It was a death that brought this quiet corner of Southwest Colorado into the confluence of raging issues about hate crimes, gender violence and long-standing prejudices against minority, homosexual and transgendered people.
Ten years ago, 16-year-old Cortez resident Fred Martinez was murdered, bashed repeatedly with a heavy rock held by a man he met just that night. In what came to be central aspects of his death, Martinez was Navajo and described himself as two-spirited, a distinctly Native American term describing those who engender a male spirit and a female spirit.
His death became another addition to a harrowing stream of hate crimes that have shocked the public with their brutality while also sparking unique conversations about two-spirited people and acts of intolerance against them.
In the years since Martinezs death, those conversations have ebbed and flowed, according to many in the community. But its likely they never would have started without the death of the teenager who liked to call himself Beyoncé, after the popular singer.
Nothing had sparked that conversation at that level before, especially in the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, said Cathy Renna, one of the key lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists who worked with Martinezs family, the media and the police in the weeks after his murder.
Ten years later, the details of Martinezs death remain fuzzy.
He was last seen the night of June 16, 2001, when he went to the Ute Mountain Roundup Rodeo. From what officials pieced together, Martinez first met 18-year-old Farmington resident Shaun Murphy at a party on the night of the rodeo. Later, Murphy and a friend gave Martinez a ride as they were headed to a friends apartment. The men dropped off Martinez before they reached the apartment, but later that night, Murphy and Martinez met again. The reason remains unclear.
Five days later, Martinezs body was found in a rocky canyon off a dirt road in town, his bludgeoned body barely identifiable.
Murphy pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in jail. According to an anonymous tip, Murphy had bragged that he had beat up a fag that night.
In the initial days after Martinezs death, there were some tendencies in the community to ignore the murder, Renna said. But as the story developed and gained more media attention, it began to turn heads.
It brought an issue normally hidden in shadows into the forefront of peoples thinking, said Gail Binkly, co-owner and editor of the Four Corners Free Press in Cortez. Binkly covered the story for the Cortez Journal, where she was working at the time.
It brought it out into the open a lot more, and it probably did do some informing of people who may not have thought about these issues beforehand, issues like what it would be like to be a Native American teen in the local community who was either gay or transgendered, Binkly said.
After hearing Martinezs story, people in the Native American LGBT community started to better understand the history of two-spirited people and reclaim that word and identity, Renna said.
For the local gay and lesbian community, the murder acted as a harsh reality check, said Greg Weiss, chairman of the Four Corners Gay and Lesbian Alliance for Diversity.
It kind of woke the gay and lesbian community up that something like this could happen here, Weiss said.
Shocked into action
Spurred by the teens death, several groups including the alliance and the Four Corners Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), teamed up to form a safe schools coalition. Their work focused on diversity training and anti-discrimination projects in the schools.
The coalition disbanded after a few years, but it did succeed in establishing a strong and vibrant gay-straight alliance at Durango High School, said Martha Elbert, president of the local PFLAG group.
Because of the gay-straight alliance, there is more dialogue now at DHS, said Elbert, who has two sons at the high school. I see a change in the climate, and I would attribute it to the GSA.
In Cortez, Martinezs death forced schools to re-examine how they deal with transgendered and two-spirited people and revise some of their previous policies, Binkly said.
On a national level, the news of Martinezs death reinforced a movement begun after the 1998 murder of Matthew Shephard, a gay man in Laramie, Wyo., to categorize such murders as hate crimes, Weiss said.
Federal legislation to extend the definition of hate crimes to include those based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability was passed in 2009.
Taking his story to film
The same year, a documentary breathed new life into Martinezs memory. Two Spirits examines not only Martinezs story but also the broader context of the two-spirit gender identity. It will air on PBS as part of the Independent Lens series on Tuesday. The hope among activists is that the film will continue the legacy of Martinezs memory, Renna said.
Since it premiered, the documentary has helped spread awareness about the two-spirit identity, a concept that traditionally has been very accepted in many Native American cultures, said Sage Remington, a Southern Ute tribal member and co-founder of Colorados Two Spirit Society. Ten years ago, no one knew about two-spirited people, but now there is a growing awareness in the non-Indian community, Remington said.
Keeping the memory alive
Inevitably, there will be tendency for memories of Martinezs death to fade as time passes and people move in and out of the community, Weiss said. It just makes his organizations work more vital, he said.
It means that as an organization, its important that we continue to put it out there and let people know that this happened, he said.
Our Sisters Keeper Coalition, a local organization working to end violence against Native American women and children, is carrying on a similar message at its annual Two Spirit Wellness Conference that happened Thursday and Friday.
Its really sad that we have to use a death to get the point. We shouldnt ever have to do that, but I think we use (the death) as a means of helping people understand, said Arlene Millich, the conferences organizer. We need to be more open and welcoming to these people because they are our brothers and sisters. Sometimes we forget that when it comes to two-spirit people.
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