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April 8, 2011

Evenings Out

With the spirits of both male and female

Ten years ago, a horrible crime was committed in Cortez, Colorado. A 16-year-old was brutally beaten and left to die in the desert; his body was not found for five days.

He was described as gay. He was described as transgendered. He was Fred Martinez, and to his mother, he was nádleehí, the Navajo word for a two-spirit man.

His story is now the subject of a documentary by Lydia Nibley called, appropriately, Two Spirits, out on DVD and coming to PBS’ Independent Lens series in June.

The tagline for the film reads, “Fred Martinez was a Navajo boy who was also a girl. In an earlier era, he would have been revered. Instead he was murdered.”

Among many Native American nations, gender was not dichotomous, it had other possibilities. There were masculine men, feminine women, feminine men and masculine women, and the latter categories were referred to as “two-spirit,” containing the spirits of male and female within them.

They were often considered spiritual leaders, and if parents were killed, they served as surrogates for the children. There was no disdain for living the life you felt was true. That, unfortunately, was brought to America by the Europeans.

Nibley created a multifaceted film with Two Spirits. Not only does she extensively interview Martinez’ mother Pauline Mitchell, she also spoke to friends of the family, as well as Native American two-spirit advocates from across the country.

It creates an intriguing portrait of a culture so unlike the dominant one in this country, yet so intricately linked to it. As one of the men points out, when he hears other Navajos speak of homosexuality as something that was brought by the white man, they never seem to be speaking Navajo, just English. They accuse the thing that was present before the decimation of being brought by oppressors, while speaking in the oppressors’ tongue.

It is almost reminiscent of the debates in Africa and Asia, where people with very short memories or very long political agendas accuse European colonialism of introducing homosexuality, when it has occurred in all cultures throughout human history.

While the outcome of the trial that followed Martinez’ murder is not discussed in the film, his killer, then-18-year-old Shaun Murphy, eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

While that might be slight justice for Fred, also known as F.C. or Frederica or, according to his mother, Beyoncé, he can rest easy knowing that he mobilized the Four Corners area, and created an activist out of his loving mother. She accepted Fred so completely that she had photos of him as both a boy and presenting as a girl on his casket at his funeral, a big move for an area like Cortez. She loved him unconditionally, and he knew it.

Two Spirits will show on PBS around June 14, although it is available for purchase now at Part of the reason for the dual availability is a simple goal: to see what would happen if six million people watched the film and changed their minds.




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