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Movie Review: Two Spirits

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The Navajo people are part of the organic fabric of this country and their DNA runs through the veins of most red-blooded Americans. We have acquired and borrowed many words from a people who have their own dialect, food, culture, and artistic achievement with distinct gifts welcomed by American culture. To that end they have added their collective voices to the debate over the identity or identities found within the politically correct term LGBT community.

Independent Lens documentary Two Spirits beautifully tells the story of the short life and brutal death of 16-year-old Navajo boy named Fred Martinez. Along with that storyline the writer and director also present a less well-known spiritual belief surrounding the Navajo word nadleehi. It includes the understanding of what it means to have two spirits, or an equally strong masculine and feminine brain. In their traditional culture such a one is honored; seen as both counselor and healer–the two spirits person is not shunned or derided.

Understanding two spirits is essential and their word nails it. Androgyny suggests a state of mind or body found between the masculine and feminine and lack of distinction, but two spirits means something deeper and more esoteric. The Navajo believe in four genders: feminine woman, masculine man, feminine man, and masculine woman. And this film mines that belief.

Fred’s life as told through the words of his mother and family friend reveals a child who was giving and looking and finding himself in two bodies–one female one male. And his daily life reflected that reality because some days he would dress and look strikingly girlish especially after he learned to style his hair and apply makeup. Other days he would resemble a boy wearing baggy jeans and T-shirts. Achieving a level of physical beauty became important to Fred and he relished his chameleon appearance.

Two Spirits also includes personal experiences recounted by other Navajo men and women who live as openly gay individuals. Most of them were told that they were different from day one; from the beginning something was seen in their life as a power that comes with full participation in Navajo culture. Along with a discussion of two spirits the film includes human sexuality and its complex nature that Western culture wants to box neatly into two genders and one means of copulation between a masculine man and a feminine woman. This film discusses how the straight and narrow path of sexuality has been shattered by the Navajo who held marriage ceremonies between gay people long before it resonated in Western culture and becomes a teachable hour on the subject.

Fred is adventurous and loves to mix and mingle with everybody and is not
afraid to go into town. His mother worries about him because of discrimination
against her son that she knows will collide: his brown skin and his feminine
side that he does not hesitate to display. Just as he was disciplined at school
for wearing clothes of his choice, his non-conformity was not appreciated by his peers or by the school’s administration, and the town at large will not want him either. Fred was headed for a deadly confrontation that he did not see coming.

Fred went to town for a regional rodeo and carnival and never returned. That
night he went with friends to the rodeo where Sean Murphy also went with friends. It is believed that Fred got a ride to the convenience store with Sean and friends who went to an apartment but decided to go out again. Was he tracking Fred? No one is sure but later his body was found with a crushed skull from two nearby large rocks that Sean used to kill Fred. The murder was investigated as a hate crime (a crime which is committed against an entire community) but Sean pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and sentenced to 40 years in prison, which satisfied justice.

While Two Spirits may not redefine what marriage means in this country for staunch Christians–it can reshape key concepts about human individuality that includes sexuality and embraces gender identification not gender confusion.


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