Getting along in Cortez: in the aftermath of the matter of transgendered Navajo Fred Martinez Jr., a Colorado town faces its dark side, and Martinez's mother faces life without her bestfriend.
Before her 16-year-old son was murdered in Cortez, Colo., in June, Pauline Mitchell didn't know there was more than one word--the Navajo word nadleehi-to describe people like him.
"There's gay, lesbian, bisexual--and what's the other one, transgendered?" Mitchell says, after explaining that nadleehi, often translated as "two spirit," encompasses all of these words. "We just accepted F.C. for who he was."
But just who Fred C. Martinez Jr. was is the question residents of this southwest Colorado town of 8,000 have asked themselves since the young man's body was found June 21. And in their search for an answer, many of them have for the first time come face-to-face with the term nadleehi--and with all the different people and identifies the word represents.
A short distance from Colorado's Four Corners border with Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, Cortez is a dusty town surrounded by pinon-juniper forests, 14,000-foot peaks, and three Indian reservations--Navajo, Southern Ute, and Ute Mountain Ute. Its Main Street dotted by a Wal-Mart, a Safeway, and all of the major fast-food chains, it appears every bit an all-American town. But when you consider the white people's historically bad treatment of Native Americans--and the fact that Utes at one time enslaved Navajos, and vice versa--it's not difficult to imagine how the melting pot in this all-American town might boil over.
"Cortez is a good community, but it has been my experience after living here 20 years that there are definite conflicts between Indians and whites," says Mark Larson, who represents Cortez in the state house of representatives. "We had [an incident in which] high school youth beat a Ute Indian to death in the park several years ago. And we had another incident where a couple of youths beat another Indian to near death."
But none of that history kept Martinez--a proud Navajo--in the closet. Friends always assumed that he might be gay, and his mother says she knew for three or four years that he was nadleehi. But it wasn't until summer 2000, right before his freshman year at Montezuma-Cortez High School, that the 6-foot-tall, 200-pound Martinez started to let his dark hair down and live in a manner that felt natural to him.
"He just started wearing makeup. He liked girl stuff," Mitchell says. "He felt good and he felt happy for being that way. And he said to his brothers and me, 'If you don't like the way I am, go ahead and tell me right now.' But nobody said anything."
Not at home, anyway. Friends, however, say Martinez was a frequent target of verbal harassment at school, and Mitchell says her son was sent home by school officials for painting his nails, plucking his eyebrows, and wearing makeup. "He would say to me, 'People don't like me for the way I am,'" she says. "And I would just tell him, 'Sonny, you just have to be yourself.'"
Dee Goodrich knows how difficult it must have been for Martinez to be himself. Goodrich, who is 26, is both Navajo and nadleehi. He grew up in Cortez and, until a couple of years ago, dressed almost exclusively as a woman.
"My sister was real traditional in her ways and was real active in the powwow circuit. I wanted to be just like her," says Goodrich, who performed as a female in powwow "jingle dances" and still designs stunning powwow costumes for his niece and others.
"Nadleehi is an old word for people who are blessed with the gift of being both a man and a woman at the same time. It's a sacred word," he says. "I always wanted to be like that. I always felt more feminine than I did masculine."
However, not all of Goodrich's classmates were privy to the same Native American teachings. And when Goodrich started to call himself Deanna, pluck his eyebrows, and powder his face, he was treated as anything but sacred. "No matter how many times I thought I was going to go to school and have a good day, I got harassed," he says; "faggot" was the slur most often tossed his way. "I felt secure the way that I was, so I didn't understand why people had to say what they said. For some reason some people just really wanted to knock me down."
Eventually Goodrich dropped out of school. He attended several beauty schools and lived for a time in Albuquerque and Phoenix. Today, he lives back with his mother in Cortez, and although he still identifies as nadleehi, he dresses only as a man. "You don't have to put on makeup, curl your hair, or shave your legs," he says. "I think I kind of grew out of it."
Halfway through his freshman year Martinez also dropped out of school and began attending adult education classes. He started to get counseling as well and, by most accounts, was at the same point in life's journey where most 16-year-olds find themselves--the point of trying to figure out who he was as a person.
But that journey, as newspapers across the country have reported, was cut short for him on June 16, when, according to police reports, he got into a car with 18-year-old Shaun Murphy after leaving a party they both attended. Nearly a week later Martinez was found dead less than a mile from his home, in an unofficial junkyard and teenage party spot known as "the Pits." His head was crushed in, and his throat, wrists, and stomach were slashed. Murphy, who is from Fammington, N.M., is now awaiting trial on charges of first- and second-degree murder.
