America has been pretty up-tight when it comes to gender roles for a long time, now, but that wasn’t always the case. The Navajo have long recognized four different gender identities, rather than two, and those who don’t fall into traditional, puritanical Eurocentric notions of gender identity are revered, rather than ostracized, or even killed, as was the case of Fred Martinez, the “youngest victim of a hate crime ever,” and the subject of the 2009 PBS documentary “Two Spirits.”
“The masculine and feminine are oftentimes reflected so completely in the body of one person, it’s as if they have two spirits,” Two-Spirit organizer Richard LaFortune said.
The documentary draws attention to what the Navajo call “nádleehí,” which is the confluence of the masculine and feminine within each person, sometimes resulting in what many consider “two-spirited” people – those born with one biological sex but who identify with another gender identity. Fred Martinez was nádleehí, born male but who identified as female. As “Two Spirits” points out in its opening, “In another time, [Martinez] would have been honored. Instead, he was murdered…” in 2001, at the age of 16 – all due to his two-spirited nature and gender identity.
Navajo scholar included in the documentary, Wesley Thomas, states, “In Navajo teaching, in the old traditional world, there were four basic genders. Women are the first gender, because Navajo is a matrilineal society. Men are the second gender; and the third gender is the nádleehí, who is born as a male person but functions in the role of a girl in early childhood and in the role of a woman in adulthood. And it’s just the opposite for the fourth gender,” Thomas adds, “where they were born biologically female but functioned in the role of a boy in early childhood and matured into a man, and conducts their life in that gender identity.”
“In Western culture, when they say ‘a girl,’ there’s an automatic assumption that that girl is female. Or when they see a boy, they never pause to think that boy may be female,” Thomas points out.
Mainstream America, however, would like a clear-cut Ken and Barbie illusion maintained, complete with missing genitalia to keep us all from thinking of those “naughty” parts. And if you do get America thinking of those “hoo-hoos,” “muffins” and “whatnots” it better be sexual, preferably to sell products. Don’t give them any of that breastfeeding in public business, and never, ever make them uncomfortable enough to wonder if you are living a gender identity they feel conflicts with your unmentionables – otherwise, as Martinez found out, they may just make you pay with your life – proving once again just how much mainstream America can still learn from Indigenous peoples.
Featured image via YouTube video screen capture.