The Navajo used the word “nádleehí” to describe people who embodied both masculine and feminine traits. They were among the hundreds of Native communities that celebrated and revered tribe members who lived outside binary male/female restrictions. As today’s Native communities fight to revitalize the culture that was beaten out of them, gay and transgender Natives are reclaiming this aspect of their ancestry by identifying as two-spirit –- a unifying term that serves as a catch-all for the many variations of sexuality and gender identity.
Two-spirit people were seen as a gift in Native American culture, viewed as a third gender with a heightened spiritual connectedness and a significant role to play. However, the forced Western colonization injected tribal communities with strong anti-gay attitudes that, for the most part, continue to reign supreme today. As two-spirits try to reclaim their historical culture, it is vital for the LGBT community to start paying attention to history as well.
I had the honor of speaking with seasoned two-spirit activist Richard LaFortune, whose wisdom made it painfully clear how shortsighted the LGBT civil rights movement has become. While much of the current focus is on the state-by-state status of legal relationship recognition, LaFortune reveals that many Native cultures enjoyed marriage equality for same-sex couples well before European settlers arrived. It isn’t surprising that anti-gay activists didn’t bother to consult Native American history before constantly regurgitating “marriage has always been between one man and one woman” talking points.
A rich history of equality does not equal an immediate connection to today’s gay movement for equality. LaFortune says most mainstream gay agenda items are illegible to him. Much of his organizing and activism is built on community building issues like environmental justice, women’s rights, elderly rights, and culture revitalization. “I’m not interested in marriage equality, I’m more concerned if we are going to have air to breathe in 20 years,” LaFortune asserts.
LaFortune is featured in a new documentary entitled “Two Spirits,” which premiered last weekend at the Starz Denver Film Festival. The film details the horrific 2001 murder of two-spirit Colorado teen Fred Martinez. Never heard of him? You’re not alone. While other hate crimes have garnered massive amounts of national media attention, the story of this transgender Native from rural Colorado has received little play from either mainstream media or the gay press.
This moving film focuses attention on a two-spirit community plagued by invisibility. LaFortune details the importance of this exposure, “[W]ithout visibility there is no attention, without attention there is no sympathy, and without sympathy there is no action.”
Please do your part to make sure that this film is seen and this culture celebrated. View the emotional trailer below and then join the movie's Facebook page to demand that it come to your city.
(Photo Courtesy of TwoSpirits.org)