The movie begins with a close-up of a grave. “This is the story of a Navajo boy who was also a girl,” the narrator tells us. Fred Martinez, the subject of Two Spirits, is no longer with us. The small audience is seated on fold-out chairs in the main living area of the First Peoples’ House of McGill, watching the projection of the movie intently, entranced. Two Spirits is itself part of a larger Indigenous Educational Series run by the Social Equity & Diversity Office (SEDE) in partnership with the First Peoples’ House, Indigenous Access McGill, and the McGill Faculty of Law. I arrive half-expecting to watch a ponderous documentary dealing with Indigenous identity and awareness, but what I saw changed me.
We see beautiful panning shots of indigenous land, and then a deep male voice intones, “in the Navajo world, everything has a gender. The mountains are masculine, and the deep valleys are feminine.” We soon learn more about the Navajo conception of gender. They believe there are four basic genders rather than two: the familiar male and female, but also the feminine man and the masculine woman. They call these people Two-Spirits.
As an introduction, we are given an overview of several Naadleh (Navajo feminine men) who were revered members of Fred’s community. We are shown apothecaries, spirit guides, matchmakers, and a trans* man, We Wah, who was a respected Navajo diplomat to Washington, D.C. Pansexuality is still a concept that mainstream North American society has trouble comprehending. The Navajo have no such limitations. It is surprising and shameful that our supposedly progressive society has not caught up with the Navajo’s concept of gender and sexuality: the Navajo were marrying Naadleh men long before Stonewall.
Essentially, these beliefs were corrupted by the imposition of Christian ideas about gender and sexuality. One Indigenous man admits that the Navajo youth at the time, the turn of the 20th century, “were having their culture rubbed out of them” in an attempt to make them conform to their heteronormative, white, English-speaking peers.
Finally, after a lengthy, albeit highly educational introduction to the gender and sexuality beliefs of the Navajo, we get to young Fred’s story, set in a small town outside of Cortez, Colorado. According to a family friend, Fred identified as gay. Fred used his mother’s make-up, borrowed his mother’s purses, and sometimes went by “Frederica.” Sometimes Fred was bullied and assaulted at school, or sent home for wearing women’s clothing. In one such incident, his mother went to his principal’s office to defend her son. A girl had been wearing the same shoes as her son. “Why can that girl wear those here and my son can’t?” she asked. Still, he hid many other abuses from his mother, likely contributing to his first failed suicide attempt. “Why did you do that?” his mother asked him. “Because people hate me,” he replied.
Interestingly, Fred’s family and the people around him never stuck a label on him. They never called him gay, or trans*, or even queer. “He was just Fred,” a neighbour asserts. Sometimes, we take our society’s labels for granted. One Two-Spirit Navajo woman interviewed says that it is not a question of tolerance, but of actually belonging. People can be tolerant of someone who differs from their perception of the norm, but that doesn’t mean they respect this person, or want to welcome them into their lives.
One night, Fred told his mother that he was going to an annual carnival that was held in Cortez, and that he’d be back right after. He never did. He was followed by one of his “friends,” chased into an unoccupied, shrub-infested area off the main road, and struck repeatedly in the head with a rock until he died of his injuries. His body was found five days later. According to the police report, there was little left of his face. His mother put two pictures of him on his coffin: one picture of him as a young man and another from a day where he presented as feminine, equally celebrating all of him. Fred died at the age of 16.
The movie ends, after a 65-minute run, and almost everyone in the audience has a tear-stained face. Although it suffers from fragmented editing, few documentaries have been so effective with such a tight budget – around $248,321, according to IMDb. Two Spirits is a difficult film to forget, as its graphic imagery etches itself deep in the mind of the viewer. It’s hard not to be moved by this tragic biography of someone who only wanted to be himself in a world where people fight difference and celebrate conformity.