A boy remembered

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A boy remembered

Transgender teen’s death 10 years ago remains a motivation for education about gender diversity
Fred Martinez, a transgendered youth from Cortez, was killed June 16, 2001, in what was prosecuted as a hate crime. Martinez was a male but often dressed in female clothing because he lived as “two-spirited.”
Pauline Mitchell is Fred Martinez’s mother. In this image from the film “Two Spirits,” Mitchell sits at her son’s makeshift marker at the site where he was killed in Cortez. The film retells the story about Martinez and his death at the hands of a man who targeted him for being transgender.
A poster for “Two Spirits,” a film about the life and death of Fred Martinez.

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 Martinez’s death, those conversations have ebbed and flowed, according to many in the community. But it’s 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 Martinez’s family, the media and the police in the weeks after his murder.

Ten years later, the details of Martinez’s 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 friend’s 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, Martinez’s 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.

Shedding light

In the initial days after Martinez’s 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 people’s 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 Martinez’s 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 teen’s 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, Martinez’s 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 Martinez’s 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 Martinez’s memory. “Two Spirits” examines not only Martinez’s 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 Martinez’s 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 Colorado’s 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 Martinez’s death to fade as time passes and people move in and out of the community, Weiss said. It just makes his organization’s work more vital, he said.

“It means that as an organization, it’s important that we continue to put it out there and let people know that this happened,” he said.

Our Sister’s 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.

“It’s really sad that we have to use a death to get the point. We shouldn’t ever have to do that, but I think we use (the death) as a means of helping people understand,” said Arlene Millich, the conference’s 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.”

ecowan@durango herald.com

A boy remembered

Fred Martinez, a transgendered youth from Cortez, was killed June 16, 2001, in what was prosecuted as a hate crime. Martinez was a male but often dressed in female clothing because he lived as “two-spirited.”
Pauline Mitchell is Fred Martinez’s mother. In this image from the film “Two Spirits,” Mitchell sits at her son’s makeshift marker at the site where he was killed in Cortez. The film retells the story about Martinez and his death at the hands of a man who targeted him for being transgender.
A poster for “Two Spirits,” a film about the life and death of Fred Martinez.
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