“Two Spirits” examines a hate crime in the context of Navajo two-spirit gender identity


If you do nothing else Tuesday evening, make sure you watch or record PBS’s Independent Lens, featuring the documentary Two Spirits.

Two Spirits is one of the most thought provoking and moving films I’ve seen in a long while. It’s the story of Fred Martinez, a Navajo “boy who was also a girl.” He was nádleehí, according to ancient Navajo culture — a male-bodied person with a female nature. (A female-bodied person with a male nature is dilbaa.) To be of integrated genders — two spirits — was a place of honor in the tribe. In fact, all gender differences were celebrated.

Fred was a typical little boy when he was young, wearing cowboy hats and following his dad around. But as he got older, he showed interest in his mother Pauline’s clothes and started wearing makeup and styling his hair.

The teen refused to settle into a fixed gender. (I’m using male pronouns strictly for convenience.) Fred woke up every day and asked, “Who do I want to be today?” Sometimes he was Fred, sometimes Fredericka, sometimes F.C. and sometimes Beyoncé.

When Fred gathered his family together to tell them that he planned to live openly as who he was, his oldest brother said, “Well, I’m just going to tell you: Be careful.” The warning was all too prescient.

Here’s the trailer:

Fred hitched a ride to a convenience store with Shawn Murphy and some friends after a carnival in Cortez, Colorado. Later, Murphy tracked down Fred and chased him into the rocky hills, where Murphy brutally beat him to death with a rock. Five days passed before some kids happened upon the body. Murphy pled guilty to second-degree murder and got close to the maximum sentence: 40 years in prison.

Two Spirits is the story of a horrible hate crime, to be sure. But the film doesn’t sensationalize the brutality in order to make an impact. The tone is gentle and respectful. What makes the movie so powerful is the contrast between the Native American tradition of honoring Two-Spirits and the way modern society ostracizes difference. The realization that an entire culture once embraced the freedom to express the entire spectrum of gender and sexuality leaves us wondering exactly which way civilization is moving.

By the way, be sure to watch through the credits so you won’t miss Patti Smith’s powerful “Gone Again.” As someone who expresses gender fluidity in her art and life, Smith sings with the kind of energy that will make you feel empowered to live as exactly who you are. And that, after all, is what Two Spirits is all about.

In many PBS markets, Two Spirits will air at 10 p.m. ET, but check your local listings to be sure. Some areas are having special public screenings as well. To find out more about the film, check out the Two Spirits website.

Will you watch Two Spirits? Once you’ve seen it, come back and give us your thoughts.

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