Film explores death of transgendered Colorado teen

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By Joe Hanel
Denver, Colorado (AP) 12-09

Fred Martinez was anything but simple.

He was, at various moments, a boy, a girl, a Navajo, a Montezuma-Cortez High School student, gay, transgendered, “nadleehi.”

In June 2001, in a ravine just south of Cortez, he became a murder victim.

Now, he’s the subject of a movie, and, if the filmmakers have their way, he will become a window onto a view of gender that is at once new to American society and older than America itself.

“Two Spirits: Sexuality, Gender and the Murder of Fred Martinez” premiered Nov. 21 at the Starz Film Festival in Denver. Filmmakers plan to take it to southwest Colorado, and they are in talks with the Durango Independent Film Festival. They haven’t scheduled a showing yet.

The makers of “Two Spirits” hope the movie will shine the spotlight on Fred and his identity the way his death never did.

“There really is a redemptive piece of this, which is why we were interested in making the film,” said Lydia Nibley, the director.

Martinez’s mother, Pauline Mitchell, is one of the main characters in the one-hour documentary. She attended the premiere and took the stage afterward, wearing a rainbow pride flag pin and holding back tears as the audience of 500 applauded.

Fred showed his differences as a child, Mitchell says in the film. He wanted her purses. He wore makeup.

As a teenager, Fred resisted categorizing himself, calling himself gay and transgendered, dressing as both a boy and a girl. He told his mother he wanted to be both.

She told him there was a word for him in Navajo – “ndleehi.” It’s the third of the four Navajo genders, used for a person with a male body and female character traits.

But Mitchell knew little else about it. Most Navajo lost the concept of multiple genders, along with large parts of their culture, when their children were shipped off to government boarding schools starting in the late 1800s, said Richard LaFortune of Minneapolis, an organizer of “Two Spirits” gatherings.

LaFortune’s mission is to recover that lost history. He helps organize an annual gathering that coined the English phrase “two spirits” to convey a concept found in most native languages.

Native people had gay marriage long before European settlement of the continent, he said. From his point of view, traditional values make room for a broad range of gender identities.

Not only that, two-spirit people usually were given honored places in the community, serving as counselors and caretakers of orphans.

“You stand at the crossroads of two points of discrimination. It’s a dangerous place to be. You stand at the crossroads of two genders, and it can be a gift,” LaFortune says in the film.

The film’s director hopes the idea won’t be raided by the non-Indian community.

“We want to be inspired by this without appropriating it,” Nibley said. “What we need to make sure doesn’t happen is a bunch of white people run around calling themselves two-spirited.”

The last time Mitchell saw her son, he was leaving the house to go to the Ute Mountain Roundup rodeo in Cortez. Five days later, neighborhood kids found his body while playing outside. He was 16.

Gail Binkly, who at the time was a Cortez Journal editor, appears in the movie to tell about the crime and the investigation.

Martinez was beaten to death with rocks. At the premiere, sniffles and sighs were audible during the re-enacted murder scene.

Shaun Murphy of Farmington, N.M., pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and got a 40-year prison sentence. Now 26, he will be eligible for parole in October 2019, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Cathy Renna of New York City enters the film after Fred’s murder. Local activists called her in for her expertise on the aftermath of hate crimes. Renna still remembers flying into Cortez that summer afternoon.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why do I always have to go to these beautiful places for such horrible things?”’ Renna said.

Two years earlier, Renna was in Laramie, Wyo., after the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was tied to a fencepost on the prairie and beaten to death. His killing made national news and spawned a famous play, “The Laramie Project.”

But Renna had a lot to learn about the Fred Martinez case.

Nearly every one of the 200-plus native languages in North America have words for more than two genders. Some have as many as nine, said LaFortune.

Renna was used to the straightforward labels of her community, which sums up its identity in a neat acronym – GLBT or LGBT, for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered.

“It brought a level of nuance to the case that I hadn’t dealt with before,” Renna said.

Although the murder was covered extensively in the local news media, national reporters seemed uninterested, Renna said. The Washington Post did a big piece. There was a story in Teen People, and one in The Advocate. But even much of the gay media didn’t pay attention and couldn’t figure out how to describe Fred.

“It was a tremendous struggle to get both the media and the LGBT community to pay attention to Fred’s murder,” Renna said.

The movie crew filmed most of the Cortez scenes in summer 2007. Local people were supportive, Nibley said, and her film does not pick on Cortez. Hate crimes happen everywhere, and there’s nothing special about Cortez that allowed it to happen here, Renna said.

“It’s not Cortez’s fault that Fred was killed,” Renna said. “But there are people in Cortez who were taught to hate, same as in Laramie, same as in New York City, same as Puerto Rico, as we found out this week.”

A gay Puerto Rican teenager, Jorge Steven Lopez, was found decapitated on Nov. 13.

But nationally, and in Cortez, things are changing, Nibley said. The school where Fred once was punished for wearing girls’ shoes now has a gender-neutral dress code. The police force is trained in gender issues, she said.

Nibley, Renna and LaFortune took part in a panel discussion after the Denver premiere.

LaFortune said the film of Fred’s story shows the resiliency of both native and two-spirit cultures.

“The words and values you see shining through the life of Fred Martinez and his family is something that could not be extinguished by the last remaining superpower in human history,” LaFortune said. “It speaks not only to the rightness of it, but to the truth of its rightness.”