortega said.

They offered both a memorial for the fallen, playing a Cherokee memorial song and delivering a message of strength in diversity to the travelers from around the world who had come to listen to their talk, ‘Embracing Strength in Intersectionality as LGBTQI People’ at the World OutGames in Miami Beach.

“We all exist in a world of boxes,” Ortega said. “And I proudly share each one of my boxes. – I am gay. I am transgender. I am indigenous. I am Nigerian. I am French. But my boxes also read, I am a bodybuilder. I grew up poor. I grew up two spirit. I grew up on a reservation. I am a disabled combat veteran. But for most of us, our box reads worried. So today, I want to tell you how I focused my worry.” 

Shane grew up in a household with a rich spiritual and military tradition.

Being Cherokee, and raised on a reservation, they grew up in a home accepting of nonbinary ideas in gender, of being two spirit. And Shane uses the pronouns they/them or he/them. 

Their father served in the Navy, and their mother both in the Navy and Army. Shane knew where they came from and they knew where they were going.

“As an awakened, conscious being I have learned to embrace every molecule of what makes me unique and what makes me ‘other.’ I’ve learned that those who choose to blend in, often do so withholding themselves, and withholding valuable knowledge from our community. That withholding contributes to our division. It’s what prevents real-time action for our progress as minorities. It allows those in power to continue to rule and divide us, because we are divisible to each other.”

In 2008 Shane Ortega began “strategic efforts” to repeal ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ the ban which kept his LGBTQI brothers and sisters from openly serving in the U.S. armed forces.

They transitioned from assigned female to male, openly, while serving in the armed forces in 2009. They served in the U.S. Marines, special operations from 2005-2009 and later as a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant from 2009 to 2016. A process which took careful maneuvering through military policy, psychological evaluations, and medical clearance.

Those efforts resulted in changing legislation with the repeal of DADT in 2011, the gains in equal opportunity protections in 2015, and with help from the ACLU, a lifting of the ban against transgender people serving in the military in 2016. 

Ortega attributes those results to his competitive spirit, a result of their intersectional nature, and the drive to prove themselves by giving their all. At everything. “When I got into bodybuilding it wasn’t enough for me to do one push up,” Shane laughed. “I had to do the most push-ups, the best push-ups.” 

Shane said he looks at it like gambling, like the way you would come to play Vegas. “You have to learn the rules of the house first, then you kick the legs out from under it.” 


Faced with technical challenges, Shane Ortega played this Cherokee Memorial Song from his cell phone, in honor of the fallen, during the Memorial Day Welcome at the World OutGames Miami. May 27, 2017.