Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Two Spirits (PBS “Independent Lens,” 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched Two Spirits, a PBS Independent Lens documentary on the murder of Fred Martinez, a 16-year-old man — though I use the term “man” advisedly because though he was born biologically male he was about as non-binary as one could imagine, so much so that he not only presented as a man in some settings and a woman in others but even when he was buried, the coffin at his memorial service was adorned with two photos, one of him as a man and one as a woman — who grew up on the Native American reservation near Cortez, Colorado and as a Navajo Indian (oddly filmmaker Lydia Nibley uses the term “Navajo” throughout most of the program even though Martinez himself and his mother identified themselves by the older traditional name of their tribe, “Diné”) identified with the tradition of the naheedli, or men who act out and/or take the gender roles of women, including having sex with men.

Native American traditions about variant sexual orientations and gender identities are usually identified with the term “two-spirit,” but though Nibley uses that as the title of her film she also acknowledges that Native American tribes that accepted homosexuality and Transgender identities had a much more sophisticated concept; in Navajo, the film explains, there are four genders — male-identified men, female-identified women, female-identified men and male-identified women. What’s most striking about this concept is that, despite the view in the mainstream (white) Queer community that sexual orientation and gender identity are two distinct phenomena, the Navajo tradition directly links them: a Gay or Lesbian sexual orientation necessarily implies one of those in-between gender identities as well — which leaves me to wonder what these societies would have made of most people who consider themselves Gay or Lesbian today: male-identified men who love men and female-identified women who love women. (This strikes home to me because there isn’t a damned thing female about me; I may not ever have cultivated the super-butch view of masculinity but I’ve never had any question about my gender identity — yes, I briefly went through a period in second and third grade where I wished I were a girl because it was considered O.K. for girls to be smart, to do well in school and not to be particularly athletic, but as an adult I’ve come to an understanding of myself that includes a Gay sexual orientation and a decidedly male gender identity.)

The narration in the film includes reference to the way younger Queer folk are less likely to regard either their sexual orientation or their gender identity as hard and fast — and yes, the word “fluid” gets used — and though there’s nobody profiled in the movie who’s as hard-core non-binary as to use the word “they” to describe themselves as an individual, there are quite a few people (and not all of them Native!) who see something of the Native concept of “two-spirit people” to describe themselves not only as Queer but as between or “other” than traditionally male or female. Two Spirits is a fascinating program because it really does explore a different way of looking at sexual orientation, gender identity and the interchange between them from the orthodoxy either of the mainstream straight community or the so-called “LGBT” community (an unlovely set of initials that draws harder and faster distinctions between Lesbians, Gay men, Bisexuals and Transgender people than the facts warrant — and also tries to shoehorn Bisexual and Transgender people into a biologically determined concept of sexual orientation, this whole nonsense about how we’re supposedly “born this way,” that the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people disconfirms).

The first two-thirds of Two Spirits is a fascinating bit of exploring these different sexual and gender possibilities — along with the usual enemies, Christianity and the education programs Native American children were forced into (often literally at gunpoint!) once their ranks had been decimated by the genocidal campaign the U.S. waged against them in the name of Lebensraum (when Adolf Hitler told Edward R. Murrow, “I’m just doing to the Jews what you did to the Indians,” he was 100 percent right!!); they were forced not only to accept a moralistic anti-sex and anti-Queer religion but were put into schools with others from different tribes to make sure they couldn’t talk to each other (since the schools also did a piss-poor job of teaching them English), so not only were the two-spirit traditions virtually lost but a whole generation of Native Americans grew up internalizing the anti-sex and anti-Queer values of Christianity (and, indeed, the Abrahamic tradition of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — what Gore Vidal calls “the sky-god religions” — in general) and shunning and sometimes disowning their Queer children just like Euro-Americans, African-Americans, Latino-Americans and Asian-Americans did — and the final third is the tragedy of Fred Martinez.

His fate has uncanny similarities to Matthew Shepard’s — he was targeted by a straight meth dealer who gave him a ride during Cortez’s annual rodeo/carnival, then for some reason the killer ran into him again later that evening, took him to an isolated canyon and bashed his head in with a rock, incapacitated him, then got a larger rock and finished the job, then boasted to his friends, “I just bug-smashed a faggot” — and his body was left in such a remote place it wasn’t found for five days. But it didn’t become a nationwide cause célèbre the way Shepard’s did, and I suspect it was because Matthew Shepard was white, cute and easily moldable into a pathetic victim image (ignoring Shepard’s own history of involvement with meth and his dealers/killers); Fred Martinez was a person of color, occupying a flexible concept of both sexual orientation and gender identity way beyond the limits of what mainstream Queers accept as legitimate, and therefore hardly the stuff poster children for hate-crimes legislation are made of: plenty of mainstream Gays and Lesbians are sufficiently Transphobic they would read a male-presenting Gay man like Matthew Shepard as an innocent victim while seeing Fred Martinez as someone who “brought it on himself” by being gender-indeterminate in the wrong place at the wrong time. (I consider myself fairly well informed on these issues and watching this show was the first time I had ever heard of Fred Martinez, Jr.)