Police and prosecutors have released very few details about the killing, saying they want to try Murphy in Cortez and don't want to taint the jury pool. And, as might be expected, the paucity of details has led many residents to try to fill in holes for themselves. Some suggest Martinez was attacked after expressing an attraction to Murphy. Others think marijuana was somehow involved. Still others wonder why Martinez couldn't escape the Pits, an area they say he knew well.
But the mystery has also given those in Cortez--a town grown accustomed to but not always comfortable with its racial differences--the opportunity to examine the less familiar subject of sexual identity.
The Cortez Journal editorial page has been ground zero for this debate. On August 11 the newspaper suggested residents be civil with each other when discussing the topic: "If we can talk about homosexuality without resorting to accusations and false characterizations, we will be better off."
Then on August 18, under the headline "Homosexuality Carries Risks," the Rev. Dennis Garrou of the Anglican Church of St. Philip the Evangelist stated, "The reason the Bible opposes homosexuality is because it is contrary to God's obvious design of human beings, now often with lethal consequences."
Most recently, on August 23, columnist Katharhynn Heidelberg took the "can't we all just get along" approach: "I can't begin to understand what business it is of mine how a young man chose to dress, whom my neighbors and friends sleep with, or what sex they may be attracted to."
A July 31 front-page story trumpeted that "Gays Find Support in Four Corners," telling the story of Cortez couple Alan Cook and John Peters-Campbell, who received phone messages from both a self-proclaimed "redneck" and a National Rifle Association member when Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998. Both callers said they would "take care of" anybody who made threats to Cook or Peters-Campbell.
As is often the case with the give-and-take over sexuality, it's helped open people's minds to each other's differences, says [arson. "The [murder] was the kind of intolerance that motivates people to take action," he says. In August, for example, the nearby Durango/Four Corners chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays held a school-safety workshop attended by Cortez school officials. Montezuma-Cortez High School principal Mark Rappe says he has now incorporated some of PFLAG's suggestions into the school's student handbook, including changing references to "boy-girl relationships" to "interpersonal relationships."
"I don't think this community talked [about homosexuality] before this episode," Rappe says. "I think it was a taboo subject because we're out here in the Wild West, with its rough-and-tumble cowboy image. But now it's being talked about."
However, Rappe still isn't saying he will allow boys to wear makeup at school. Declining to talk about the specifics of his experience with Martinez, he says similar situations will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, Sage Douglas Remington, an openly gay Southern Ute who lives on the reservation in nearby Ignacio, says the coverage of the Martinez murder may serve as a wake-up call for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people to recognize the diversity within their own ranks. "It's very chic for us to sleep with a lot of people of all different colors, but does that mean they are really a part of us?" asks Remington, who helped form the Two Spirit Society of Colorado in 1993. "Fred's death illustrated how much the gay and lesbian community needs to learn about itself. Hopefully, this will open the door to more understanding about what we really are made up of."
For his part, Larson hopes the murder also helps people in Colorado understand the need for enhanced protections in regard to sexual orientation and gender identity. The hate-crimes bill Larson proposed last year died in a house committee in April, but he plans to introduce a similar bill next session.
"It's a core value for me and a firm belief that you have to give freedom to get it," Larson says, explaining his support for the bill. "I probably don't understand the transgendered life. Last year, though, we had an excellent witness before the committee named Jesse, who is a male waiting for an operation to be female. When she--and I call her 'she' because that's what she wants to be called--went through the whole transgendered issue, I know that for a couple members on the committee, if they had a gun, Jesse would be (lead. But then, at the end of her testimony, Jesse said, 'Oh, by the way, I was a Vietnam ace jet pilot. I was also a POW. I served my country, and I paid the price. Now can you give me my freedom?'
"I just started crying," Larson says. "I don't understand them, and I don't expect them to understand me.... But I do know we didn't allow Fred to be him. I think he was fighting to be him."
As the people in Cortez wonder who Fred C. Martinez Jr. was, his mother simply mourns the boy who was her son and, in many ways, her best friend. "It's hard going around by myself. He would always make me laugh and smile. Always tell me, 'Mom, I love you.' He was my youngest, my baby. And I love him so much," she says, removing her glasses to wipe her eyes. "He wanted to be a dress designer or fix hair. He had a lot of wonderful years ahead of hun, and we lost out on what he would have become."
Find updates on the Fred Martinez Jr. murder and Shaun Murphy's trial at www.advocate.com
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|Title Annotation:||Hate crimes: a special report|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Oct 9, 2001|
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