BY Lesley Goldberg
November 19 2009 2:50 PM ET
The new documentary Two Spirits depicts the true story of Fred Martinez, a 16-year-old Colorado teenager slain for being a “two-spirit” -- a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit living in the same body. Director Lydia Nibley pauses ahead of the film’s November 21 world premiere at the Starz Denver Film Festival to discuss Martinez’s story and the nature of gender within Native American culture.
Advocate.com: How would you describe your film?
Lydia Nibley: [It’s about] a mother’s loss of her son and provides a revealing look at the history of a time when the world wasn’t simply divided into male and female, and many Native American cultures honored people of integrated genders. [It] explores the life and death of a boy who was also a girl, and makes the case that we need to return to traditional values. At age 16, Fred had begun to understand that his identity was a special gift according to traditional Navajo culture. He was nádleehí, which means a male-bodied person who has a feminine nature.
How many genders do the Navajo have?
There are four genders in Navajo culture -- the feminine woman, masculine man, nádleehí, and dilbaa`, a female-bodied person who has a masculine nature.
The idea of multiple genders isn’t very well known.
As the native experts in the film describe, many North American tribes have multiple gender systems. They believe that someone with a more complex experience of the masculine and feminine can bring a deeper understanding to negotiating conflict, counseling couples, parenting, healing, and serving as an ambassador. There are tribes with as many as seven or nine genders, and that reflects much more of the truth about the human family than a binary gender system, Adam and Eve, and that’s it.
Where does the term two-spirit come from?
The term "two-spirit" is sometimes used interchangeably with “LGBT,” but the spectrum of sexuality and gender as described in many Native languages and traditions goes beyond and between those four categories. Native people created a term in English that could help differentiate and describe this rich tradition. But it’s important not to appropriate the term, but to honor those who use it.
What prompted you to tell the story of Fred Martinez?
I’m convinced that telling powerful stories is one of the best ways to challenge bigotry and bring about change. I hope the film moves people and sheds light on an approach to sexuality and gender that can be absolutely revolutionary.