Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Last night I saw the documentary Two Spirits, about a Navajo teen named Fred Martinez who was murdered because he expressed both masculine and feminine personae -- a characteristic described in some Native cultures as having "two spirits." Traditionally such people were treated with reverence because they were believed able to cross boundaries of other sorts as well in ways other people couldn't.

It's instructive to see how cultures can differ not only in the attitudes they take toward gender-variant people, but even in how they classify them -- "two spirits" is sometimes translated as "transgender" but it may also be applied to those who are simply homosexual, for instance. I think this points to the fact that the map is not the territory, and all our labels are fundamentally conventions which may help us communicate about the world, but nonetheless carve it up in ways that are always somewhat arbitrary.

The film was screened at WHYY's headquarters as part of the Community Cinema series, and one of the panelists discussing it afterward is organizer of the campaign to end SEPTA's policy of requiring gender stickers on Transpasses, which have resulted in denial of service and other forms of harassment for transgender people. During Q&A I elicited some laughter from the audience by pointing out that ironically, this policy also discriminates against heterosexual couples because its purported purpose is to prevent pass sharing between significant others, which only works if they're of the opposite sex.

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