Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Death of a Two Spirit

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Death of a Two Spirit

Article excerpt

A Colorado town searches for answers in the senseless death of a transgendered Navajo teenager

Two framed photographs neatly flanked the carnations and roses adorning the coffin of Fred C. Martinez Jr. the day he was laid to rest in Cortez, Colo., on July 5, 2001, nearly three weeks after a savage beating ended his young life.

One photograph showed the 16-year-old Native American youth dressed as any typical high school boy might be: in a black T-shirt and with hair slickly parted on one side, an infectious smile lighting his face. The second showed Martinez with hair bobbed neatly behind his ears, left under his chin, made up as a girl.

The photography neatly sum up the two lives--both as a gay youngster and as a transgendered adolescent--Martinez tried to integrate valiantly and openly in this town of 8,000 people. But they also underscore the deep divisions that run like a fault line through this tiny frontier town located near the Navajo Nation, which has a half-million inhabitants.

In a town that is nearly 20% Native Americans, it seems residents of all ethinicities struggle to come to terms with the colliding cultures and the uneasy silence between the minorities. Not only do some residents say there is a divide between Native Americans and whites as well as gays and and straights, but some gay people say a similar chasm exists among members of their own small community. "I did not understand the gravity of [Martinez's] sense of malaise about his safety," says Alan Cook, an openly gay psychotherapist and the director of Cortez Addiction Recovery Services, who helped Martinez get counseling following a suicide attempt about six months ago. "I am a middle-class white male, and I didn't have insight into the part of the community that is young and Navajo and gay."

A complex portrait of Martinez has emerged from friends and acquaintances. Some say he identified with the Native American idea of "Two Spirit"--a homosexual, sometimes androgynous person with the spirit of both a man and a woman--which is viewed respectfully by many Native American cultures.

Martinez was over 6 feet tall, weighed about 200 pounds, and he often carried a purse and wore makeup and fingernail polish to school behavior for which administrators sometimes sent him home and for which he was frequently taunted and harassed by his peers.

But people say other students, particularly girls, adored him, and he was apparently well-supported by his family. A school counselor, Terri Helm, says Martinez had a slight learning disability and did not perform well academically, him to abandon high school in 2001, though he was trying to earn his general equivalency diploma.

Of course, none of this explains why this young person was murdered. And unfortunately, the investigation hasn't provided many answers either so far.

Many of the facts associated with Martinez's murder are still sketchy, although a few things can be pieced together from a police affidavit filed in early July. It appears that both Martinez and his alleged assailant, 18-year-old Shaun Murphy, attended the same party on June 16, following a town carnival. Though they allegedly did not know each other and left the party separately, Murphy, a resident of nearby Farmington, N.M., and two friends--who as of press time had not been implicated in the murder--later encountered Martinez while they drove past Montezuma-Cortez High School, where Martinez had been a student and which was near Martinez's home.

They offered him a ride and, after Martinez accepted, stopped at a convenience store. Murphy's two friends few minutes.

The trio then dropped Martinez off at a nearby corner, and one of the passengers, Clint Sanchez-whom police arrested several days later for possession of a gun--said, according to the police affidavit, "Do you think he thought we were gay or something?" The three then went to the apartment of the third passenger, Melissa Scharnhorst. …

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