Tomorrow night Independent Lens (PBS) will air the documentary Two Spirits about the brutal murder of a lovely transgendered boy in the Four Corners area in 2001.  You can check for local listings.

This is surprisingly hard to write even a decade later.  Researching and remembering have caused my heart to torque again, and my throat to close in sorrow, rage and bewilderment; it’s as if it all happened recently, and images and words are colliding in my mind and body; few of them have found resolution because hate crimes like this still happen today.

From the Independent Lens website:

Two Spirits interweaves the tragic story of a mother’s loss of her son with a revealing look at the largely unknown history of a time when the world wasn’t simply divided into male and female and many Native American cultures held places of honor for people of integrated genders.

Fred Martinez was nádleehí, a male-bodied person with a feminine nature, a special gift according to his ancient Navajo culture. He was one of the youngest hate-crime victims in modern history when he was brutally murdered at 16. Two Spirits explores the life and death of this boy who was also a girl, and the essentially spiritual nature of gender.

Two Spirits tells compelling stories about traditions that were once widespread among the indigenous cultures of North America. The film explores the contemporary lives and history of Native two-spirit people — who combine the traits of both men and women with qualities that are also unique to individuals who express multiple genders.

The Navajo believe that to maintain harmony, there must be a balanced interrelationship between the feminine and the masculine within the individual, in families, in the culture, and in the natural world. Two Spirits reveals how these beliefs are expressed in a natural range of gender diversity. For the first time on film, it examines the Navajo concept of nádleehí, “one who constantly transforms.”

In Navajo culture, there are four genders; some indigenous cultures recognize more. Native activists working to renew their cultural heritage adopted the English term “two-spirit” as a useful shorthand to describe the entire spectrum of gender and sexual expression that is better and more completely described in their own languages. The film demonstrates how they are revitalizing two-spirit traditions and once again claiming their rightful place within their tribal communities.

Two Spirits mourns the young Fred Martinez and the threatened disappearance of the two-spirit tradition, but it also brims with hope and the belief that we all are enriched by multi-gendered people, and that all of us — regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or cultural heritage — benefit from being free to be our truest selves.

Fred’s mother Pauline Mitchell had alerted the local police on June 16 that her son had disappeared.  When the body of a dead, bludgeoned-by-rock and teen was found south of Cortez, she wasn’t notified until five days later.  The ensuing investigation and lack of communication with Pauline was callous to the point of cruelty, and only with the aid of coverage by Aspen Emmet and Gail Binkley at the local Cortez Journal, the local and national PFLAG groups and other LGBT organizations who sent people to help, was the ongoing process made more transparent.

It was a fraught time within the LGBT community, too: some gay community members did interviews for local news that made other members writhe with discontent at having their heretofore community spotlighted so directly; some of the bad blood may still exist today.

Local elected officials in Cortez pretended none of it was happening.  I remember reading the Mayor’s own news section in the paper that week; he actually spotlighted a group of Christian teens that had zipped into town to do chores for the elderly or something: that was what he chose to write about instead.  When I went to his office to task him for it, his excuses were pathetic.  He didn’t show up for Fred’s memorial service, nor did any representatives from the police or sheriff’s office as far as I know.

Remembering the service in Parque de Vida has me weeping all over again.  Matthew Shepard’s mama, Judy spoke.  Too hard; too hard…and a couple other moms of murdered gay teens.  You can read about it here.

One vivid memory I hold is of a Navajo friend, the foster son of an older friend of mine beside the stage weeping inconsolably through the service.  A month or two earlier, the gay mayor of our small town had come to me and asked if I might speak to his foster mom about his being gay; the local gay men were concerned that as his homosexuality was becoming clearer, she needed to be prepared to hear that he was, in fact, gay.  They wanted her to be prepared to support him.  I spoke with her reticently; she flipped out, to make a long story short, and denied it.  His public weeping at Fred’s memorial service served as his was his de facto coming out.  Foster Mom heard about it, and rarely spoke to me again.  The poor dear boy’s life got more complicated from that day, needless to say.

A couple links for more information or remembrance: From bilerico, ‘The Last thing Fred Saw’; from Families United Against Hate, their Fred Martinez page.  The Tampa Bay Coalition has a news roundup of the events.   The Durango Herald covers the ten-year anniversary, including quotes by Gail Binkly, now editor of the Four Corners Free Press, and local efforts of PFLAG in the schools.

He was a brave and wonderful kid from all accounts, and his mother loved him with all her heart.  None of who hear his story will forget him or his mother, who now speaks for him at other kids’ services.

(I apologize if this is disjointed or incoherent, and contains too much of my angst and anger; I just wanted you all to be able to see the film, and hear Fred’s story.)  It was written by a long-ago friend, Russel Martin, author of several good books, one on his nephews journey with autism: Out of Silence, who has since moved to Denver and is (perhaps) married to the director, Linda Nibley.)

Shaun Murphy pled guilty to second-degree murder; Judge Sharon Hanson sentenced him to forty years in prison.

Here’s the film’s trailer:

(cross-posted at