Review: Young Navajo at the Crossroads: Reflections on Lydia Nibley’s Two Spirits

On Tuesday, June 14, at 9 p.m., KLRU will air award-winning director Lydia Nibley’s moving documentary, Two Spirits. It was recently the last film in this season’s Community Cinema screenings. Using reenactments and interviews, Nibley presents a portrait of a 16-year-old Navajo, Fred Martinez, from his early years immersed in his people’s traditional culture in the rural West to his life as a rambunctious high school student in the small town of Cortez, Colorado. It is the story of his life as a nadleehi, a “feminine man” revered by traditional Navajos as a balance of the masculine and feminine in nature. He (I’m using the pronoun favored in the film) can also be understood as a “two-spirit” person, integrating the male and female genders, or as a transgendered person whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned at his birth. However we define Martinez, he fully embraced his identity, standing at the crossroads of male and female, Navajo and mainstream America. Yet, as two-spirit activist Richard (Anguksuar) LaFortune notes, “The place where two discriminations meet is a dangerous place to be.” Two Spirits sensitively recounts the prejudice and hate the resilient Martinez faced everyday. Ultimately, this hate culminated in his brutal murder at the hands of 18-year-old Shaun Murphy, who later bragged that he had “beat up a fag.” Prosecutors hesitated to charge Murphy with a hate crime. Eventually, he pled guilty to second-degree murder and received a 40-year sentence.

Martinez’s mother, Pauline, asks at one point, “Why are people killed for being who they are?” As Nibley tells Fred’s story, she sets out to answer his mother’s question. The director squarely places the blame on Western culture, particularly Christianity, and its dualist concept of gender. Rooted in a literalist reading of Genesis, it claims that people are only male and female, and nothing in between. Nibley contrasts this with an explication of the Navajo understanding of four genders, ranging from the asdzaan, or “feminine woman,” to the nadleehi. Mainstream Americans and Christianized Navajos, she suggests, lack a nuanced understanding of gender and so respond with hostility to transgendered people. Such sweeping generalizations, however, are a major problem for Two Spirits.

While rightly criticizing certain Christian churches for their narrow and damaging understandings of gender and sexuality, Nibley broadly paints all of Western culture as a two-dimensional villain, a straw man set up only to be knocked down. History, however, provides evidence of a more complicated understanding in the West than she offers. Nibley could’ve mentioned, for example, the “Boston marriage” in nineteenth-century America. Here, two women would live in the same household, with one taking the traditionally masculine role and wearing men’s clothing. Such relationships were more common than many today realize and were often tolerated, looked upon with everything from humor to affection by their neighbors. In setting up this straw man, then, the film effectively obliterates the lives of LGBTQ people from Western history, a history that scholars and activists have long struggle to reclaim. Furthermore, Nibley fails to comment on or provide evidence of the growing acceptance of transgendered people among other contemporary Americans.

The point is that a more nuanced approach might have greatly helped Nibley in answering the question, “Why are people killed for being who they are?” She never fully explores Murphy’s motivations in the killing. In fact, her film presents them as fairly murky. She leaves the viewer to conclude instead that the influence of Western dualism lies behind such deeds. Yet, Nibley nowhere draws a direct connection between that and the killer. She doesn’t provide evidence that Murphy was Christian, for example. A drug dealer, he doesn’t seem to be someone who takes the teachings of Christianity—right or wrong—very seriously. We know that not every Christian hates transgendered people, let alone publically insults or even kills them. Something more had to be behind the killing. By delving more deeply into that problem and spending less time on broad generalizations, Nibley probably could’ve made her sparse account of the murder and Murphy’s plea bargain weightier, more insightful and more helpful.

An even greater problem for Nibley is her apparent equation of being transgendered with being gay or lesbian. While it is true that Martinez was attracted to men, this isn’t the case for every transgendered person. Being transgendered is as much or more a matter of gender identity than sexual attraction. There are men who are married, identify as transgendered and often express that by dressing in women’s clothing. Sometimes the wife is aware; sometimes she isn’t. (Just last year, at another Community Cinema screening, I met a man who occasionally assumes a feminine identity and who is openly and happily supported by his wife.) If equating gender identity with sexual orientation is part of the Navajo tradition, perhaps Nibley could’ve made that clearer. However, the concept of the nadleehi is so nuanced that I wonder if that is the case. By making transgendered synonymous with gay, Nibley limits our understanding of and does a disservice to the transgendered community.

In sum, then, Nibley misses an important opportunity to present an important story with the nuance and insight that her subject calls for. Fred Martinez was a beautiful, wonderful, strong person who lived bravely at the crossroads of two prejudices. I encourage everyone to watch Two Spirits for his story. Yet, his tragic end is couched in broad, paper-thin generalizations that may actually do more harm than good. So I also encourage everyone to avoid accepting Nibley’s wholly unsatisfying answer to Pauline’s question “Why are people killed for being who they are?”

— Scott Hoffman

About the Review: Scott Hoffman currently works on the programming department of KLRU-TV. An independent scholar, he has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue. He recently published a paper, “‘Last Night I Prayed to Matthew:’ Matthew Shepard, Homosexuality and Popular Martyrdom in Contemporary America,” in Religion and Popular Culture. He is currently revising his manuscript, Haloed by the Nation: Popular Martyrdom in Contemporary America. He also volunteers at the Austin History Center, cataloging its LGBT holdings.