A Glimpse Into The Diné Gender System And Two Spirit People

In 2001, Diné (Navajo) teenager Fred Martinez was brutally murdered. His body was found near the sewer ponds south of Cortez, Colorado, by two young boys playing around the area. He was only 16 years old when this hate crime ended his short life. Martinez was also openly gay, labeling himself “Nádleehí-Two-Spirited.”


Nádleehí — translated in English to “one who constantly transforms” — is a gender the Diné/Navajo people have utilized to distinguish a male-bodied person with feminine nature. It is a multi-dimensional social role, not a biological identifier, that held a revered space in the community. In 2011, PBS aired a special titled Two Spirits that both commemorated the poignant life story of Martinez and revealed a traditional Diné gender system to a mainstream, heteronormative society. This was only the tip of a very complicated iceberg.


In western ideology, things tend to fall into a binary: gay or straight, male or female. These perceptions of sexuality and gender, along with all their respective expectations, are pervasive and limiting factors in our society today. We’ve witnessed tragedies such as the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting targeting queer communities. We’ve seen a nationwide boycott of Target after the company announced an inclusive transgender bathroom policy. There are boy toys and there are girl toys.


The traditional Diné gender system instead embraces a spectrum of identities. There are four basic genders: asdzààn (feminine woman), hastiin (masculine man), nádleehi and dilbaa (masculine woman). Two spirit individuals are believed to contain both feminine and masculine spirits, abilities, and perspectives. Their unique circumstances make them better suited for certain positions, such as medicine people due to their extraordinary balance between the two sexes. How and when they express these spirits vary.


It is important to note that two spirit does not translate neatly into homosexual — the label “gay” or “lesbian” falls short of nádleehí and dilbaa because it misses the important nuances of a precolonial, Indigenous dogma. These genders are in no way synonymous to biological sex or sexual roles, making the sexual preferences of the two spirited irrelevant to their identities.


It’s confusing to speak about in English words and to contextualize in a culture that for so long has erased these beliefs — even the concept of transgender identity doesn’t quite satisfy the holistic philosophy of nádleehí and dilbaa. It is a concept that spans across many Indigenous communities and nations, an immemorial ideology incorporating respect and love for those who are gifted with something extra.

With projects such as Two Spirit and Frameline’s Two Spirit People, alternative gender awareness is growing so that Indigenous people like Fred Martinez are better understood. Western society would benefit from this profound love and acceptance.