Two Spirits in Out Front Colorado Magazine

‘Two Spirits’ – The Fred Martinez Story

By Matt Kailey


That the world premiere of the film Two Spirits, about the murder of Navajo teenager Fred Martinez, will take place at the Starz Denver Film Festival on November 21 is fitting for several reasons.

November is Native American Heritage Month, established to pay tribute to the history and traditions of Native American people. And Fred Martinez, or F.C., as he was often called by family and friends, lived and died in Cortez, Colorado. Many of those involved in the conception, production and distribution of the film are also from Colorado, and the filming of Two Spirits took place primarily in Colorado. Fred’s mother, Pauline Mitchell, who still lives in Cortez, is featured prominently in the film.

The concept of “two spirit,” a word used by many of Native American heritage, does not translate well into Western ideas and thinking. “Gay,” “transgender” or “genderqueer” are Western words, and possibly the closest things that Western culture has to the notion of “two spirit.” But these words, and these concepts, do not adequately convey the idea.

According to Wesley Thomas, considered the foremost expert on the subject of the Navajo nadleehi tradition, the Navajo recognize four genders: the feminine woman, the masculine man, the male-bodied person who has a feminine essence (nadleehi) and the female-bodied person who has a masculine essence (dilbaa). In the traditional Navajo culture, nadleehi or dilbaa children often grow up to take on important cultural or spiritual roles within the community.

Fred was, according to his mother and others in the film, generally unconcerned about his gender identity or sexual orientation and simply lived as himself, frequently reflecting his female essence.


His mother remembers a happy child – happy with his family, his friends and himself – with big goals and dreams for the future. His own self-acceptance could have made an important difference in the world around him as he continued to grow and mature. But in June 2001, Fred went missing and on June 21, his body was found – brutally beaten, his skull fractured. He was 16.

Eighteen-year-old Shaun Murphy was arrested and later convicted of the murder. Murphy had apparently bragged that he had “bug-smashed a fag.” It is not unusual for those who attack gender-diverse people to use anti-gay language either during or after the crime, which is a strong signifier of a bias-motivated attack.

But as reported by the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, Pauline Mitchell, in a statement made at Murphy’s sentencing hearing on July 3, 2002, said, in part: “He was killed because he was different. To some people, Fred said he was ‘transgender,’ to others ‘gay,’ to some ‘Nadleeh,’ (nadleehi), a Native American word for people who live in the worlds of both female and male. To me, these labels mean nothing – and they meant nothing to F.C. He used these terms to make other people comfortable, not himself. You should also know that those ‘other people’ did not include his family. We loved F.C. exactly as he was – and it is so sad that fear and hate of difference put young people like Fred and many others in the path of danger and violence.”

Now Colorado audiences will learn Fred’s story and the two spirit traditions of the Navajo people firsthand. And Two Spirits director, co-producer and co-writer Lydia Nibley was available to answer some questions about the film in preparation for its premiere at Starz.


Matt Kailey: How has Two Spirits been received so far?
Lydia Nibley
: In test screenings, straight audiences have found the ideas about gender and sexuality in the film revolutionary. LGBT audiences have been incredibly enthusiastic, and two-spirit audiences have been very proud of the film. We also tested it with a conservative religious crowd to see what would happen, and Two Spirits sparked a humane and respectful discussion, so it will be interesting to see how things evolve as the film is released throughout the world.

MK: Why is this film important now, so long after Fred Martinez’s murder?
: Fred was murdered just two years after Matthew Shepard, and his case received far less attention – even in Colorado. But I think Fred’s story and the other stories in the film will remain relevant and timeless because they are so universal. Two Spirits is about the deep love of a parent for a child, the need to live authentically, the importance of being free to express gender and sexuality as a fundamental human right, the value of balancing the masculine and feminine, and the trauma of a murder on those left behind.

MK: Have things gotten better?
: Violence against LGBT people has increased in the past few years in the U.S., and there are places in the world where people are publicly executed for being gay. So while progress is clearly being made in some places, there’s also a great deal to be done to establish LGBT equality worldwide. When my husband and co-producing partner Russell Martin and I began working on this film a few years ago, we were sometimes asked why we cared – did we have a gay child? The movement seems much larger and stronger now. People of goodwill are galvanized around the issue and there’s a sense that we are all responsible to make change. Anything less than full equality for LGBT people is totally unacceptable to a growing majority.

 MK: What is the most important thing that you hope viewers will take away?
: I hope people are moved and that they will think about gender and sexuality differently. The film shows the ways in which our lives are all enriched by multi-gendered people, and I hope the feeling someone takes away from the experience is that, regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or cultural heritage, we must be free to be our truest selves.
MK: Anything else you would like to say?
: A film like Two Spirits relies on people spreading the word within their networks of friends, families and colleagues. Our first priority has been to make an artful and compelling film, and the second is to make certain it reaches people and does its job in the world. This has been a community effort from the beginning, and that will continue throughout the life of the film. … We’ve all sensed that the film can really get to people at an emotional level. And that’s the way to lead people to think about gender from a fresh perspective. We can find ways to move beyond the wounds of the past to address what it will take to heal them.